Friday, August 5, 2011

What's the Best Downtown Highway? The One That Isn’t There

by Betsy Harvey, MCRP '12

Highways are a thing of the past.

Or, at least those that run through cities’ downtowns. From Cleveland to New Haven to San Francisco, cities are tearing out the highways built a half a decade ago to uncover land that is far more valuable as real estate than as highway.

And it’s not just valuable to the extent to which it will contain condos or shopping centers. Since highways help cause congestion, eliminating highways can help alleviate it. The more roads that are built, the more people will use them, i.e. “if you build it they will come,” also called induced travel demand. Drivers adapt their transportation habits when a road is not there by not driving. Likewise, when a road is built, they will adapt by using it.

There is a definite paradigm shift going on. Instead of the Federal Department of Transportation paying for highways to slice through cities, they are paying to have them removed. People want their waterfronts back. They want to be able to walk between neighborhoods. They want to recover the economic benefits of the land that is paved with asphalt. If you look at the pictures below, you can see that some highways have been replaced with public space. In cities people don’t want to be isolated. I’ve written about how streets can, and often should, be social spaces. But sometimes a roadless social space is more valuable than a road. In the case of downtown highways, it nearly always is.

(All images courtesy of

Portland, Oregon: Harbor Drive After

Portland, Oregon: Harbor Drive Before

San Francisco: Embarcadero Freeway Before

San Francisco: Embarcadero Freeway After

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