The Third Option: Removing Urban Highways
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The objective of quickly transporting people and goods from one part of a city to another is a desirable one and many highways successfully do this. However, judging such highways solely on their ability to do so has lead to many drawbacks and negative effects from current highways. As they are set within the urban framework, their influence profoundly shapes the urban form as well as the actions of those inhabiting it. Furthermore, while there are arguments made against streets and that they negatively affect cities, these arguments are based on certain perceptions of what many of today’s streets are. What are not typically considered are the true political and social basis of streets and their millennia old function of forming the urban public framework. During the time of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, the street as something political and social in nature was exemplified in the process of building new cities. In the formation of every new Roman city, two streets were dedicated. These streets were the Cardo and the Decumanus, which crossed each other at right angles forming a plus sign. It was based off of these two streets that the rest of the roads and lots related to. Not only were these streets the main thoroughfares through the city, they were the symbol of order. Freeways do not serve the same purpose as streets, yet the two are both part of a modern transportation network and are closely related in the network’s function. This paper is neither anti-automobile nor anti-highway, but rather suggestive of a way to deal with current urban downtown highways once their function has been rethought. The American highway building age is over and we are now living with the consequences of design decisions made for the single purpose of maximizing traffic throughput. As Americans move back to cities there is a trend of rethinking our urban places and undoubtedly the infrastructure supporting them. This paper provides those questioning the role of some of our urban highways with a framework for rethinking urban highways, specifically the removal of the highway, which provides an impetus to redesign urban downtown freeway right-of-ways as part of a larger coordinated multi-modal transportation network. This paper examines six case studies of urban downtown freeways which have been successfully removed. Five of the cases are from American cities, the sixth is from Seoul, South Korea. Furthermore, it will provide an understanding of the challenges and benefits of removing such highways and offer those considering highway removal a guide of what to consider. Seoul’s mayor at the time of their highway removal, Lee Mung-bak, in support of removing the freeway said, “We want to make a city where people come first, not cars.” Cars should be there to serve people, not people serving for the cars. While removing urban freeways is seen by some as risky and detrimental to the downtown’s success and economic well being, this is not necessarily the case as the following case studies demonstrate. Robert Cervero, Professor of city and regional planning at U.C. Berkeley, describes removing highways in a different way, as “a re-ordering of municipal priorities” from high mobility towards, “economic and environmental sustainability, livability, and social equity.” Instead of viewing freeways as conduits for moving vehicles, thinking about their original purpose as a component of a modern transportation network to be coordinated with adjacent land use to adapt cities to the changes of the 19th and 20th centuries may help in getting over the initial shock of considering removing a highway. Just as the Interstate Highway System was about to change the face of the American city in 1957, Lewis Mumford already was weary of the consequences. “The goal of improving our cities could be achieved only if ‘we are prepared to apply our intelligence to the purposes of life instead of applying them merely to the means of life. That means eventually we will put the motor car in its place. We will cast off the mistress and live with our wives instead’” The First National Conference on City Planning took place in 1909 in Washington D.C. and transportation planning was one of the topics discussed. While the automobile itself was mentioned just once and not at all the focus of the conference, transportation and its ability for reshaping urban form were discussed. Transportation planning at the time was considered a holistic endeavor having a strong relationship with land use. Furthermore, these early planners understood the importance of multi-modalism. While wanting to provide facilities for private vehicles, these were to be part of a larger, more comprehensive system including streetcars and pedestrian facilities. The history of urban freeways is one that dates to the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, urban transportation problems were similar to those experienced today, most notably congestion. Other problems included slow and unsafe vehicles, manure in the streets, and horse carcasses clogging the streets. Contrary to popular thought, the pre-automobile city was not one of picturesque un-crowded streets, but one with its own transportation related problems. To the planners of the early 20th century, the private automobile may have seemed to be the solution to the urban transportation issues of their time. However, future automobile congestion was substantially different from the prior congestion of people, horses, and wagons. The automobile took up more space per-person than most other means of transportation. The urban highways we have come to know and are now rethinking do not portray these holistic views promoted during the early twentieth century. What happened between then and now? Before discussing the challenges and potential benefits of removing downtown urban highways, it is important to understand why and how our present-day highways developed in the manner that they did.