March 27, 2012

The Life and Death of Urban Highways

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From the 1940s to the 1960s, U.S. cities lost population and economic investment to suburban locations. To compete, many cities built urban highways, hoping to offer motorists the same amenities they enjoyed in the suburbs. Whatever their benefits, these highways often had adverse impacts on urban communities.

In the United States, federal policy and funding spurred investment in urban highways. The U.S. Highway Act of 1956 set the goal of 40,000 miles of interstate highways by 1970, with ninety percent of the funding coming from the federal government. Fifty percent federal funding was the norm for other transportation projects. By 1960, 10,000 new miles of interstate highways were built and by 1965, 20,000 miles were completed. While most of the investment occurred outside cities, about twenty percent of the funds went into urban settings.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs challenged urban renewal and urban highways in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs commented on the effects of highways on communities, stating, “expressways eviscerate cities.” For the first time, the unintended consequences of urban highways, such as displaced communities, environmental degredation, land use impacts, and the severing of communities, were highlighted. Jacobs went on to successfully fight urban highways in New York City and Toronto, and helped spur the formation of some of the most active community-based organizations in the U.S.

This urban activism had, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, made it nearly impossible to build an urban highway or raze a low-income neighborhood in the United States. New environmental review procedures were put in place to protect communities and parks from the effects of highways. However, the U.S. continued to build and widen highways, moving the construction of virtually all of them to suburban or inter-urban locations. By 1975, the goal of 40,000 miles of new interstate highways had been achieved.

Many cities in Latin America, following the Unites States’ lead, also began building urban highways in the 1950s and 1960s. A spate of new urban highways were built in Brazil during the dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Rio de Janeiro’s Rebouças Tunnel and the Freyssinet Viaduct that cut a direct route between the downtown and the fashionable South Zone of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. The debt crisis of the 1980s slowed the process considerably. With the return of economic growth to Latin America, new urban highways began to reappear again.

In China and India, recent urban highway construction is even more dramatic. Cities in China are building both new highways and surface roads at a rapid pace. In China, all urban land is owned by the government, so land acquisition presents less of an obstacle to highway expansion than in the rest of the world. In India, the pace of highway construction is slower, as land acquisition is far more complex, but state governments are upgrading many large urban arterials with strings of flyovers that over time grow into limited-access freeways.

These new roads carry a significant amount of traffic and contribute to economic growth, but they also blight large sections of cities, threaten historic urban neighborhoods, and concentrate air pollution in highly populated areas, threatening people’s health and causing other problems. In the past fifty years, tens of thousands of miles of urban highways were built around the world. Many are now approaching functional obsolescence. This is leading many cities, not just in the United States, to question the place of major highways in urban areas and whether they merit further investment or should be removed. Today, some of the same urban highways that were built in that period are being torn down, buried at great expense, or changed into boulevards. As cities around the world grapple with congestion, growth, and decline, some, as seen in the following case studies, illuminate what can be done when a highway no longer makes sense.

In light of the fact that so many cities in developed countries are now tearing out urban highways, it is time to re-appraise the specific conditions under whichit makes sense to build a new urban highway and when it makes sense to tear one down.


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