BY: DANIEL KORN
In 1956, construction began on the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defence Highways, named after the 34th President of the United States who championed its construction. Its original portion was finally completed 35 years later and continues to be extended today, stretching 47,856 miles as of 2013. It cost $114 billion USD, which is $425 billion when adjusted for inflation as estimated by USA Today. Freeways essentially run America, to both its benefit and detriment. On the one hand, they’ve been a boon for the truck-based shipment of goods—allowing easier transport between states and giving life to certain smaller towns as regional trade centres, as in the example of Salina, Kansas. On the other, they cause full city blocks to be demolished due to their construction, dividing neighbourhoods and dislocating thousands of people; lower property values in urban areas due to the rampant noise pollution; are huge money-sinks, needing regular upkeep and sometimes complete overhauls; and as anyone who’s had to drive in or out of a city during three-hour-long rush hours will tell you, are not even good at regulating traffic.
Aside from personal experience, the inability for freeways to properly handle traffic has been more-or-less scientifically proven. A 2009 paper by Matthew Turner and Giles Duranton, of the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania respectively, compared the amount of roads and highways built in the United States between 1980 and 2000 with the number of miles driven over the same period. They found, as quoted in an article for Wired, a “perfect one-to-one relationship”—that is to say that an increase in road space results in an identical increase in the amount of driving. This occurs due to what Turner and Duranton have coined “the fundamental law of road congestion”—new roads create new drivers.
In Cheonggyecheon, Seoul they knocked down a freeway to create a river and greenway. The temperature has dropped by an average of 5 degrees and wildlife has returned to the urban core.
This is true for a couple of reasons, all based on the idea that the design of a city subtly influences the behaviour of the individuals within. In short, easy access to roads means that people are more willing to live farther away from where they work, which in turn forces them to drive in every day, which in turn makes the road more difficult to use, which makes the city expand the roads in response, which means individuals are even more likely to live even farther from their workplaces, and the whole thing just goes on and on in an infinite loop.
So then—how to solve the freeway problem? Hearteningly, these same design concepts can be used in the opposite direction, incentivizing people towards alternative transit methods to positive results. The most commonly-cited example of this is in Seoul, South Korea, where a highway that carried 160,000 cars per day was replaced with a river, parks, and smaller roads. Turns out that traffic didn’t get any worse, and there were a wealth of advantages—property values went up by 300 percent, temperatures in the city lowered by an average of 5 degrees, wildlife began to thrive, and pollution was lowered as citizens were more willing to walk or use public transit. Similar results have been found in San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee, Madrid, and Seattle, with the removal of freeways allowing for revitalized public spaces, environmental benefits, and no increase in traffic congestion.
A plan to revitalize Madrid’s Manzanares River was set in motion in the early 2000s. They removed the freeway by re-routing traffic through several underground tunnels. The land adjacent to the river was completely redeveloped into a 300-acre park.
More cities are beginning to imagine a freeway-less existence. The New York State Department of Transportation is debating whether to tear down Syracuse’s Interstate 81, in the hopes of more elegantly connecting the downtown and University Hill areas of the city. Cleveland is attempting to convert its West Shoreway into a boulevard. Dallas and New Orleans have both received funding to research the effects of removing the freeways in their respective cities. Even bankrupt Detroit is conducting a study to figure out if getting rid of a one-mile freeway will help regain prosperity in the city.
It’s not going to be the right solution for every city—indeed, some cities are entirely built on the idea of being able to ship products easily, which is perfect for freeways. At the same time, and alike how a lack of freeways isn’t the right solution for every city, maybe it was foolish of us to ever think that the construction of them would be.