It always makes people look at me funny when I say it, but we should tear down inner-city highways. No exceptions. Have them go around cities, and leave the space inside the city be used for boulevards, transit, pay-per-use roads, bike paths and tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly streets.
In the last decade, Americans’ ideas of where they want to live have been changing. Young professionals and Baby Boomers are moving back to inner cities, fueled by the desire to live somewhere walkable, near restaurants, bars, and offices, where they don’t need to have cars. A freeway passing through the heart of a city does not jibe very well with an urban renaissance.
After all, walkable cities where people want to live probably don’t also have noisy highways that create physical and psychological rifts that are extremely difficult to bridge.
In some cities, planners have decided to help that urban renaissance and tear down the freeways that seemed like a good idea in the 1950s.
Boston tore down its Central Artery in its famous Big Dig, turning a waterfront area of the city that had long been clogged with traffic into a popular park and walking area. Milwaukee demolished the Park East freeway in 1999 and urban development has blossomed in the neighborhoods created by the highway’s removal. Manpower Corporation moved its headquarters to the area, and the average assessed land value there grew 45 percent. The economically depressed town of New Haven is in the midst of a project called Downtown Crossing, which has removed parts of Route 34 and is creating a business district in an area of town bisected by the freeways.
Even some people in Syracuse want to tear down I-81. Like many highways built by idealistic planners in the 1950s, I-81 is reaching the end of its useful life, according to engineers. It isn’t wide enough to meet current highway standards, and parts of it are literally falling apart. Some urban planners want to tear it down to create an urban boulevard. For more than half a century, the road has divided the city, they say, and it’s time to knit it together back again.
Too radical? Not one bit. Well, yes, OK, I get that tearing up highways is a bold step. But it's one we should absolutely take.