Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Louisville: A Tale of Two Cities

A former Louisvillian now living in Stockholm, recently put up an interesting blog post where he, among other things, compares Louisville to Stockholm.

The redevelopment of a major interchange project at a location in Stockholm called Slussen reminded him of the debate over 8664. Here is a picture of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s plan for Spaghetti Junction in downtown Louisville

He says of this:

With driving rates continuing to decline, it only seems comical to continue building monstrous automobile infrastructure. I’m continually returning to the idea what kind of public transit a couple billion dollars could buy for Louisville, instead of the proposed 23-lane monument to yesterday’s sad love affair with the internal combustion engine.

The image you see here is not an exaggeration by the opposition, it is from the actual Ohio River Bridges Project website. It’s really quite shocking how the project absolutely dwarfs entire city blocks of houses and businesses, and is placed directly between the city and its waterfront. If you’re having any trouble imagining the size of this monster, compare it to the baseball stadium in the bottom left of the picture.

If everything goes according to plan – which construction ventures never do – the project will be finished in fifteen years. When you think about what has happened to oil prices, driving trends, and auto manufacturing, just in the last two or three years, a fifteen-year project like this is nothing short of senseless, foolish, and wasteful. It is a prefect example of doing more of the same thing and expecting different results.

Also, Kentucky has no money to build it. In fact, the state is already looking to issue GARVEE bonds (bonds to be repaid from future federal transportation grants – in effect, mortgaging the future) just to keep design on track.

An alternative plan has been put forward by a group called “8664“. They want to “86”, or tear down, a portion of the I-64 riverfront parkway. This elevated roadway cuts downtown Louisville off from the riverfront. The plan involves completing an eastern bridge, then routing through traffic over that, while converting a portion of I-64 into a surface level parkway. This is touted as reconnecting the city to the riverfront and saving a couple billion in the process. Also, a large number of buildings downtown that would otherwise be demolished for the interchange will be spared.

I think the idea is one that merits serious study and consideration. I’m not certain it is a slam dunk, frankly. Several spur type interstates have been torn down, but rarely a through route. Still, the intuitive case looks decent, and ought to be looked at. The problem is that no one in the establishment is willing to consider anything other than the current auto-centric solution that is clearly gold plated in terms of design. And with the funding crunch ongoing, why not look at lower cost solutions?

Of course, the real conflict here is simply between an auto-based mobility and economic growth world view and a world view dominated by low cost and non-auto amenities like the riverfront. These aren’t the types of debates that can be resolved rationally since they involve value choices as much as solution options.

Our blogger captures this well in his blog when he talks about the road Stockholm took versus the one Louisville did.

Stockholm, a city roughly the same size as Louisville, is literally blanketed in a web of public transit. This access grew out of investment and planning dating back to the 1940’s, when Louisville was foolishly dismantling its electric street cars. The result today in Stockholm is a beautiful city that is drastically quieter, cleaner, and more accessible to everyone than Louisville is. In my several months here I have been inside a car only a handful of times. Buses, bicycles, pedestrians – they all coexist in the same space and breathe the same air.

Just like Louisville, Stockholm was originally founded because it was a natural stopping point for shipping. The boats had to stop here and therefore a community grew around that pause in the transport of goods. Sure, Stockholm is more than half a millennium older than Louisville, but that should make its lessons of modern growth more of an example than not. Despite the age difference, the two cities share a lot of parallels and similar challenges when it comes to transit – namely, a similar population, surface area, high water table, commuter culture.

The difference is that in Stockholm they made tough choices for the greater good. They moved their air traffic away from the city instead of continuing to expand an old airport in the middle of where everyone lives. They built an extensive underground rail system which meant carving deep into the bedrock below lakes and rivers.

Both of these things happened more than sixty years ago and neither was cheap, but in the long run, they were ultimately worth it. They required sacrifices but they became gifts to future generations that people today are enjoying.

In fairness, the Stockholm metro area of almost two million people is a bit bigger than Louisville. And it is a national capital and has many other traits not shared in common with Louisville. No matter what Louisville did, it would not be Stockholm today. And, while this is not a popular view in some quarters, I do believe we need to build more and wider roads in many cases. Nevertheless, this illustrates some very important things.

  • You don’t have to be a huge city to be an internationally known and respected one. So much of what Louisville does is oriented around trying to emulate larger cities, but another, and I would argue more viable strategy, is to focus on quality over quantity.
  • Taking the road less traveled, so to speak, can pay long term dividends. Bucking the trends and carving out a unique path for yourself is what will really differentiate you over the long term.
  • Choices matter, and this is a long term game. Having the vision to do what is right for the long term future, not just taking the easy way out for today, is what makes some cities winners and other losers. You have to be willing to place some bets. Stockholm did and it paid off.

Is the Spaghetti Junction redesign the big bet the community wants to take? Or is it 8664? That’s the key question facing Louisville. Which ever way they go, it is going to dramatically shape the future of the community. My personal view is that Louisville should strongly consider the 8664 solution, which is a good mix of road expansion and amenity creation at a lower price point.

While I quoted extensively, it’s definitely worth reading the full piece for this interesting perspective on Louisville.

Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Louisville

15 Responses to “Louisville: A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. the urban politician says:

    I hate to generalize, I really do–I realize that it’s unfair to make the blanket statement that I”m about to make, and I’m sure that there are plenty of progressives living in Louisville, but…

    We are talking about Kentucky here–one of the most conservative places in Christendom. Louisville is a victim of the State in which it resides, and I’d be beyond surprised to see anything but more of the same pro-auto, pro-highway business-as-usual in the future.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It doesn’t get discussed here much but one thing that good public transit systems and walkable city designs do is to free people from being chained to their cars. People may still keep a car but many who live in places like NYC or San Fran can get away with one or no car. Try doing that in any suburb and many major cities (Detroit is the worst of the lot). What that means is that the thousands of dollars spent each year on owning and maintaining a car can now go towards housing or other investments. For lower income residents, it means more options for housing, schools, etc. For higher income residents, it means more disposable income to support retail or the arts or fund non-profits. I don’t think we really know how much money is diverted into our car-centric culture that would otherwise be freed up for other productive activities if people just had options.

  3. hharrington says:

    As a resident of Louisville and someone who has talked to Tyler Allen (the founder of 8664) and some of the people who are in charge of the Ky bridges project I can say this.

    The bridges will never get built. 1) It's way to expensive and the state can't afford it 2) The East End bridge is being blocked by River Fields. A well financed environmental organization that is mostly made up of Louisville's upper crust. 3) Did I mention its to expensive. 4) driving patterns are changing. It just not needed.

    8664 will also never happen. The "movers and shakers" in the city and state ignore 8664. They will not even consider it. The city's papers writes editorial after editorial against 8664. However, every time they put out a survey on which option people prefer 8664 win by a 70-30 landslide.

    Light-rail has gained a lot more traction that 8664. I would expect Louisville to have a light-rail system before we see either the bridges or 8664.

    *on a side note*
    light-rail wouldn't be a bad idea. When TARC was studying it before they were going to use CSX lines that pretty much crisscross the county. As Urban posted a while back Louisville use to have an extensive elevated rail system and a rail freight system because we were the HQ for L&N railroad. The plan for light-rail would use those as well as the freight lines. I don't think they planned to even lay any new tracks all for the entire system.

  4. hharrington says:

    One last thing. I posted earlier about how Louisville and the state are almost always at odds. The long term plan the DOT has for Louisville is horrendous. They want to widen 64 and 71 to 6 lanes all the way through the city. That would mean substantial destruction of parts of Cherokee park. An Olmsted park. As some of you know. Louisville loves its parks.

    As the urban politician stated, Kentucky is a very conservative state, and Louisville is just the odd man out because most of the urban core (old city limits) is very progressive in nature. Most kentuckians don’t even consider Louisville a part of the state. just like many Louisvillians don’t identify themselves as being in KY or Kentuckians.

  5. pete from baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    This is a very interesting article.But I think the comparision is off slightly.As you say yourself, Stockholm is a capitol.

    But I have always thought that it would be a great idea to compare some of America’s cities to European cities that are not capitols .

    Too often we look at London or Paris.

    Many cities in Europe seem to have suffered from de-industrialisation.Especially in the UK.It would be interesting to see how they are dealing with the same issues that we in the US are dealing with.

    Maybe we can use some of their solutions over here.Or learn from their mistakes.

    Birmingham and Sheffield in the Uk,or Gdansk in Poland would seem to me the perfect places to compare to Cleveland or Detroit ,or my hometown of Baltimore .Or some of the cities in the Rhur region of Germany.

    As I said,it would be interesting to see what they are doing wrong ,as well as what they are doing right.

    Too often conservatives describe Europe as a terrible socialist hell.And too often liberals act like it’s heaven on Earth.

    It would be great to see a realistic picture of Europe’s and Canada’s post industrial cities.Especially the mid-sized and small ones.

    I realise that your blog is focused on mid-western American cities.But I think that there may be regions of Europe or Canada that can offer us lessons.

    Thank you once again for your hard work on this blog.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Pete: Marseille is really depressed. I don’t think it’s as bad as Baltimore (at least if the Wire depicts it accurately), but it’s close. I’ve heard similarly bad things about the Ruhr and Nord-Pas de Calais, which are overall industrial regions without one major node as in a conventional metro areas. To paraphrase Aaron, every country takes care of its capital; it’s how it treats its ordinary cities that it should be judged by.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    TUP, I think part of the problem is the nature of state DOT’s. These are historically highway agencies. By training and by standards, their processes and employees are oriented around achieving certain auto-centric design goals such as creating a road that “achieves LOS D in the design year”. The result we get is simply what the software churns out. But often the inputs are shoddy to begin with (i.e., demographic forecasts) and fail to take into account other considerations. But keep in mind that the designers might actually be mandated to create a solution like this, and of course all their experience prepares them to do so.

    Engineers by nature are conservative, and we should be thankful for that. I’m glad someone is out there considering the safety aspects of things, for example. But that also has spillover effects, such as suspicion of the familiar and a preference for proven, tried and true solutions. Like all of us, they’ve got their strong points and blind spots. You and I are no different.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    hharrington, thanks for the comments and predictions. We’ll see what happens.

    The Cherokee Park tunnels were recently declared historic, which means that I-64 will likely never be widened. I believe that the EIS for I-71 took widening off the table as well, but I’m sure these are ideas that won’t die.

    I-46 and I-71 are really not congested today, and given their locations, there would not appear to be a major catalyst for traffic increases, unlike for say the Gene Snynder Freeway.

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    pete, thanks again for the great comments. And that’s a great suggestion on looking at European peer cities. Malmo might be a better example in Sweden, for example. Alon gives some good German examples, though a heavy industry based zone probably isn’t a good comp to Louisville either.

    Maybe someone should sponsor me on a trip to Europe to study this.

    There are plenty of smaller German cities one could look at. Also places like Birmingham come to mind.

  10. pete from baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    Thank you for your reply.As for your joke about being sponsored to go to Europe,I have always thought that if I could afford to go to Europe ,that I would want to go to the smaller , less fashionable cities.

    Maybe it's just me but I find the small and midsized cities more interesting and the people more nicer.

    Tommorow I am going to try to ride my bicycle from Baltimore to Bedford PA or possibly Pittsburgh on the Lincoln Highway . And back again on a the C&o canal bike path which is now connected to Pittsburgh. .

    I have been through western PA before, and it is economically depressed, as you know.But it is also beautiful and the people that I meet are always great.

    This may sound corny, but that is what I think is places like western Pa's greatest rescource.It's people.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    Birmingham is actually one of the better off cities in Europe that aren’t capitals. It’s more innovative than any other city in Northern England. Manchester was really depressed for a couple of decades, but it’s getting better, too.

  12. Anonymous says:

    To see where and how a DOT destroys a city to benefit truckers and the auto-centric, look at St Louis. Depopulation trends dominate as every major highway in the city has been expanded, displacing homeowners, reducing connectivity between neighborhoods, increasing pollution and destroying pedestrian-cycling routes.

    MoDOT even uses lobbyists and taxpayers’ funds to fight against Complete Streets.

    Read and weep.

  13. Amy says:

    There's also the issue of how many Americans look down on public transportation and those who use it, making it difficult to get people behind the idea of funding new projects.

  14. Jason says:

    As a Louisville resident and 8664 supporter I can tell you that the battle is not with the general public, but with the seemingly permanent legislature and unyielding wealthy east-end cohort known as River Fields.

    Louisville as a population is relatively progressive, particularly within the neighborhoods immediately outside of downtown. Planning for electric light rail went all the way to the point where we could have started spray-painting the street for lanes and lines, but as usual the money fell through and bickering delayed the project indefinitely.

    And yes, the DOT in Kentucky is certainly heavy on the highways as a rural state. Which i appreciate when i roll from Louisville to Owensboro, but not so much when I go from my house to work.
    I also think the idea of Louisville not trying to a big city is spot-on. Banking on the lovely pace of life here, the low-cost of living, the strong neighborhoods, the eclectic and devout arts scene, incredible food, and an international event on the first Saturday in May, it seems like making transit decisions that enforce this would win the day. If only.

  15. Jarrett at says:

    I agree with hharrington that no-project is the most likely outcome. The LRT project he describes, however, sounds disturbingly like the postponed Red Line in Austin (see today's article in There are so many difficulties in working LRT into existing rails that you often end up ripping them up and starting over. Federal Railroad Assocation standards are also a big barrier whenever LRT gets anywhere near sharing track with a freight train.

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