Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

No, Freeways Are Not Dead by Keep Houston Houston

[ Houston is a city that isn’t widely regarded in urbanist circles, but some folks like it just fine the way it is. One of them is the blogger behind Keep Houston Houston, who recently resumed posting after a hiatus. He enjoys putting out the other side of the case, so I though I’d share a piece with you. This one examines whether or not the era of the freeway is over in light of a number of recent freeway removals. Even if you don’t agree, I hope you enjoy – Aaron.]

I think this is probably the third article I’ve read in the last month asking: “Are Freeways Doomed?” “Is THIS the post-freeway age?” “Are Urban areas moving on?”

Uh, no.

All of these pieces work like any “bogus trend” piece – string together a few anecdotes, posit a trend, quote a couple authoritative-sounding people, call it a day. And indeed, more than one freeway has been removed in this country. But there’s no trend toward de-freewayization; quite the opposite in fact. What’s missing, then, is the underlying reasons for the changes.

Fundamentally, there are two reasons for US freeway closures:
(i) The freeway was replaced by a newer and bigger freeway, built to better design standards, at which time the old facility was abandoned.
(ii) The freeway was part of a link in a grand “master plan” that was truncated by the “freeway revolts” of the 70′s. In other words, it was pre-obsolesced by non-completion of the network.

Some examples:

Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland, Oregon
Berkeley’s “Preservation Institute” says: “When Portland decided to tear down the Harbor Drive freeway, the city made one of key decisions that transformed it into a national model for effective city planning.” Well… maybe. What actually happened was that they had one freeway built to 1942 standards, and in 1964 they opened up another freeway half-a-mile away built to 1964 standards. That was I-5 – the Eastbank Freeway – and it’s still truckin’ almost 50 years later.

Now it’s true that some traffic engineers freaked out about the idea. Even if Harbor Drive only had 24k ADT (which is well down into arterial territory), it was still predicted the city would grow. And considering how slowly traffic crawls across the Marquam Bridge today, you know, there was probably a grain of truth in the forecast. But what the engineers didn’t predict was that Portland would soon enact a ridiculously strict downtown height and FAR ordinance in an effort to ward off further skyscrapers in favor of the existing Glazed Terra Cotta building stock. This essentially killed office development downtown and pushed the region’s employment base into an intensely suburban, office-park-dominated form. In fact, low-rise office parks are the very first thing you see when you cross the UGB into Greater Portland, whether you’re coming in on 26 East or I-5 North.

Those silly traffic engineers thought Downtown office space would keep expanding, like any American city. Instead the downtown office market was frozen in time, new construction confined only to condos and fair trade vegan clothing boutiques. But what really cinched the deal was when they went and built yet another freeway less than a mile away. Sandwiched by parallel north-south freeways of (then) modern design, serving a downtown whose development would be forever stunted, there would never be a need for the widened and straightened Harbor Drive.

Park East Freeway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee is a case where the infrastructure was obsolesced by the freeway revolts. In the original plan for Milwaukee’s freeway system, there were two north-south trunk highways – one inland, and one along the lake. While the inland route got built as planned (and is now signed as I-94 and I-43), the Lakefront route was only half finished. Thus the Park East Freeway – which, as designed, would’ve been an important connector distributing traffic between Lakefront and Inland routes – was rendered a fairly truncated spur. Not really necessary in its original form. And while Milwaukee gets New Urbanist props for killing the spur, it’s instructive to note what they replaced it with.

A brand-new surface street, striped for four lanes but obviously designed for six, got put right in its place. Now, from my perspective, as an infrastructure guy, I think this is pretty sweet. The original freeway was designed primarily as a connector (with distribution functions secondary), so it didn’t utilize a lot of the Milwaukee grid. A proper downtown highway spur should crap traffic out onto every surface street in sight, like 527 does. Thus the new surface street does a better job at fulfilling its primary raison d’etre, since it was actually designed for that purpose. It’s also more amenable to condos than an elevated highway is, which can be good for property values – and good for the local government, if they don’t piss it all off into 20- and 30-year tax abatements like PDX does.

But a green eco-symbol this is not; it’s just the engineers replacing a middling facility with a better one.

Claiborne Expressway, New Orleans, Louisiana

This one is actually still there, although there’s a good chance it’ll disappear in the next decade. If you’ve read Divided Highways you’ve read the tales of Claiborne’s vibrant business and music scene before the coming of the elevated. The pictures I’ve seen show a mostly auto-oriented strip of gas stations and buy-here-pay-here lots. But these also have their charm, and I’m sympathetic to the argument. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been put there.

What we do know for certain is the Claiborne didn’t last ten years before it had been supplanted with I-610, which cut several miles off the route for through-traffic. At this point the Claiborne became essentially just a spur, albeit one masquerading as a through route.

Even just as a spur, there would be a pretty decent argument for the Claiborne’s continued existence… except that the downtown NOLA office market isn’t exactly booming. In fact the consensus is, during times when a surface-street Claiborne would be slow, all the extra traffic could just be routed up the Ponchartrain, which is a solid eight lanes with full-width shoulders and feeder roads. Even CNU proposes that they add a direct connector for this purpose.

Transportation improvements are GREAT. Just don’t try to front like it’s some sort of repudiation of the basic need to move large quantities of cars in and out of a city.

You can find more examples wherever you look. The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was supposed to have been a vital shortcut between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, providing a downtown through route to complement the east bay’s 580. In fact they only got it about 1/3rd built before they ran into rich white people neighborhoods and the rest of it got canceled. The truncated version lasted until an earthquake killed it, at which point it was deemed not worth saving. But what if they’d finished it?

It’s not too hard to figure out what would’ve happened, since basically the same freeway got constructed in Seattle – the Alaskan Way Viaduct. When that freeway got wounded in a quake, they just patched it up with duct tape and JB Weld and set about planning Seattle’s Big Dig as a replacement. If the Viaduct had been cut off halfway – say, if it never went north of the Seneca exit – well, it’d probably have been torn down by now and replaced with a tourist trolley. Conversely, if the Embarcadero had been completed as designed, San Francisco would have almost certainly embarked on its own “Big Dig.”

The West Side Highway in New York… are you kidding me? New York was broke in the 70′s. The highway collapsed because there wasn’t enough money to do even preventive maintenance. And certainly not enough to rebuild. In fact, they didn’t even tear it down for another 15 years – it just sat up there, closed to traffic. Yet even this gets spun as some sort of “cities transcending the freeway” narrative.

The Freeway Revolts Are Over

Assuming our economy doesn’t implode into one big Teapartian circlejerk, we’ll continue to build newer and better highways that obsolesce old ones. And when that happens, those old ones will make great spots for redevelopment. If I was Houston, I’d seriously be looking at I-10 between Crockett and Jensen – which has, by far, the worst geometry of any of the downtown freeways – and moving it about a half a mile north, opening up more of the north side of the Bayou to development.

What’s not going to happen anymore are the truncated spurs, the freeways rendered obsolete by revolts. It’s not because the concerns over freeways – legitimate and NIMBY alike – have gone away. It’s just that engineers have become sensitive to them.

The master freeway plans of the 40′s and 50′s were models of rationality and efficiency. But they didn’t really account for anything besides rationality and efficiency. Houston largely followed theirs and it’s one of the reasons the place is so easily navigable today. But the original plans also sliced right through parks, forests, wetlands, whitepeople neighborhoods. And thus the revolts.

It’s arguable that we’ve lost something. Newer highway alignments are no longer quite the paragons of scientific virtue they were in the drafting easel era. In a smaller, newer city like Tulsa, you can see the difference between 50′s and 60′s alignment studies versus modern ones.

I look at the alignment for SH 130 south of Austin and I has a sad. So many squiggles. “YO DAWG, WE HEARD YOU LIKE CORNERS SO WE PUT A 3-DEGREE REVERSE CURVE IN HERE SO YOU CAN AVOID ANY TAKINGS FROM DA MOBILE HOME PARK.” This doesn’t necessarily result in better highways. What it does result in is highways that will be built.

And this is where the post-freeway era ends. There’s a very limited supply of highways that are “overbuilt” as a result of their connections never materializing. New construction isn’t going to provide us with any more because they’ll detour and slosh around anything that might have put up a fight 40 years ago. As time goes on, the pace of freeway removal will *slow*, not increase.

Clickbait article writers, take note.

This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on December 7, 2011.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Milwaukee, Portland

18 Responses to “No, Freeways Are Not Dead by Keep Houston Houston”

  1. Eric says:

    This has inspired me to start a blog called, Keep Jacksonville Jacksonville. It’s going to be a paean to single-use districts and low-density car dependence. My first several posts will highlight areas of Jacksonville where urban planners have developed an innovative new parking-lot sealant application schedule. Then I’ll interview a few urban planners who have developed an algorithm that makes eliminating pedestrian amenities more efficient.

  2. James Ratner says:

    I will follow this blogger for no other reason than to enjoy their syntax. These (non-related) quotes come from just one paragraph:
    “A proper downtown highway spur should crap traffic out onto every surface street in sight…”
    “…if they don’t piss it all off into 20- and 30-year tax abatements like PDX does.”
    “…it’s just the engineers replacing a middling facility with a better one.”

  3. John Morris says:

    Seems like there are too many variables to make a blanket prediction one way or the other.

    So much has to do with zoning laws, height limits and land use in the areas where highways are torn down and in the city as a whole.

    I do think there is very important shift–in that highway removal is now often seen as pro growth-pro economic development. Likewise, there has been some shift in thinking among developers.

    The author is delusional if he thinks a lot of cities are financially able to do big dig type projects-even if they are popular. Remember that in quite a few of these cases-highway removal is partly motivated by reducing maintenance costs.

  4. John Morris says:

    “are you kidding me? New York was broke in the 70′s. The highway collapsed because there wasn’t enough money to do even preventive maintenance.”

    Are you kidding me? A huge number of cities and states are broke-now! This is going to be the single biggest factor at work.

  5. Steven Vance says:

    I don’t understand the graphic of Tulsa and “Yep” and “Nope”. Why are those highway segments circled?

  6. Eric says:

    Steven, I think he’s saying that 44 (yep) was built earlier and is straight and that the southern beltway (nope) has an alignment that goes around neighborhoods. The way I read it is that the newer, curvier, less efficient alignments are more likely to get built and therefore that newer highways are less likely to get stopped halfway through development. This makes newer highways less likely to end up as vestiges, worthy of being torn down.

    That’s how I read it anyway.

  7. John, perhaps freeways will be removed due to a lack of funding to maintain them, just as cities are today turning off street lights, shredding their social safety programs, etc. to balance the books. This is certainly a far cry from believing that these items have outlived their usefulness, which is what the articles the author references imply

  8. John Morris says:

    I would say that the issue of usefullness will be closely examined in a way it wasn’t before.

    The West Side highway is a pretty extreme example, where we have a both a reduction in costs and a huge boost to development.

    The Robert Moses era where all highways are by definition described as progress is over.

    I do think in most other cases, one has cities that don’t know exactly what to do to take advantage the land opened up-how to change zoning, reduce parking and create viable transit oriented development.

  9. DBR96A says:

    Whether you’re pro-highway or anti-highway, it doesn’t change the fact that I-376 through Pittsburgh desperately needs to be upgraded to modern Interstate standards. (Same with the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia.) Besides, we’re talking about upgrading an existing highway, not building a new one.

  10. In an effort to damn overly simplistic arguments about the trends and causes motivating freeway teardown, Keep Houston Houston commits the same fallacies. The piece takes a on a tone of “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if these highways were just built per their original intents?” Politics, finances, and consumer demand all change – factors rejected by the author as he quickly discredits cities making contextually-savvy decisions to teardown urban freeways. Save for providing colorful rhetoric, KHH’s post makes the same errors as the supposed click-baiters and obscures his strongest arguments for street connectivity.

    The freeway teardown debate indeed needs alternative opinions, ideas, and visions for the future. Those contributions, however, demand a more well-reasoned, contextual analysis than those offered by Keep Houston Houston.

  11. Did I just merit a mealy-worded takedown from a paid CNU staffer? I’m honored! (<— this is not sarcasm, fyi).

    Anyway, greets to all Urbanophile readers. If you liked this post, you'll love yesterday’s, wherin I argue that induced demand is not actually a good reason not to build highways.

    I’m actually pretty agnostic as to what form development should take. I personally prefer irregular grids with a mixture of houses, apartments, interesting and occasionally-unsavory shops. Basically, Houston’s Montrose. But I respect that a lot of people prefer the “traditional” (midcentury planner-endorsed) sprawl, and I don’t think we should try to “nudge” them out of it, because we know better, or because of the environment, or some other shibboleth.

    To the extent New Urbanists are out there combating the traditional planning impediments to these places, pushing for things like inclusive/mixed-use zoning and accessory dwelling units, I’m all “rah rah.” As soon as they cross over into requiring architectural design reviews, minimum densities, incessant focus on “placemaking,” I’m more “booooo.” And I wish they’d give more acknowledgement to the fact that the primary impediments to what (new urban) planners want to do NOW is the laws that were passed based on what planners (midcentury and prior) wanted to do THEN. Mostly they just seem to blame the traffic engineers and the developers, as if some freeway guy came up with the idea for requiring giant side yards on every lot.

    Eric is spot on in his interpretation of my graphic RE: Tulsa. And as far as parking lot sealants go, Houston doesn’t need ’em – almost everything is concrete, so parking lots last forever (i.e. until the next developer does a teardown and puts something bigger and flashier on the parcel).

  12. poncho says:

    oh please, preservation of the terra cotta buildings in downtown portland did not push office development out to suburbia. suburban office development was taking place regardless due to larger trends and pressures.

  13. EngineerScotty says:

    Much of the Portland area’s high-tech industry is (and has been) based around semiconductor manufacturing; an industrial operation that doesn’t mix well with high-density downtown real estate. The “silicon forest” in Washington County has been there for decades, and is not a recent development caused by Portland’s land-use laws. Indeed, as Portland’s software industry grows, many of those firms are locating downtown, rather than in office parks in Beaverton and Hillsboro.

    One interesting attribute about the freeway network in Portland is that it completely LACKS “spur freeways”–freeways which only connect to other freeways on one end, and end on surface streets elsewhere. (There’s a few extra-long ramps that you could perhaps argue about, such as the small section of Harbor Drive that’s left). Another interesting thing is FTMP, Portland’s freeways are, according to the “modern design standards” which KHH praises, functionally obsolete. The 8-10 lane behemoths with numerous braids and tangles of collector/distributor ramps, designed so 18-wheelers can proceed smoothly through the urban fabric at 55MPH (traffic permitting), simply don’t exist in Portland (other than for very short stretches). Ramp distances are astonishingly short in some places–OR217 in Washington County has more onramps than mileposts. But guess what–it works. Traffic here is generally tolerable (and transit, of course, is a viable option in most places). The local state DOT considers this intolerable, of course, and would love to “modernize” the freeways, but given the cost in both money and disruption to urban fabric, expect such plans to be resisted in many parts of town; particularly where doing so would require the wrecking ball to be used.

  14. No, I wouldn’t presume Tektronix would be looking to move manufacturing to the Park Blocks. But there was always Columbia Sportswear. And a quick glance at the skyline will show it’s dominated by Big Pink (1983), Wells Fargo (1972), and KOIN (1984). That’s the sort of skyline age you’d expect of a crumbling northeastern city, a Buffalo or a Harrisburg, not a growing region which, by many accounts, people want to live in.

    I also don’t think Portland’s freeways are particularly bad. Engineers have always allowed design exceptions in dense urban areas. Even a brand-new project in big-roads Texas, reconstruction of “the spur” into Houston, has 1′ shoulders in places, as well as one blind onramp which could’ve come straight out of a 40’s-era Moses expressway.

    And 205 isn’t appreciably different from something Dallas or Phoenix would build today, save for the odd median setup. You could post it at 70mph tomorrow if you wanted to.

  15. Chris Barnett says:

    DBR96A: Here’s where the urbanist in me comes out. Leave the Schuylkill alone. (Can’t speak to 376 but that Pittsburgh sprawl post is pretty enlightening.)

    This is a case where the extremely high cost of “improving” an expressway (it would require double-decking or other drastic fixes in most places) has kept it from happening for 30+ years, and has promoted transit ridership and investment.

  16. DBR96A says:

    No need to double-deck I-376. Just rebore the Fort Pitt and Squirrel Hill Tunnels to fit three lanes in each portal, and six-lane the damn thing. Right-of-way would only be widened from 74′ to 124′. And reengineering the interchanges with longer, safer ramps doesn’t have to take up too much extra space, if any at all. Several interchanges lend themselves perfectly to SPUIs — and in the case of the Wilkinsburg/Forest Hills interchange, a SPUI would actually shrink the footprint. A modified SPUI at Bates Street/Oakland would work well too.

  17. zigpdx says:

    Great read, KHH. I enjoy hearing different viewpoints – we need more of this in planning. For the record, Portland’s downtown eventually recovered, tall buildings included, and now has one of the lowest CBD office vacancy rates in the country – about 11%. In the Portland suburbs, that rate is about 18%. It’s also a more vibrant downtown than those of many American cities, thanks to mostly-continuous ground floor retail, great public plazas, and adjacent high-density residential neighborhoods. While our skyline is stubby by American standards, and there are some dead zones (such as the area around our government buildings), downtown Portland is certainly not “forever stunted.” And we all have office parks in the ‘burbs. Just defending my turf! :-)

  18. ValkRaider says:

    I have no idea how you consider downtown Portland’s development stunted. In the 14 years of living in Portland I have seen massive development downtown. One thing also worth considering is that Portland has an actual “downtown” neighborhood but for the metro area the functional “downtown” can include several neighborhoods, all of which have seen some explosive growth. Neighborhoods like the Pearl District, and South Waterfront are completely brand new in the last 20 years. Neighborhoods like the East Bank have seen revitalization and growth, the Lloyd center has seen a few new buildings come in (and more are planned although the economy slowed things a touch), the redevelopment around the coliseum & Rose Quarter are on the docket too. Not to mention some new development having happened around Goose Hollow, Nob Hill, and Northwest neighborhoods. The central core of Portland is not stunted at all.

    But when you make a quip like “Instead the downtown office market was frozen in time, new construction confined only to condos and fair trade vegan clothing boutiques” you betray your politics and undermine any real analytical credibility you may have had.

    Since the freezing of the FAR which you call out has having destroyed development potential downtown, especially for office space, we have seen several notable office developments. The black box at the south end of downtown, and the Koin tower a block north of that. The Fox tower near Pioneer Square, and the new building at the west end of the Hawthorne bridge. The new Federal building. Several office towers in the Pearl district. I have personally worked at companies located in several of these… There are many more which I can envision in my mind but without going out and walking around town can’t recall for this list.

    Over in the Lloyd Center area – directly across the river and connected to downtown by two (realistically three) bridges, 4 rail lines, a streetcar, and tons of busses – also restricted by the city FAR, has also seen many large office buildings built after the FAR was implemented.

    So – I am not sure what you are talking about – I am guessing that just because the city doesn’t allow 40 story buildings anymore that there is no office space? What makes a 20 story office building less valid? If Portland ever grows to the point that we *need* taller buildings, we can change the FAR. However there are plenty of surface parking lots and non-historical one and two story buildings in the central core which can be developed into 10 to 20 story buildings first – not to mention a decent amount of open undeveloped lots. Just because we don’t have skyscrapers doesn’t mean downtown is dead.

    Finally, having condos, apartments, and other residences in the central core is a GOOD THING. So I don’t get what your slam on building condo towers is all about… Not every one wants or needs to live on an acre of land in a McMansion…

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