Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Removing freeways to build community

There is growing interest in removing the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx according to the NY Times. As the paper reports:

For more than a decade, a plan pushed by some South Bronx residents and transportation advocates has sat on the fringes of the State Transportation Department’s to-do list, in part because it would be a radical undoing: tearing down the Sheridan Expressway.

Although the plan has no real precedent in New York, advocates recite the benefits. They say it would ease traffic, improve neighborhood life and right a decades-old wrong committed by the master planner Robert Moses of building an unnecessary highway.

Later in the article the author does manage to cite a precedent in New York:

The last major removal of a New York City highway was of elevated portions of the West Side Highway, most of which were removed in stages from 1976 to 1989. (In 1973, a truck fell through the highway at Gansevoort Street.)

So maybe a collapsed freeway isn't the best comparison. The Sheridan Freeway did get a $27 million fix six years ago, so it is in good shape. I'm not sure I agree that we are rolling back the freeway system, as John Norquist argues:

“We’re rolling back the freeway system,” said John Norquist, president and chief executive of the Congress for a New Urbanism, a group based in Chicago that promotes walkable cities. He pointed to Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Milwaukee, where he was mayor, as cities that have removed highways running through urban areas.

Transportation networks, freeways included, expand and contract all the time. The do so slowly and because the investment is so high it makes news when it shrinks. There seems to be more interest in keeping freeways but covering them than removing them entirely.

Here is another quote that I generally agree with but think the causality of why cities are rethinking roadspace is different:

“This proposal is really rooted in the environmental justice battles that low-income communities have been fighting for decades,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, a member of the campaign to remove the Sheridan. “If you look at globally competitive cities, they’re all looking at the spaces they gave over to highways decades ago, and they’re rethinking those decisions.”

Eliminating a major thoroughfare without making other transport improvements is problematic. The globally competitive city of Seoul, Korea, for instance, has converted quite a bit of roadspace into parks and other non-auto uses. But the city simultaneously expanded their bus rapid transit system in order to capture displaced drivers. The early evidence is that Seoul was successful in their endeavor.

I'm not sure why only globally competitive cities would rethink roadspace, but I'll argue that cities are thinking about congestion, environmental concerns, financing infrastructure and other transportation issues that play into quality of life and economic competitiveness. Rethinking highway space is an outcome, not an initial condition.

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