In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in the hopes that a national highway system would unify the country, allowing for the easy transportation of people and goods. Since then, highways have been a catalyst for economic growth in many ways, but they’ve also had serious ramifications in urban areas. New initiatives are calling for the reorientation of cities toward people by removing highways that cut through city centers, and evidence has shown that doing so can make our cities more efficient, improve traffic and help reduce inequality.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 kick started the construction of more than 41,000 miles of highways, which required a $25 billion investment from the federal government. Since the federal government was focused on encouraging growth at the time, it funded 90 percent of project costs, minimizing the financial burden on state and local governments. Today, our highways are largely funded by gasoline taxes, which doesn’t leave a lot of money for infrastructure repairs. As a result, many cities are finding it cheaper to remove deteriorating highways, rather than repair them.
Removing highways from densely populated areas may sound like a recipe for traffic disaster, but many cities are finding that it actually makes traffic more efficient. This is due, in part, to the theory of “induced demand,” which, to borrow from “Field of Dreams,” means “if you build it, they will come.” People use highways because they’re an option, but take them away and those same people may be more inclined to use public transportation, walk, or bike. Furthermore, a 2011 study from the University of Connecticut found that while “highways offer value in carrying vehicles long distances at high rates of speed…they’re inefficient in a city environment, where bottlenecks form around on-ramps.” The same study also found that city-street grids have been rendered ineffective in the presence of highways, and when those highways are removed, they’re surprisingly proficient at efficiently distributing a large amount of traffic.
Reduced congestion isn’t the only benefit of removing highways; there are economic benefits as well. Freeing up the land these highways occupy means that the spaces can be converted into parks, housing or businesses. Additionally, a study by the Seattle Department of Transportation, found that removing highways often leads to increased property values in the area, as neighborhoods once obstructed by highways become more attractive to buyers.
Several U.S. cities have already taken the initiative to remove highways from their downtown areas, with positive results. Portland, for example, demolished their Harbor Drive highway and replaced it with a 37-acre park, leading to the revitalization of the city’s waterfront area and drastically increased property values. Milwaukee witnessed a similar phenomenon when they removed their Park East Freeway. The freeway’s demolition created three entirely new neighborhoods, and new developments have resulted in more than $340 million in investments for the city.
The highway is still an incredibly important component of transportation infrastructure for people living in rural areas or places that are underserved by transit, but it’s less effective in a densely populated city.. While highways were responsible for ushering in an era unprecedented economic growth, our cities have outgrown these systems. By removing old highways, cities can turn their focus back to the people, and create a new infrastructure that works for them.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.