Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Life and Death of Urban Highways

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Cities need roads, and sometimes they even need highways, but few cities have thought systematically about when and where they need highways. Highways have a very specific role to play in an overall transportation system: to move traffic long distances at high speeds.

However, such facilities are not as useful for short urban trips, because the indirectness of routes between a trip origin and destination undermines the time saved from the higher speed achieved by limiting access points.

In light of the fact that so many cities in developed countries are now tearing out urban highways, it is time to re-appraise the specific conditions under which it makes sense to build a new urban highway and when it makes sense to tear one down.

The End of a Life Cycle: Urban Highways Offer Cities New Opportunities for Revitalization

If the twentieth century was known for building highways, the twenty-first century may be known for tearing them down. A new report jointly produced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and EMBARQ, The Life and Death of Urban Highways, re-appraises the specific conditions under which it makes sense to build urban highways and when it makes sense to tear them down.

After decades of building and maintaining urban highways, many cities are choosing to tear them down rather than repair or maintain them. Five are showcased in this report: Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Seoul, South Korea; and Bogotá, Colombia. These cities demonstrate the social, economic, and environmental benefits of removal or of reinvesting in other options and opportunities.

As Peter Park, former planning director of Milwaukee during the Park East Freeway removal, writes in the foreword, “While the following report is about urban highways, more importantly, it is about cities and people. It is about community vision and the leadership required in the twenty-first century to overcome the demolition, dislocation, and disconnection of neighborhoods caused by freeways in cities.”

In the past fifty years, tens of thousands of miles of urban highways were built around the world. Many are now approaching the end of their life cycle. This is leading many cities, not just in the United States, to question the place of major highways in urban areas and whether they merit further investment or removal. Today, some of the same urban highways that were built in that period are being torn down, buried at great expense, or changed into boulevards. As cities around the world grapple with congestion, growth, and decline, the case studies highlighted in this groundbreaking report illuminate what can be done when a highway no longer makes sense.

To download the report, please go either:

Founded in 1985, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) promotes socially equitable and environmentally sustainable transportation worldwide. ITDP works alongside city governments and local advocacy groups to create projects that reduce poverty and pollution, and fight climate change. ITDP has offices in Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and the United States; employs more than 70 staff members; and supplements this team with leading architects, urban planners, transport experts, developers, and financiers.

EMBARQ catalyzes environmentally and financially sustainable transport solutions to improve quality of life in cities. Since 2002, it has grown to include five offices, located in Mexico, Brazil, India, Turkey, and the Andean Region, that work together with local transport authorities to reduce pollution, improve public health, and create safe, accessible, and attractive urban public spaces. EMBARQ employs more than 130 experts in fields ranging from architecture to air quality management; geography to journalism; and sociology to civil and transport engineering.
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If you would like more information about this topic, or to schedule an interview with one of the authors, please call Aimee Gauthier, ITDP, at 212-629-8001 or email or call Erica Schlaikjer, EMBARQ, at (202) 729-7722 or email