Burying Freeways

It’s not always apparent how something will impact a neighborhood until after it’s built.  Build wisely and it’s possible for people to easily navigate on foot or bicycle.  Build foolishly and people are forced to use their cars.  Nowhere is this more obvious than with freeway design.  Let me illustrate using two examples of recent freeway rebuilds from Houston Texas.

The first is the Southwest Freeway between downtown Houston and the West Loop.   Have a look.

The Southwest Freeway at Montrose Boulevard.  This is a high capacity urban freeway.  Photo-Google

The Southwest Freeway at Montrose Boulevard. This is a high capacity urban freeway. Photo-Google

Looking eats towards Montrose and downtown from the HOV lane.  Photo-Google.

Looking east towards Montrose and downtown from the HOV lane. Photo-Google.

This is a wide freeway with five through lanes each direction and an HOV lane down the middle.  It is one of the busiest freeways in Houston.  When the road was rebuilt a few years back, it was trenched through the Montrose neighborhood.  This limits the impact of the freeway on the surrounding neighborhood.  In fact, when you approach  on Montrose, you don’t even realize the freeway is there until you’re almost on top of it.

Montrose Boulevard looking south towards the Southwest Freeway overpass.  It's very inconspicuous considering how large the freeway actually is.  Photo-Google

Montrose Boulevard looking south towards the Southwest Freeway overpass. This is a relatively easy crossing to navigate by bicycle.  There are sidewalks for pedestrians.  There is neighborhood continuity across the freeway.  Photo-Google.

The second example is of the Katy Freeway in west Houston.  This is a mega-freeway, the widest in the country with seven through lanes, two toll lanes and a three lane feeder road running each direction.  As such, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s close enough.  I’m using it because it was a recent rebuild in the same city but with a completely different focus.  Unlike the Southwest Freeway, the main and toll lanes of the Katy are elevated.   This creates an intimidating environment for the motorless, and it serves as effective barrier for bicycle and pedestrian movement across the freeway.  Check it out.

Katy Freeway at Chimney Rock Road.  Lots of real estate dedicated to cars here.  Photo-Google

Katy Freeway at Chimney Rock Road. Lots of real estate dedicated to cars here. Photo-Google

The new highway is so wide it's hard to see all the way across it.  Photo-Google.

The new highway is so wide it’s hard to see all the way across it. Photo-Google.

The combination of feeder roads and an elevated highway make for a formidable crossing by bicycle or on foot.  Photo-Google.

The combination of feeder roads and an elevated highway make for a formidable crossing by bicycle or on foot. Photo-Google.

The impact of these two designs on bicycle and pedestrian access is pretty dramatic.  One encourages movement.  The other discourages it.

I realize that it’s counterintuitive, but there’s an increasing body of data that suggests that building bigger, wider roads actually creates more traffic.  Whether you agree with that or not, these roads certainly make it harder to get around on a bicycle…especially when they’re poorly designed.

That brings me to Denver where state transportation officials have released the Environmental Impact Statement on the massive I-70 East rebuild.  Not to be outdone by Texas, apparently, Colorado officials have planned for a really wide freeway between downtown Denver and the airport.

I-70 spans 46th Street as it exists today.  Photo-Google

I-70 spans 46th Street as it exists today. Photo-Google

I-70 East Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Visualization and Animation: Phase 1 of the Final EIS Preferred Alternative  (Partial Cover Lowered Alternative)

As proposed, I-70 East Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Visualization and Animation: Phase 1 of the Final EIS Preferred Alternative
(Partial Cover Lowered Alternative)

Navigating the trenched freeway on a bicycle would be a breeze.  I-70 East Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Visualization and Animation: Phase 1 of the Final EIS Preferred Alternative  (Partial Cover Lowered Alternative)

Navigating the trenched freeway on a bicycle would be a breeze. I-70 East Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Visualization and Animation: Phase 1 of the Final EIS Preferred Alternative
(Partial Cover Lowered Alternative)

The good news is that CDOT is giving locals the opportunity to help determine how this freeway fits into the community.  If you live in the Denver area or know someone who does, you can still make a difference.  There are two options on the table.  One is to replace the existing elevated viaduct east of I-25 with a new elevated viaduct.  The second option is to trench and bury the freeway.  There would be a park over the highway at one point connecting neighborhoods.  Elsewhere, bridges with built in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure would make active transportation more viable.

There’s no doubt in my mind that burying I-70 is the best for Denver and Colorado.  Please let your Colorado-based friends know about this important choice and have them comment before the window closes in early March.

 

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