If You Unbuild It, They Will Come

It may be paradoxical to suggest that the way to eliminate congestion is to remove highway capacity, but it’s also true.  There was a time when I couldn’t wrap my head around this as, on the surface at least, it just doesn’t make sense.   You have to dig a little deeper.  See, here’s the thing…  When you build a new road, you encourage new development. That new development causes that new road to fill up and back up and pretty soon you’re sitting in traffic again, just new traffic in a new place.

Most of us don’t think about this but if you spend as much time as I do on a bike, distance matters.  Life becomes a series of tradeoffs.   Should I pay slightly higher prices to shop closer to home if I can walk or bike to the store?  The answer is almost always yes.  In the end, I am ahead.  So is society because I’m not polluting the air or wearing out roads on my bicycle.

That’s why I’m so excited about a new report from the Congress for New Urbanism called  Freeways Without Futures.  It’s a list of highways that should be removed. I realize that this is sacrilege to a large part of our society but it will lead to healthier and more vibrant neighborhoods.

heritage_streetcar_1895_sfo_04_2015_2396

San Francisco’s Embarcadero.  What used to be an elevated freeway is now a transit and pedestrian promenade, complete with bikeshare.  Photo: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz), own work, CC by SA 4.0

I know this for two reasons.  First, because it’s exactly what happened when San Francisco removed the Embarcadero Freeway after it was heavily damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and second, because I’m familiar with two of the freeways on the CNU list  (Dallas and Denver) and some of the hard work that proponents of removal have done to advance visionary alternatives.  Here’s the Denver plan.

This is being offered as an alternative to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s plan to double the size of I-70 and put it in a trench.  I used to drive this stretch of I-70 from just north of downtown to my suburban home so I know it well. I never gave it much thought at the time, but in hindsight it’s very clear that it ripped existing neighborhoods apart.  The video above offers a way to bring those neighborhoods back together while making the area attractive for cyclists and pedestrians.  I support that.

The Dallas I-345 plan is somewhat smaller and actually has a better chance of becoming reality.  Dallas city leaders deserve some credit for making Big D more bicycle friendly than I ever could have imagined a few years ago, so they’re likely to listen.  They also have all the political cover they need thanks to the Texas Department of Transportation.  Proponents of removal and replacement with a grade separated boulevard are well organized, intelligent and compelling.  I’m optimistic that this may happen, though probably not as quickly as I would hope.

Regardless, I’m glad we’re finally having this conversation.  What we’ve been doing for the past sixty years or so is not working.  It’s not fixing our congestion problem and it has extracted a terrible price from our urban centers.  The CNU report showcases the best options on the table for those of us who believe bicycles are a transportation solution.  It has the potential to make our cities more bicycle friendly while eliminating congestion simultaneously.  That’s a win-win any way you look at it.

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