The Problem With Urban Freeways


I’m absolutely on board with Diana Lind in her argument that cities should be aiming to dismantle their urban highways. Something that I think should be clarified, because it drives home how strong the case is, is that building freeways through cities would be a bad idea even if traveling in cars were the only means of transportation on the planet.

The reason is simply that the purpose of a highway is to make it easy to travel long distances in short periods of time. But the central fact about cities is that almost by definition they’re not far from downtown. When you build a freeway that leads from downtown, through residential areas, out to the suburbs what you’re doing is making it easier to get to stuff downtown without living in the city. If you replaced the freeway with a normal at-grade road, suddenly it would make more sense to live closer to downtown. The idea of urban freeway construction was to preserve the vitality of downtown areas at a time when more people wanted to move out to the suburbs. But trying to preserve downtown at the cost of eliminating your residential neighborhood’s core advantage — it’s easy to get downtown! — was fantastically short-sighted. Of course what’s done is done, and just because a highway shouldn’t have been built doesn’t necessarily mean it would make sense to tear it down. But oftentimes that’s exactly what it means!