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Inspirations From Other Cities' Freeway Removals


IF THERE'S ONE REFORM Transport Providence would be more thrilled to see than any other, it would be the removal of Routes 6 & 10 as freeways, and their replacement as multipurpose boulevards.  A boulevard is different than a freeway in that it provides plenty of room for cars, but also public transit lanes, protected bike lanes, and park space.  6 & 10 are a collective nightmare because they cut off so many neighborhoods from each other, and create a royal mess at Olneyville Square, where 50% of the population doesn't even own a car.  

Lots of cities have removed their worst freeway nightmares, and we can too.

STEP ONE:  Have an earthquake.

The Embarcadero before an earthquake destroyed it.
San Francisco has removed several of its freeways.  The City by the Bay has a reputation of being, well, a bit left-leaning and enviro-conscious, but the reality is that S.F. never would have embarked on the removal of its freeway infrastructure if it hadn't completely collapsed without warning.  When an earthquake brought down the Embarcadero and the Central Artery, San Franciscans who hated the freeways suddenly found themselves with an edge in the debate over removal.

Possession is nine tenths of the law, it seems, and if you possess a broken freeway, you might be able to get rid of it with greater than usual ease.

The Embarcadero boulevard today, with trolleys and bike lanes.

STEP TWO:  What, not in an earthquake zone?!  Try negligence.

If you don't live in an earthquake zone, don't despair.  You too can someday remove your unsightly highway infrastructure and replace it with something better.  

In New York City, what is today called West Street used to be The West Side Highway.  N.Y.C. isn't exactly home to much seismic activity, but the city, state and federal authorities neglected the West Side Highway so much that it finally collapsed in 1973.  And again, in 1975.  The highway sat decaying for the next fifteen years until finally, the late Mayor Ed Koch negotiated with the federal government to forgo rebuilding the highway and use the money for public transportation improvements instead.

One of the interesting things about the West Side Highway is that before its collapse, no one had really studied what would happen to a removed highway.  At the time, after all, highways were the height of transportation technology.  A video by streetfilms.org (see 1:13 to 2:07) interviews Sam Schwartz, the former traffic commission from that time, as he explains the odd conclusion he was able to come to after the collapse of the West Side Highway:  the highway traffic largely disappeared.  Schwartz lined up counters on every avenue in Manhattan to count where the extra cars went.  Many of them dispersed evenly throughout the rest of the city grid.  The remainder drove at a different time than usual, used public transportation, carpooled, or otherwise avoided using a car to get around.  No traffic problems.

Again, as with San Francisco, in retrospect one looks at New York City and assumes that there must be something special or different about it as a city that makes this possible.  The reality is that New York was much more car-oriented in the '70s than it is today.  At the height of that period, not only were there no bike lanes in Midtown Manhattan, but bicycles were actually banned from that part of the city entirely.  The subway system was notoriously unreliable and in a state of collapse.  Walking around through much of Manhattan was hardly seen as safe or pleasant as it may be today.  And yet, somehow people did without a freeway.  So perhaps we can too.

Of course, one hopes that this doesn't come about through the collapse of a road--although that seems a great deal more likely in Rhode Island than an earthquake of any size.  So that brings us to our final (and best) method of freeway removal:  

STEP THREE:  Ain't No Power Like the Power of the People

If you don't want your freeway removed after a disaster (man-made or otherwise), then you can follow the lead of cities like Portland, Oregon to see how freeways can be successfully removed by simple public pressure.  

Portland, Oregon is today viewed as a mecca for public transportation and biking, but that wasn't always the case.  The Hawthorne Bridge, which today sports a wide protected bike lane on each side leading into a riverside bike route, used to use that same infrastructure to help cars onto the Harbor Drive Freeway.

Where the truck and the white car are in this picture is currently a bike-ramp instead of a highway on-ramp.

As in the previous cases, the change is so complete that it's difficult to imagine how it could be otherwise.  You might find yourself saying that Portland is just different than Providence--it's where hipsters go to retire in their late twenties, right?--remember that before Portland carried through a series of successful transportation reforms, it was viewed as a dumpy, rather nothing place to be by many on the West Coast.  It's because of the reforms that it's now viewed nationally and internationally as a place worth visiting and living in.

If you don't believe me, look at the picture below, and tell me that Portland has always been a great place for car-free living.  Spotted owls selling cars notwithstanding, it doesn't look all that nature-oriented to me:
This is a park today, with an off-road bike route.

Portland residents explain in a streetfilms video that they didn't lose their freeway infrastructure because they lived in a special state where everyone hated cars.  When Robert Moses came to Oregon to propose freeways like those he'd completed on the East Coast, the governor, the legislature, and the whole city government had green-lighted the project.  It was only after public pressure brought people's disdain for the freeway project to a head that the city changed course, and even removed some of its earlier road projects like the one on Harbor Drive.

After all, does anyone even like Routes 6 & 10?  I mean, even among drivers.  I've never heard anyone say, "Gee, I can't wait for my commute home through the connector!"  Maybe we should learn from these cities, and turn 6 & 10 into boulevards that can carry all modes of traffic.

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