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I-95: Removing It On Our Schedule

I-95 at Washington Street, in Providence.
I-95 is a gash in Providence and Pawtucket's urban fabric. But what if we started thinking about the many advantages I-95 banks for Rhode Island cities?



I-95 has a lot of surprising advantages, when you stop to think about it:

*It's a giant land-bank.
*The tremendous width of the corridor means that it is (sun-bakingly) open to light. There are no limitations to what we can build there.
*The man-made ravine where the highway is located also adds visual interest: the embankments could have buildings built right into them, which (like the RISD Museum) would have the advantage of active street entrances at the top (the service road) and the bottom (the highway bed).
*The ravine also creates a natural place to send overflow water: I-95 could become a land feature that helps us deal with climate change, naturally watering plants instead of overflowing our sewer systems.
*The right-of-way is centrally located and a perfect place for transit.

What would I-95 look like if its eight lanes and ramps were used as temporary festival sites? Here I've repurposed the ramps
as ways to walk out of the highway. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines could serve multiple stops in the city, right at festival level, and could connect into normal highway traffic beyond the festival boundary.
The way we should test this out is by doing festivals on I-95 regularly. It's the death of Cyclovia (with a Y) and the birth of Cíclovia (with an Í).


This isn't just a replay of the 6/10 Connector idea: with 6/10, we've been talking about removing infrastructure that is about to fall down (and we may-- fingers crossed-- succeed). With I-95, some of the infrastructure is nowhere near ready to be replaced or torn down, but envisioning a different highway on our own schedule presupposes that we don't have to wait for that day.

And the purpose of this isn't to imagine what a great idea it would be to cap the highway, either. It's true that putting a cap on a small portion of I-95 could reconnect neighborhoods, but that proposal would also be expensive, and would leave in place a pollution spewing, parking-gobbling, traffic-creating highway. Our festival should be coordinated with better transit as a means of modeling what will come to replace the highway in due course.

Our first test area: Atwells to Broad Street. The festival could grow beyond this as we become ready.
I've thought a lot about the thorny question of ramps. A highway is designed so that you can easily enter and leave going on direction on one side, the other direction on the other side. So taking away half of a highway seems kind of tricky. If we did this in stages, or if we allowed cars (at more moderate speeds) to enter the festivals in certain places (like streets), how would we deal with entrance and egress?

Seems pretty simple to me: Make one side of the highway a boulevard with periodic roundabouts near the exits. The ramps tend to be wide already, to give people "forgiving design" to safely leave, and adjust their speeds up or down. So the ramps have plenty of room to become two way streets into the roundabouts.

What if we started building actual buildings into the highway? What would we do with the other side of the highway in the meantime? I think a roundabout system could be used to allow cars to use the road bed on one side, while another side could have rapid transit. Streetmix only allows me to put buildings in certain places, but you could imagine that more buildings than this could be built at intervals, reducing the overwhelming "City Beautiful" effect of the massive space.
Wissihickon is a narrow park in Philadelphia, but is 7 miles
long. It's an overgrown former mill area, with the Wissihickon
Creek running down it.
If we removed I-95 from its fork at 295 in Cranston, or even if we allowed it to continue to the Providence border, removing it from Providence to Pawtucket/Central Falls, this would be an extraordinarily large amount of land. I just did a quick estimate, and from the 295 fork to the state line is about 11 miles, and the highway is hundreds of feet wide, so we're talking hundreds of acres of land. I don't imagine that we'd ever be able to imagine a development scheme for that much land in any immediate future. But what if we filled in some spots with green space? The fast part of the BRT, between stops, could be green spaces (not as any utopian vision, but just until we have a need to fill them in, which could be a long time). A smaller roadway could be in place to carry some traffic, with clustered development areas.

What comes to mind for me is Wissihickon Park. I'm not sure if the water table would be high enough to allow an overgrowth of woods, but if it was, I-95 could go the way Wissihickon did: in the 19th Century it was abandoned after its mills became obsolete, and over time it just returned to nature. Someone who knows more about what the possibilities are flora and fauna wise should research this.

Finally, what would it mean to commit ourselves to a plan that maintains a gash in the urban fabric? Thinking of highways as something that can be taken over small piece by small piece allows us to work on a schedule designed by people, and not by the time tables of DOTs. But it also leaves us with thorny questions of how to deal with the infrastructure that fails when it does go.

Pronk: Today beside the highway. Tomorrow: on it.
I suggest that highway bridges that cross the highway be considered places to land-bank for additional buildings. When a bridge (say, Atwells Street) starts to get old, it can be taken down. In its place would be build buildings, with gaps at intervals to allow the BRT lines or walkways to pass through. The building roofs would becoming the "bridge", with only smaller spans between them. This design would never work for car bridges, but it would work very well for bike and pedestrian bridges. So it doesn't totally remove the need for bridge-building, but it greatly reduces it. And it has the added benefit of gradually filling in vistas (again, getting rid of that pesky "City Beautiful" effect that Jane Jacobs would have hated). It could be a lot like this. Bridges that make up the highway could be brought down to just two lanes, for the BRT line.

Why believe in this vision? Because it's not that hard to imagine Providence residents reclaiming a highway. If we imagine I-95 as just another piece of land (one that currently has a bunch of cars on it) then we can decide to do with it what we want, when we want. Columbians close much of their highway system on Sundays. Why can't we? And from there, it's just a matter of time before we add better bus service on the highway to connect people to those festivals, and then build permanent kiosks or planted areas, and finally just close the whole thing and acknowledge that it's an outmoded idea.

Cíclovia Providence with an Í: not a glorified block party like Cyclovia. A real social movement that calls for a better landscape for our cities.
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