Countering the “Freeway Fighters”
I’m back from taking a summer break from the blog with a quick re-publishing of a great piece by Bob Poole from Reason’s Surface Transportation Newsletter. I’m hoping to get back into regular weekly posts again, or something close to it. This piece gets at a growing dangerous anti-freeway movement in America which will have many negative ramifications for the economies of metro areas. Not only will the poor be unable to afford to live in the areas with jobs (already the case in many metros), but they will also no longer be able to commute to them either as freeways get removed. I predict it will be seen as another in a long string of faddish urban planning failures right up there with “slum clearance” (destroyed vibrant working class neighborhoods) and “smart growth” (destroyed housing affordability).
An anti-highway group called StrongTowns.org last month released “10 Recommendations for Freeway Fighters,” described as answering the need for ammunition by those working on “the relocation or removal of highways in American cities.” Author Jay Arzu provides brief descriptions of the 10 points, which I summarize here so that state transportation departments and other members of the highway community can know what may be coming at them.
- Rule #1: “Highway-to-boulevard projects should focus on neighborhood reconnection and reinvestment for current residents of the area,” Arzu writes. This seems to assume that the current residents are the same ones there when the freeway was built 40 years ago; it is mainly an argument against “gentrification”—i.e., keeping the residents in place rather than offering them buyouts so that economic development can occur (assuming the freeway is actually removed).
- Rule #2: “Any plan to remove a highway must include the input of local residents, and must employ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in design, implementation, and construction,” StrongTowns says. DEI is the current buzzword used by some for social planning, rather than letting residents make their own decisions on what is best for them. He also recommends letting a social-activist group speak for all the residents, rather than finding out what individuals, families, and business owners prefer.
- Rule #3: “Traffic data will always be used as an excuse for why a highway shouldn’t be removed,” says Arzu. As if disrupting urban area travel patterns would have no impact on thousands or millions of other people? And commercial vehicles?
- Rule 4: “Trust your city’s street grid.” Street grids can increase or restrict mobility depending on how they are configured and managed. There is nothing inherently better in whatever the current grid happens to be.
- Rule 5: “Create visuals/renderings showcasing the opportunities for your city if the highway was [sic] removed.” Pretty pictures are designed to be persuasive, but they may not reflect what is actually doable or affordable.
- Rule 6: “When you remove a highway, traffic will not come!” This is a mantra of the Congress for a New Urbanism, and the historic examples it cites are not removals of entire freeways but tear-downs of stubs of freeways that were never completed (e.g. the stub of Central Freeway in San Francisco and the stub of the Park Freeway in Milwaukee). Those making this argument—that if you remove capacity the traffic will disappear—also argue that the “iron law of freeway congestion” says that if you add lanes, they will quickly fill up and be congested. Neither is generally true, and one claim contradicts the other.
- Rule 7: “Get the development community on your side.” In this telling, developers are the friends of teardowns. Yet most developers want to build profitable projects (i.e., gentrify under-developed areas).
- Rule 8. “Land trusts/banks are a huge asset.” Land trusts and land banks require financial and development expertise that is unlikely to be present in “community-based organizations.” And what is left out of this recommendation is the owners of the properties in the relevant area, who probably don’t want their properties turned over to a land trust or land bank.
- Rule 9: “In the long term, take control of MPOs and DOTs.” Well, MPOs and DOTs, don’t say you weren’t warned!
- Rule 10: “No highway is permanent!” True, highways wear out and need to be rebuilt, the same as bridges, water and sewer systems, etc. His example of the removal of Harbor Drive in Portland is highly misleading since it was replaced by brand new I-5, which runs parallel to former Harbor Drive, which was turned into Waterfront Park.
This piece first appeared at Houston Strategies.
Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Urban Reform Institute (formerly Center for Opportunity Urbanism) and co-authored the original study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements. He is also an editor of the Houston Strategies blog.