Doubling Down on Obstructive Highways is Bad for Cities
To reduce congestion in Austin, TxDOT proposes doubling down on highway lanes. In addition to safety upgrades, a recent proposal calls for two non-tolled managed lanes in each direction along the I-35 Capital Express Central project area. The proposal would increase the number of current lanes through downtown Austin from 12 to 20 in some areas.
In realty, the addition of 8 more traffic lanes is unlikely to reduce congestion. Not only does “induced demand” not work, but the city is rapidly growing.
From 2010 to 2019, Austin’s population has grown 22% and ranks among the highest of mid-size metro areas. The region has been able to attract major investments from tech companies like Google and Apple, positioning it for continued growth.
It was unfortunate to see the state’s proposal. Consideration should be given to remove or bury the highway to restore the street grid and improve connectivity. To address the city’s traffic woes investment should move more toward transit, not highways.
Other proposals have been put forward on what to do with the highway space: dedicated bus or rail lines that coincide with the city’s Project Connect or bury the highway and reclaim the land for public use. But it seems unlikely such ambitious projects will move forward.
Austin, like many cities, was built with an obstructive highway through its downtown. As you can see on the map, I-35 is next to the downtown, UT Austin, and directly through the center of the city.
The highway is in a prime location that could better connect the city by removing a physical barrier. With a price tag of nearly $5 billion, other alternatives (even if more costly), should be given equal consideration.
Austin is not alone in addressing the destructive nature of urban highway construction. New York City is trying to figure out what to do about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).
It has been over 65 years since New York City’s BQE entered operation and is in need of extensive repairs. One of the most complicating matters is that the Brooklyn Heights Promenade rests atop the BQE’s triple-cantilever section. The Promenade is home to highly valued property and impressive views of the city. Plans have ranged from significant traffic diversion, repurposing some roads to truck or HOV only, and converting some levels to a park similar to the city’s High Line in Chelsea. Alternate proposals abound, but the city has not agreed on a solution. If nothing is done, weight and traffic restrictions will be put in place as temporary measures.
Urban highway removal is not a new phenomenon. In 2003, Milwaukee replaced 0.8-miles of its elevated Park East Freeway spur and restored the street grid to enhance access to downtown, surrounding neighborhoods, and the Milwaukee Riverwalk. One of the more high-profile highway removals occurred in San Francisco. The Embarcadero cut off the city from its waterfront in 1959 with removal completed in 1991. While the city has changed over the decades, along with its waterfront becoming less industrial, the removal of the highway was pivotal for economic development.
Removing highways has been shown to increase connectivity, improve economic development, and allow underserved communities access to opportunities. Doubling down on highways now, is a disservice to cities. Improving connections through transit can increase opportunities for more residents than expanding highways.
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