The Not-So-Distant Future: Cities in 2020, Part 9

Weis and Arnesen’s paper, “Thriving as a City in 2020” continues, with a realistic look at the effects of through-city highways.

Posted By Megan Wildhood

Nov. 20, 2012

Our cities, Weis and Arnesen argue, are bleeding and the wound is the intra-city, muli-lane freeway.  Just as no one wants to live in a trash heap, as we read last week, no one wants to go into the city.  They merely want to go through the city and Weis and Arnesen argue that no amount of expensive building project is going to change that:

INNER-CITY THROUGHWAYS:  OPEN URBAN WOUNDS

             Somehow the notion that interstate highways were needed to transport people inter-city carried over to the rather absurd proposition that they were also a desirable mode for intra-city transportation.  What we should have observed and learned from the original autobahn system – that it was for inter-city purposes only – got lost in the translation from Germany to America.  Instead, we were sold a promise that bringing multi-lane, limited access highways into our cities would somehow keep them commercially vital.  We were even told that in-city highways were crucial to our cities’ survival, and would lead to both stability and growth in downtown commerce.

            Inner-core throughways never accomplish the latter, although we always pretend that they do.  Instead, they clog access to and from the city core with traffic moving through the city, rather than to and from the city.  Using Seattle as an example, even during rush hour, most traffic on Interstate 5 and on State Route 99 is passing through Seattle, rather than coming to or leaving the city.  Why did we choose to run SR-99 and I-5 through the middle of Seattle?  There is simply no intelligent justification for such folly.  Indeed, in planning highways to move vehicles up and down or across the state, the one totally illogical place to route such a highway would have been through the middle of a great city.  And yet – that’s what we’ve done. 

            In retrospect, we know the Interstate Highway System design was badly flawed on that one decision alone, and that moving on this decision took the lives of dozens of once vibrant urban centers:  Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Denver – just to name a handful.  And no amount of spending on new stadiums, convention centers, casinos, museums, and concert halls will ever resuscitate these former American cities.  They are gone forever.  Only the freeways live on – filled with cars going from nowhere to nowhere, and passing through nowhere on the way.  

Perhaps the most vital piece of the street-grid improvement Weis and Arnesen advocate is to put a halt to the highway-through-the-city paradigm.  Vancouver, BC, has chosen not to have a freeway run through it – in fact, all City Councils since the ’70s have concurred that there is no more room in this beautiful city for single-occupancy vehicles, which in practice meant no more roads or even road widening.  Their priorities have shifted to (in this order) pedestrians, then cyclists, then public transit users, then drivers.  Seoul, Korea even dismantled a heavily-used freeway and it has only benefited the city and its population.

The city Weis and Arnesen envision might look a bit closer to Seoul or Vancouver than present-day Seattle: it is certainly bustling with the activity of dense populations getting all of their daily-life needs met, not an expensive-attraction-filled shell of edifices people merely pass through on their way to increasingly far-away destinations.

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