Demolishing Freeways and Reviving American Cities

San Francisco Embarcadero © Russell Mondy

As cities grapple with budget cuts and rising infrastructure costs, the value of removing costly freeways has been gaining more attention. Boulevard conversions are now being considered as a cost-effective, practical alternative to rebuilding expensive expressways. At first, most residents gasp at the thought of removing their local freeway and for good reason; it seems counterintuitive. Nobody likes it when their drive home is prolonged due to heavy bumper-to-bumper traffic, so we should make our freeways wider! Not tear them down…right?

John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee (1988-2004), current CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism and author of The Wealth of Cities, was recently interviewed by Next American City to discuss highway removal and “our congestion obsession”. Norquist’s best known achievement as Mayor of Milwaukee was demolishing the Park East Freeway – 1960s-era expressway that restricted access to the city’s downtown.

Continue reading after the break for more on this subject and to view the top twelve freeways pending their demise.

As CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) – a leading organization promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions – Norquist has been deeply involved with the Highways-to-Boulevards initiative. With this initiative, CNU has argued that “successful highways-to-boulevards conversions reconnect neighborhoods, improve access to key resources such as waterfronts and put underperforming land to use. Highway-to-boulevard conversions in cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee and Seoul, South Korea have all raised property values, enhanced quality of life, improved traffic distribution and proven to be frugal investments that add value and vitality to the city.”

In the interview, Norquist revealed that more and more local leaders are seriously considering highway removal. However, one of the most challenging barriers is the resistance from residents. Understanding citizen fears about traffic congestion, Norquist suggests that we change our focus from pure traffic count comparison to traffic distribution. He states, “A robust street grid, with lots of connections, will distribute traffic much better than a few large freeways.” According to a study conducted by the city of San Francisco, the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway allowed most commutes to decrease in length and increase in speed due to greater connectivity.

Norquist pointed out, “That’s one of the things about freeways, they tend to fail when you need them most. They fill up, and then there’s no escaping.” When comparing typical freeway back-up’s to streets like Connecticut Avenue in Washington D.C., it becomes clear that freeway removal isn’t necessarily an outlandish idea. Unlike most freeways during rush hour, Connecticut Avenue never really comes to a standstill. People have the option to escape and reroute through a number of cross streets.

As for addressing funding concerns, Norquist argued that removing aging infrastructure is a small-scale, fiscally conservative alternative to rebuilding aging freeways. For example, demolishing the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee was about a third of the cost  it would have been to rebuild it. You cannot just resurface highways like you could a street. With the available funds through programs like TIGER grants, cities such as New Orleans and New Haven are making plans to carry out similar projects.

Norquist states, “Basically, freeways don’t belong in densely populated cities.” And as the next 3 billion people move into cities in the next 40 years, “they’re sort of doomed.”

In February, CNU released their top 12 list of prospective highway teardowns, suggesting that these freeways have the opportunity to transform from broken liabilities to vibrant assets.

CNU’s 2012 Freeways without Futures List:

  1. I-10/Claiborne Overpass, New Orleans
  2. I-895/Sheridan Expressway, New York City (Bronx)
  3. Route 34/Oak Street Connector, New Haven
  4. Route 5/Skyway, Buffalo
  5. I-395/Overtown Expressway, Miami
  6. I-70, St. Louis
  7. West Shoreway, Cleveland
  8. I-490/Inner Loop, Rochester
  9. I-81, Syracuse
  10. Gardiner Expressway, Toronto
  11. Aetna Viaduct, Hartford
  12. Route 99/Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle

will be a featured speaker at the Congress’ 20th annual gathering in West Palm Beach, Florida this May.

Check out the entire interview conducted by Next American City here.

Reference: The Congress for New UrbanismNext American City

Photo by Flickr user Russell Mondy, licensed through Creative Commons.

Cite: Rosenfield, Karissa. "Demolishing Freeways and Reviving American Cities" 05 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 May 2015. <>
  • eric

    You forgot to mention that the San Francisco Embarcadero wasn’t demolished in order to create “walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions”, it was demolished because of damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

    • Ross

      I had the exact same thought. Not the best photo to support the article.

      • Alex

        The citizens of SF had been screaming for its teardown long before the earthquake. When the Loma Prieta hit and damaged it, it became clear that both the people of the city and the cost to repair/rebuild it made for an easy decision. It was not necessarily done to create that walkable neighborhood, but is a prime example of one being created in the wake of an old freeway site.

  • bhb

    Not one mention of Boston’s Big Dig. Amazing.


  • AZ free

    This type of one-size fits all thinking is as myopic as the movement that universally thrust freeways into urban environments in the 1950/60s. Highways to boulevards might be well intentioned but its fiscally out of touch. Freeway removal might make sense in some contexts but not in all as municipal budgets continue to come under fire. We never ask what public programs get slashed or axed altogether when we spend $15-20 billion on a project like the big dig.
    What new urbanism fails to confront is the fundamental way in which we see freeway land within cities. The perception is always negative because we fence the land off and LET it fragment our neighborhood instead of utilizing it like they do in Tokyo with the metropolitan freeway.
    Besides, having thousands of cars in gridlock, at grade on a boulevard isn’t necessarily an improvement over higher average speeds and better gas mileage on a freeway.