Cities are accretions of historical periods of development. At the center of many European cities sit the remnants of a medieval town, where citizens crowded along narrow streets located behind a high wall for protection. But U.S. cities are newer, many the products of the immigration, internal migration, and industrialization that heralded the nation’s emergence as a global power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the time, American cities expanded along public transit lines. But later in the twentieth century, many were remade for the motorcar; the new highways often severely damaged the viability of the communities they were intended to save. Today, many of these cities want to undo the damage that the highway builders of the 1950s and 1960s caused, and they are trying to find a balance between accessibility and urban vitality. To achieve that balance, many of the urban highways must go.
American cities in the industrial era revolved around a dense core, where transportation nodes came together with principal government functions, businesses, and industries. Railroads—carrying both people and freight—dominated transportation.
These early-twentieth-century American cities were crowded and dirty. Heating and electricity generation came largely from burning coal. Manufacturers located their operations in cities, where workers could be found. Because factories also had to be close to railroads to ship goods, they tended to set up shop in multistory loft buildings on compact footprints, near rail sidings. At first, factory workers lived in tenements and other small, dense dwelling units near their workplaces. With the advent of electric traction around the turn of the twentieth century, however, less dense and better-quality workers’ housing began to spread along “els,” subways, and trolley lines.
Cars entered this urban environment as a godsend, first for the wealthy but then for the masses. Car owners could escape the city and traverse the countryside. All they needed were roads. America’s first road designed for fast driving was the Long Island Motor Parkway, privately built by a wealthy man for himself and his friends as they traveled from New York City to their Long Island estates. The parkway opened to cars in 1908; today, one can walk or bike on part of the original road in Queens. With bridges over streets and on- and off-ramps, the Long Island Motor Parkway established the design vocabulary of all the limited-access roads that followed.
Robert Caro’s The Power Broker famously tells the story of how Robert Moses built the Northern State Parkway parallel to the Long Island Motor Parkway, undercut its toll structure, and put it out of business. Moses’s parkways, which allowed Gotham’s middle class to access Long Island beaches and take country drives, were really linear parks with wide landscaped rights-of-way on either side. These early highways influenced the concept of highway beautification that was ultimately applied to the interstate highway system.
Early highway planners saw that limited-access highways not only could facilitate escape from the city but could also help in-city drivers bypass congested streets. Among the first urban freeways was Manhattan’s Miller Highway, constructed in the 1930s to carry cars over the West Side piers and rail yards. With narrow lanes, sharp turns, and steep left-hand entrances and exits, Miller Highway was terrifying to drive on and the site of frequent accidents. It was among the nation’s first freeway teardowns; eventually, a street-level boulevard and waterfront park replaced it.
Despite these early efforts, the federal-shield (numbered) highways that connected the nation’s cities up until World War II mostly went right through downtowns, often on the main commercial street. As car ownership and truck traffic increased in the postwar economic boom, this system became untenable: vehicular congestion paralyzed cities. Thus, the idea of accelerating traffic by elevating roads over city streets gained widespread appeal. The Futurama exhibit, designed by Norman Bel Geddes and unveiled at the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, envisioned a modernized America, linked by superhighways.
War and funding disputes delayed the realization of this vision, but in the early postwar years, several states built limited-access toll roads by setting up highway authorities that could issue bonds to be repaid by toll revenues. State highway departments and local governments also cobbled together limited federal appropriations and other resources to create expressway networks.
Design issues plagued these early expressways. Moses built much of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) in this period, and because funding was limited and urban construction was expensive, he made many compromises along the way—including, as described on the website nycroads.com, “sharp curves, lack of shoulders, short acceleration and deceleration ramps, and confusing left-exit configurations.” In the same period, Boston built the Central Artery, an elevated expressway that lacked shoulders, had short and steep on- and off-ramps, and ran through the downtown area.
Some of these expressways also displaced urban communities. In early 1950s Detroit, Mayor Albert Cobo successfully pushed for bond funding, backed by gas-tax revenues, to complete east–west and north–south expressways that would intersect north of downtown. Cobo wanted to keep the downtown business district competitive against the emerging suburbs but needed to plow through established neighborhoods along the route to do it. In what soon became a common pattern, Detroit’s new expressway routes sought out the lowest-cost and least politically empowered property owners to displace—in many cases, African-American homes and businesses. According to historian Roger Biles:
By 1958, construction of the John C. Lodge Freeway resulted in the destruction of 2,200 buildings (residences, shops, and factories) on the Lower West Side and largely African American neighborhoods bordering Highland Park. By the end of the 1950s, bulldozers leveled approximately 2,800 buildings through the black West Side and the northernmost edge of the city’s most infamous ghetto, Paradise Valley, to make way for the Edsel B. Ford Expressway.
The 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act provided a gusher of cash to construct the interstate highway system. Ironically, its backers sold it as a way to reduce urban congestion. The interstates, which still constitute the largest public works project in world history, did many things. They fostered suburbanization, as farms and fields suddenly became sites for shopping malls, office parks, and residential subdivisions. (Urban freeways often had the opposite effect: they displaced residents and businesses, ripped apart the street grid and neighborhoods, and generated noise and pollution.) The interstates encouraged autos over rail for intercity travel. And they reordered the economy by shifting freight from rail to trucks and industry from the urban core to the periphery. But while the highways might have created the look and feel of contemporary American life, they ultimately couldn’t solve the problem of efficiently moving people and goods through cities.
Construction standards for the interstate highway system were higher than for the earlier limited-access roads. No new versions of the Miller Highway, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or Central Artery would be built. However, safer roads required a straighter and wider right-of-way, which meant that far more land had to be acquired for each mile of highway.
The U.S. Bureau of Public Roads published the original scheme for the interstates in its 1955 “Yellow Book,” a planning guide. In general, the idea was for circumferential highways to encircle the edges of large metropolitan areas so that interstate traffic could bypass cities and select any of the radial routes exiting a metropolitan region.
Had the interstate system ended at the beltways—as it effectively now does in some cities, such as Washington, D.C.—it would perhaps have been seen as an unqualified success. The Bureau of Public Roads planners, working with state highway departments and local officials, didn’t stop there, however. Instead, the Yellow Book maps drew lines through the beltways, toward downtowns. Local governments, pressured by business interests, wanted to make it easy for suburbanites to drive downtown for commuting, shopping, and entertainment. The Yellow Book’s planners aimed to build giant elevated expressway structures and wide ribbons of concrete—but these would have to carve through city residential neighborhoods and business districts.
Looking at the Yellow Book maps today, one is struck by the arrogance of the enterprise. Public officials’ confidence that they could get away with the mass displacement of urban populations—which would also mark urban renewal—reflects the credibility that the U.S. government generally, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower personally, had built up by winning World War II. But that credibility was rapidly eroded—not least by the “freeway revolts” that began to erupt, as citizens organized to stop the construction of highways through their neighborhoods.
The first of these revolts came in San Francisco in the late 1950s, where the Yellow Book planned two expressways leading to the Golden Gate Bridge: one along the waterfront and the other through Golden Gate Park. Public opposition disrupted the plans, and neither exists today, though the Embarcadero Freeway separating the city from the bay was partially completed before being demolished after the 1989 earthquake.
In Memphis, state highway planners drew a map that had Interstate 40 making a beeline through the city toward the Mississippi River bridge to Arkansas. The route led through centrally located Overton Park. By the mid-1960s, according to historian Raymond Mohl, park defenders had mobilized against the route, ultimately forcing its rerouting on to the northern portion of the city’s beltway. The stub of what would have been the superhighway was built right up to the eastern edge of the park and remains today, partly as a street-level boulevard and partly as a freeway.
In Baltimore, the Yellow Book envisioned three interstate highways—I-95, I-83, and I-70—meeting at a giant downtown interchange. One highway, I-70, would have crossed the city’s large Leakin Park, while I-95 would have blasted through the historic Fells Point neighborhood. In the end, only the northern leg of the system, the I-83 Jones Falls Expressway, was completed as proposed. I-70 today stops at the city line. A two-mile segment of freeway was constructed east of Leakin Park and is known today as the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway. According to Mohl, the road “emptied onto city streets at both ends and never became part of the interstate system, but it sent an inner-city black community into rapid decline and still serves as a reminder of the huge social costs of the interstate era.” I-95 wound up rerouted south of downtown and the Inner Harbor.
In Boston, opponents stopped the Inner Belt, an eight-lane expressway from Somerville through Cambridge that would have crossed the Charles River and the Fenway before curving through Roxbury to join the Central Artery. In Washington, anti-freeway forces stopped most of I-95 inside the beltway, as well as I-66, running east–west from the Potomac River to meet I-95 at a downtown interchange. And in New York City, despite Moses’s reputation as a master builder, much of the Yellow Book’s proposed expressway network also met with defeat, including I-78 east from the Holland Tunnel across lower Manhattan and northern Brooklyn to what is now JFK Airport, as well as I-495 across mid-Manhattan, connecting the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown Tunnels.
New York, Boston, and Washington were lucky to avoid the damage that the Yellow Book’s planned expressways would have inflicted. The scuttling of those plans likely contributed to the current vitality of those cities. Can one imagine Manhattan as we know it today with the lower Manhattan and mid-Manhattan expressways in place? Memphis and Baltimore are less prosperous, but their problems don’t relate to unrelieved traffic congestion; if anything, population loss has rendered superfluous the freeways that did get built.
As in earlier urban freeway projects, many of the communities most disrupted by the urban interstates that did get built were African-American. Mohl writes of the decision to construct I-95 in Miami: “Shifting the downtown expressway to the west now placed the route squarely through Miami’s large black residential district known as Overtown. The massive interchange, eventually taking up almost thirty square blocks, was slated to wipe out Overtown’s business district, the heart of black Miami, often considered by virtue of its many nightclubs and music venues to be ‘the Harlem of the South.’ ” Meantime, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I-244 drove through the historic Greenwood Avenue business district, whose black-owned properties and businesses were destroyed in the notorious 1921 race massacre. The business district was rebuilt in the aftermath, only to be wrecked a second time.
“New York, Boston, and Washington were lucky to avoid the damage that the planned expressways would have inflicted.”
In prosperous cities, tears in the urban fabric eventually closed. The Cross-Bronx Expressway devastated East Tremont, yet today homes and apartments sit on the edge of the deep cut that the highway makes through the West Bronx ridges. Similarly, Boyle Heights in Los Angeles persists today as a community of well-kept small homes and apartment buildings, despite the disruption by freeway construction decades ago. But other neighborhoods, such as the historically black North Nashville, where I-40 cut through, have not recovered from the highway shock.
The interstates have had unintended consequences for cities that further expose the arrogance of the planners’ vision. Though intended to bring people downtown, the highways could send people in two directions, and they drew both population and businesses out of the central cities. “Edge city” concentrations of offices and housing—think Sandy Springs, Georgia, north of Atlanta, or Tysons, Virginia, outside Washington—sprang up along circumferential roads. The auto-oriented suburban lifestyle that the interstate system encouraged also showed its limits. Black and Hispanic minority populations, displaced from their own demolished neighborhoods, often couldn’t move to the suburbs, lacking the income or the credit to buy homes there; segregation worsened while the highways wrecked the neighborhoods they called home. And some better-off people who could afford the suburbs stayed in the cities, embracing an urban lifestyle in which walking and public transit replaced driving, rendering traffic congestion a mere nuisance rather than an existential concern. Both groups would become proponents of freeway teardowns because they didn’t see the freeways as being for them.
Many urban expressways may now have an expiration date. As big-city waterfronts once bustling with shipping and industry became parkland, the expressways that loomed over them began coming down. New York demolished the Miller Highway. In Boston, a series of tunnels known as the “Big Dig” replaced the elevated Central Artery. In Seattle, a tunnel replaced the Alaska Way viaduct in the downtown areas.
Proposals exist to demolish other interstate routes cutting through cities. Some have gained momentum. In New Orleans, I-610 carries through-traffic between Mississippi to the east and Baton Rouge to the west, while the designated I-10 route makes a big dip toward downtown. The eastern leg of this loop is the Claiborne Expressway, which runs in the median of Claiborne Avenue through the historically black neighborhood of Tremé. Before the freeway, the Claiborne median had been a park-like strip, lined with mature oak trees. The massive highway structure had harmful effects on adjacent homes and businesses, and additional land was taken for exit and entrance ramps. In March 2021, President Biden singled out the Claiborne Expressway in his proposal for a $20 billion fund to “reconnect” neighborhoods hurt by past highway construction. Tearing down the Claiborne Expressway has support among neighborhood activists, though state and local officials are noncommittal.
Biden also cited Syracuse, New York, where a plan to remove the I-81 viaduct separating Syracuse University and major hospitals from downtown received $800 million in the most recent state budget. The construction of the highway in the 1960s, along with urban renewal, left a corridor largely used today for open parking. Local and state governments endorsed the plan, which would reroute through-traffic to the I-481 circumferential highway and replace the current viaduct with a street-level boulevard.
Interstate highways also damaged Hartford, Connecticut. North–south I-91 cut downtown off from the Connecticut River waterfront, while I-84 bisected downtown and isolated the neighborhoods to the north. Across the river in East Hartford, the Mixmaster, another vast highway interchange, occupies acreage that could be used more productively. The land taken for the highways and their interchanges represents a huge percentage of what might otherwise be a densely developed central city. While repairing the damage to Hartford’s core has long been on state and local officials’ agenda, a workable solution has not been found. Traffic can’t easily be rerouted without major new construction. The latest plan from local governments and civic groups, called Hartford 400, carries a hefty price tag and is likely subject to further refinements, but at least offers the possibility of restoring and repopulating Connecticut’s state capital.
Building urban interstate highways was often a bad idea, but removing them is not a simple matter. Patterns of economic activity adjusted to the existence of the highways. Today, commuters use them, and businesses depend on them. This not only provides a built-in constituency against removal but also means that any removal will exact economic and congestion costs. I-84, for example, is part of an inland interstate bypass route for congested East Coast cities that continues as I-81 through Scranton, Pennsylvania, to the Shenandoah Valley. Long-distance trucks avoiding congestion on I-95 use the bypass regularly. This route otherwise avoids large cities; had the planned I-291 beltway been built, through-traffic could have avoided Hartford. So planners considering rebuilding I-84 today somehow need to keep the trucks moving without it, necessitating expensive alternatives.
Not much remains of many of the historic neighborhoods destroyed by highways. They can’t be rebuilt, but officials can make amends. In some cases, this means replacing freeways with surface boulevards or restoring the former street pattern, freeing up land for new housing and businesses. In others, freeways can be rerouted to less sensitive locations. The segment of I-244 in Tulsa that crosses North Greenwood Avenue, for example, forms part of a tight inner loop around the city’s small downtown. Removing the road would likely add only a few minutes to east–west trips, while allowing the re-creation of a walkable neighborhood in the footprint of a onetime African-American hub.
The federal Bureau of Public Roads and state highway engineers made most of the interstate highway system’s big decisions. Only later, in the mid- to late 1960s, would reforms give more power to affected communities to influence or stop the highway-building. So the federal government has an obligation to help undo what its bad central planning created. Where it can, the U.S. Department of Transportation should work with cities to convert or reroute highways. Congress should provide funding to support highway-deconstruction projects in cities. (The infrastructure legislation passed by the Senate in August 2021 with bipartisan support includes $1 billion for this purpose.) Citizens of more fortunate cities saved communities from the bulldozer and, in the decades since, benefited from the jobs and tax revenues that these neighborhoods provided. Those whose cities lost out to the bulldozers back then deserve another chance.
Top Photo: The interstates, which fostered suburbanization, still constitute the largest public works project in world history. (IMAGE BANK/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)