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Highways are a problem not a solution

Debra Efroymson

26 mei 2023

The economic and social costs of highways - and what removing them would bring

The belief that building or expanding roads will decrease traffic congestion or contribute to economic development is outdated and shortsighted. There is in fact a long history of highways destroying communities and local economies, leaving scars that last for decades while also increasing pollution and other problems.

Highways cause serious health, economic, social, and environmental damage. Highway construction causes homes and businesses to be demolished, thereby limiting access to housing, services, jobs, and open space. Highways also result in polluted air, soil, and water.

Highway expansion can cause irreparable harm to communities – forcing the relocation of homes and businesses, widening “dead zones” alongside highways, severing street connections for pedestrians and cars, reducing cities’ base of taxable property and overall community value, and stripping communities of their economic vitality. That is, highways impoverish rather than enrich cities. In places where cars are the sole mobility option, many who cannot or choose not to drive – including seniors, children and people with disabilities – are robbed of the opportunity to thrive and engage fully in their community.

It is important to understand that the main beneficiaries of highway construction and expansion are road building (including cement), fuel, and car companies. All these companies strongly lobby governments and international agencies, portraying road systems as a necessary precondition for development while conveniently ignoring all the damage they do to the environment, to communities, and to livelihoods. There is absolutely no reason to feel that the right of giant corporations to make ever-greater profits is more important than the right of home owners to protect their traditional and beloved residence and community.

Removing highways

As a result of decades of bad experience, many communities are now fighting highway expansion or new highway projects. In many cases they are successful due to growing concerns about environmental sustainability and the rights of marginalized peoples. In other cases, highways have been torn down and communities and local economies have been restored as a result.

Many cities in the United States have demolished or replaced highways with green spaces, and more and more people are fighting new highway construction. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, residents are fighting a $1 billion highway expansion. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, residents are fighting plans to widen a highway through the city. In Oakland, California, residents are fighting to remove a highway that cuts through their downtown. In Portland, Oregon people are fighting a planned highway widening.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, an urban area, Tremé, was destroyed through the creation of a highway that replaced a thriving community of residences and local businesses. Those businesses have been replaced with parking, drug sales, prostitution, and homeless people. Although not entirely to blame, the highway has contributed to the significant economic and population decline of Tremé. In addition, the heavy motorized traffic has resulted in air pollution, lead in the soil, noise pollution, and fine-particulate emissions which can cause dementia as well as other health problems. Paving over green spaces also contributes to flooding. Research found that the physical division caused by the highway of previously connected neighborhoods and the removal of businesses along what had been a commercial artery have fragmented the community socially, culturally, and economically. As a result, there is high poverty and crime, and insufficient access to jobs, housing, and transportation. The community continues to fight for highway removal and for bicycle and walking paths, and flexible open space with trees and other stormwater management elements.

Cities and states are tearing down highways and instead making boulevards and connected streets for public transit, walking and cycling. A few examples of highway destruction/removal or the decision to avoid building a highway in the first place include:

  • The government decided to tear down an elevated expressway in Seoul, Korea and restore the river underneath it. The area is now a famous and vastly popular public space. The decision was made as the highway only increased congestion and pollution.

  • The mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, ignored JICA’s pressure to build an urban highway network. Instead he oversaw the building of a vast network of Bus Rapid Transit and hundreds of kilometers of bicycle infrastructure, as well as creating public spaces throughout the city. Regular carfree events (the ciclovía, which occurs on Sundays and holidays) create more jobs through vendors selling various goods than are created by motorized travel on other days.

  • In San Francisco, California, a boulevard replaced a central freeway that was damaged in an earthquake.

  • In Boston, Massachusetts, an elevated highway was moved underground, replaced with a greenway that connects downtown to the harbor.

  • In Michigan, the Department of Transportation is planning to convert a one-mile stretch of I-375 in Detroit into a surface street.

  • The Texas Department of Transportation is looking at ways to remove two major highways in Dallas.

  • In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the city’s newly adopted comprehensive plan includes a Freeway Remediation Recovery policy, which states the city will “repurpose space taken by construction of the interstate highway system and use it to reconnect neighborhoods and provide needed housing, employment, green space, clean energy, and other amenities consistent with city goals.”

  • In Rochester, New York, a thriving neighborhood with new housing, restaurants, and retail where there used to be a highway. The highway construction required the demolition of nearly 1,300 homes and businesses; other similar projects did not get built because of local opposition. The highway segment cut people off from downtown and landed up having very little traffic. In place of the highway, the city created a boulevard (Union Street) with two to four vehicle lanes, parking lanes, sidewalks, two-way protected bike lanes, signaled crosswalks, bike racks, benches, trees, and landscaping. Between 2014 and 2019, walking increased 50 percent and biking 60 percent in the project area. In all, the new neighborhood on and around the former expressway will include 534 housing units, more than half subsidized or below market rate, and 152,000 square feet of new commercial space, including services and amenities such as a day care center and restaurants. For an expense of $22 million, the city saw $229 million in economic development. The project also created 170 permanent jobs and over 2,000 construction jobs. Simply the savings of $34 million that would have been spent on highway maintenance and repairs was greater than the cost of eliminating the highway and creating the boulevard.

Economic benefits

Economic value increases when people move more slowly. As people rush through cities they do not stop at local businesses. What does add value to the local economy is good urban design which encourages people to move more slowly and increases investment. The modern understanding of cities is that they are not places for cars and commuters, but rather commerce centers, homes, and places of recreation and tourism. Highways move people, but businesses require people to slow down and enter them. Investing in the downtown rather than building a highway is far more effective for producing jobs, housing, tax revenues, and other benefits. As one authority explains, “There are no examples of a neighborhood that improved when a highway was cut through or over it. But every in-city highway removal has improved economic, environmental, and social opportunities for the local community.”

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, government spending of $25 million to remove an elevated highway resulted in over $1 billion in new downtown investments. Between 2001 and 2006, the average assessed land values per acre in the freeway footprint grew by over 180 percent, and the average assessed land values in the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district grew by 45 percent, compared to a citywide increase of 25 percent.

Health issues

Research on the short- and long-term impacts of living, working, and attending school near highways has documented many environmental and health risks, including elevated rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, preterm birth, immune damage, and cancer. Tailpipe exhaust contains particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene. VOCs can react with nitrogen oxides to produce ozone, the most widespread outdoor air pollutant. Children, older adults, and people with preexisting conditions, especially in low-income urban areas, are at greater risk for air pollution-related health impacts, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These environmental and health risks persist despite today’s more stringent emission and fuel standards, which have reduced harmful emissions by 90 percent compared to 30 years ago.


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