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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Repurposing Urban Freeways

I have stated several times here that I believe urban freeways have their place in most cities, particularly in cities with lots of industrial and military activity. These are the purposes for which a federal highway system was created.

Unfortunately, these highways were not created for what they are most commonly used to accomplish: commuting. Most traffic congestion is caused by commuting. It occurs in the morning and evening rush hours. It costs trillions in wasted fuel, wasted time, and wasted environment.

What if commuting on highways was illegal?

This is a highly unlikely and rather radical approach to solve widescale congestion problems, and I have no reason to think it would take anywhere in the US right now. But what if urban freeways (like 295 and 395, for instance) were reserved only for transit, industrial (trucks), military, and emergency vehicles? Naturally this would have to come with an unrealistically large scale repurposing of our suburbs, which is why it is obviously not feasible. This hypothetical line of thought could argue a couple of advantages in the case of Washington, DC.

This would mean commuters would need to find alternative means of getting to DC. This would undoubtedly result in thousands of cars being taken off the road. the lack of cars commuting into or through the city would result in less space needed for commuter parking, which could allow more parks, residences, and businesses to be constructed throughout the city. It would likely result in a massive drop in car owners. This would increase the disposable income of area residents who no longer have need to own a car. (I have stated before that for me, this would be about 20% of my take home income). That would result in a higher tax base for the city, making it easier to invest in an expanded mass transit system, perpetuating a cycle that would reverse the negative effects of sprawl.

Industrial and military vehicles would be less likely to use the surface streets. In fact, they could even be outlawed from using surface streets, apart from approaches to the highways. though it might inconvenience some industrial traffic, I imagine that having an uncongested freeway would be an overall benefit for them. I am vehemently opposed to having military traffic running down city streets. To me this is something that they do in Tehran and Pyongyang, not Washington, DC.

Naturally, the drop in gas usage, exhaust, and vehicle miles traveled will be good for our environment. One could even go so far as to suggest that there would be an overall increase in walking, which could lead to better health. But more directly, the decrease in CO2 emissions will have an obvious and immediate impact on air quality.

Freeways are valuable tools of industry in America. They literally shaped the landscape and united the country in a way the world had never seen before. But they have been rendered near useless in much of the country becasue we allow them to be used for purposes which they were not originally intended. Perhaps rethinking the modality of freeways on some level could benefit a the local, municipal, regional, and national landscapes.

10 comments:

John Mitchell said...

Dave, you just made Douglas Willinger's head explode.

Bedford Empress said...

What about the northern sector of Washington, D.C.?

Are commuters to be hence banned from North Capitol Street?

Carmen said...

Any examples of freeway-less commuting out there in the world that work? Other countries I've been to (which isn't many), the commuting was an insane mess compared to traffic in US cities.

Dave Murphy said...

Bedford,
I'd only consider part of North Capitol Street a freeway, and it is my sincere hope that one day that interchange at Irving street is removed, or at least redone into something more compact.

This idea would most certainly only work with a great deal of transit, perhaps to include a Metro line along North Capitol for job centers like the Hospitals, etc.

Carmen,

How about Lower Manhattan? there are no freeways that cut across the island south of 179th Street. If I'm not mistaken, they are downgrading the FDR expressway on the east side of the island. millions of people get around there every day. Ottawa has one freeway, but it doesn't go near the downtown area. Toronto is similar, although it's freeway runs between the downtown and the river. If I'm not mistaken, they have been trying to get rid of that freeway.

Bedford Empress said...

What about government officials, limos etc?

Do they get forced to use WMATA, or are their commutes to take priority?

Dave Murphy said...

I don't see why they couldn't take the surface streets. I wouldn't put limos in the same category as big rigs and humvees.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone explain why I-395 and I-66 Inside the Beltway has never been in discussion of removal or reduced to a surface Street Boulevard.

Dave Murphy said...

Anonymous, I cannot, but I have my opinions as to why I-395 shouldn't be removed... perhaps narrowed, though. I-395 does a (relatively) good job in Southwest of allowing streets to pass through, creating network continuity. In Southeast, there is already a plan to remodel the freeway that will boulevardize the extension to Pennsylvania Avenue.

As for 395, that connection is rather vital for movement of military and industrial traffic, which is why we have such roads. It is most detrimental as a commuter route, and I believe it should be congestion priced after it is remodeled.

As for I-66, I do have a major problem with the portions in Arlington that run alongside the G-W parkway. When you have two freeways running alongside each other, that's inexcusably poor urban planning. the rest of the stretch through Arlington is more or less out of the way, but again, it is a huge traffic generator. I would recommend that as soon as there are the commuting alternatives, shut that route down for non-industrial traffic, and maybe narrow it by a couple lanes as well.

Anonymous said...

Dave Murphy said...

Anonymous, I cannot, but I have my opinions as to why I-395 shouldn't be removed... perhaps narrowed, though. I-395 does a (relatively) good job in Southwest of allowing streets to pass through, creating network continuity. In Southeast, there is already a plan to remodel the freeway that will boulevardize the extension to Pennsylvania Avenue.

As for 395, that connection is rather vital for movement of military and industrial traffic, which is why we have such roads. It is most detrimental as a commuter route, and I believe it should be congestion priced after it is remodeled.

RE: OK.

What are your views on Widening the B-W Parkway and US 50 Inside the Beltway to ease the Backup Bottlenecks going and coming from DC?

Dave Murphy said...

Anon,

It is a well proven fact that widening a road creates more traffic rather than ease traffic. I think one thing that would help would be to actually remove a lane in each direction on US-50 inside the Beltway and revamp the interchange at 295 to direct a good portion of the inbound freeway traffic onto 295.

In my experience as a commuter, bottlenecks occur where a road narrows. the width of the road only dictates WHERE the bottleneck occurs. If possible, I think these bottlenecks should occur outside the Beltway.

Of course, if these roads become non-commuter roads, this is a largely moot point.