Riding Dirty: The Demise of Urban Highways?

Traffic Jam by www.phlmetropolis.com
by lana lynne on March 31, 2012
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sprawls from the Delaware River on the east to the Schuylkill (skoo'-kull) River to the west and beyond. The city has done fairly well by the Schuylkill -- mainly because Fairmount Park, the nation's largest urban park, follows its banks, which are always bustling with joggers, rowers, and sightseers. The coast of the Delaware, on the other hand, has the unfortunate luck of being cut off from downtown Philadelphia by the north-south arterial behemoth Interstate 95. Connecting the river to the city has long been a dream of city planners, and, recently, a plan was put into place that involves extending the city grid east to the waterfront.

The highway system in the city is sometimes referred to as Philly's folly, for the other main highway through the city, Interstate 76, may not bisect a waterfront downtown but instead divides neighborhoods, and makes a snarling traffic nightmare on almost a daily basis ("The Schuylkill* is jammed river to river" is a familiar refrain on traffic reports. It's reported to be the state's busiest highway). Rumor has it that the highway's construction in the 1950s, prior to the Interstate Highway System, led to building standards below code. Add fifty years of wear, tear, and weather, coupled with the inability to widen it and the left-side exits and on-ramps, and it appears that change in some form looms largely.

After reading Greg Hanscom's article on Grist, "Goodbye-ways: The downfall of urban freeways," it's impossible not to try to envision a Philly without inappropriately-placed highways. Philly evidently fell into step with many cities in the 1950s, and constructed bypasses to connect its newly-suburban residents to the city's downtown. In a mini-urban-highway history lesson, Hanscom tells us:
When all was said and done, these freeways did salvage some downtown commerce, but they only accelerated the flight from the inner city. At the same time, they carved up historic urban neighborhoods, turned whole sections of cities into slums, and cut off many downtowns from their waterfronts. Legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs was among the first to fight the scourge of the urban highway, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had become all but impossible to gain approval for new highways through urban areas. It’s one thing to stop building urban freeways, however, and another thing entirely to tear down existing ones.
But that's exactly what is happening in cities around the world: New York City, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Milwaukee, Seoul, and Bogotá have all either torn down existing highways that have failed to serve their purpose (making congestion worse, increasing urban flight and blight) or are turning down proposals for new highways and instead investing in the communities. Perhaps it's time for the rest of us to ask what our cities would look like with a different transportation infrastructure.

*For out-of-town drivers through Philadelphia, the tradition of calling highways by their familiar names (The Schuylkill Expressway, The Blue Route, and the Vine Street Expressway take the place of 76, 476, and 676, respectively, for example) must be maddening.
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  1. I think you're right that we need to start thinking about alternatives to how our cities are set up and operate. Way too many of those vehicles commuting on the "Skookill" are single-occupant. Plus, highways are dangerous, especially when overcrowded, and they carve up and divide neighborhoods. How is this good?

  2. I've only taken these routes during my younger years as I was heading to the Vet and I always believed it was only because of the games that the congestion seemed so bad. I had no idea about the carving up of neighborhoods that came along with it. I like that some cities have stepped in to try and make things better even with the consequences what they are.

  3. For a place not to experience different problems in their highways, workers or what I mean is the engineer of the roads and highways must have a lot of knowledge on how they are going to implement such resolutions for different problems. As we all know, engineering jobs are not really an easy thing to do so it is important to do things step by steps and not in a hurry.


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