Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thoughts from A Freeway Lover

Ever since I was a little kid, I've been fascinated with transportation. Airports, train stations, subway platforms, you name it, I've had a fascination with it.

(This is probably in keeping with my having Aspergers: a lot of people with high-functioning autism tend to be really interested in transport.)

Of all the modes of transportation, the one that held my interest the most was the freeway. Maybe it was growing up the son of autoworkers, but I've always had an interest in the Interstate Highway System. I remember sitting with a Rand McNally map of the United States and just spending time looking at all the routes of the various interstates throughout the country. I would even draw imaginary places that had freeways criss-crossing the area and going to other cities nearby.

I still go to websites to find out things about a certain roadway (such as, Interstate 94 is the longest highway whose number doesn't end in 5 or 0).

I know that many people prefer the classic two lane highway, but they never held the same appeal that that a freeway held for me.

Over time, I've learned that most people don't share the same interest I have in freeways. Where I see order, symmetry and efficiency, others see blight and devastation.

Blogger Tim Lee wrote a post last week about his belief that freeways killed St. Louis. Erik Kain chimed in with a related post sharing his visceral dislike of freeways.

I have mixed feelings on both essays. Freeways have done great harm to many urban areas. For example, when Interstate 94 was being built through St. Paul,MN it was went right through the Rondo neighborhood, which was predominantly African American. It pushed these people out of their homes and left deep wounds in the St. Paul's black community. So, yes, freeways can be detrimental to cities.

But I do they lead to the decline of great cities as both Lee and Kain suggest? I'm not so certain. I could look at my home state of Michigan and look at a city like Detroit. Did Interstate 75 destroy the city? Maybe, but so did the fortunes of the auto industry.

I don't think St. Louis declined simply because they decided to build I-70 through the city. Did a changing economy also have a role as well?

Let's look again at the Twin Cities. Even though we have freeways that go into both urban cores, both cities are rather vital places. While the building of interstates did do damage in specific neighborhoods, they didn't necessarily destroy St. Paul or Minneapolis.

I do think that it would have been better if Interstates had been designed to go around cities instead of through them, but what is done has been done. Yes, there are efforts to remove freeways from some cities and maybe that's a good idea. But I don't know if that alone is going to be the answer to help declining cities. Getting rid of Interstate 475 in my hometown is not going to restore Flint to its former glory.

On the other side, there are costs to not having freeways in the urban core. Washington, DC stopped efforts to have the nation's capital laced with freeways. I think that was probably a good idea, but the result was putting all the traffic on surface streets which, at least when I lived there in the early-90s, was clogged with traffic.

Erik Kain also make a quip about how Phoenix would never be a "great city" because of its freeways. But what makes a great city? Does every city have to be like New York to be come great? If Phoenix isn't a great city, then why have so many people moved there? What if someone has their own idea of what makes a great city?

I will still love freeways, even with their problems. I also admit they have problems and believe there should be some solutions. But Cities live and die for a lot of reasons, not just because someone decided to ram a freeway through.

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