When the Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge collapsed in 2007, it put a major stretch of Minneapolis freeway out of commission. Commuters who expected a bumper-to-bumper nightmare on alternate routes to work were surprised to find that traffic moved relatively smoothly on the city's regular streets.
That fits with the expectations of former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who says experience shows it's possible to remove freeways without creating traffic congestion. What's more, he says, it's a good idea.
During his administration, Milwaukee dismantled almost a mile of freeway. As a result, he said on The Daily Circuit, there were "no traffic problems since it happened. Actually, some trips got shorter."
"The land adjacent to it, which was underutilized, has been intensely developed ... Manpower Corporation moved in from the suburbs. There's been over $700 million in new housing in and around the corridor."
Norquist said he thinks the Twin Cities area demonstrates the problems freeways can cause in urban settings.
"Minneapolis and St. Paul have way too many freeways, and they really don't add value to the metropolitan area," he said. "They tend to push travel-sheds way out into the countryside, and create a lot of unnecessary long-distance travel."
St. Louis recently awarded a contract to build a park over the freeway that separates the gateway Arch from its downtown area, and Boston has buried a major interstate in the project known as The Big Dig. But Norquist said cities can probably just get along without freeways, rather than routing them underground.
"Not having freeways at all is probably the best outcome," he said. "And you can see that in Vancouver, B.C., which has had the best real estate market of any metropolitan area in North America over the last 20 years. They have no freeways, none. And it works fine. The traffic distributes very efficiently over the street grid, and it doesn't create the situation where you have these long travel-sheds.
"But Minneapolis-St. Paul already have a lot of freeways, so obviously you're not going to tear them all down. The most likely thing to do would be to shorten up some of the ramps that are really long, that come off the freeway. That will create development opportunities."
Marlys Harris, a writer for MinnPost, agreed that the ramps are too long. "If you're coming from St. Paul to Minneapolis and you take the 5th St. exit ramp into Minneapolis — I think it runs about three-quarters of a mile or a mile. I don't understand why it has to be so long. It really ruins all the territory in between that could be used for something. And that's not the only ramp that does that."
Harris, who wrote about the anti-freeway campaign in MinnPost, pointed out that such roads "produce a lot of pollution, a lot of noise, they take up a lot of space and they have ripped apart neighborhoods."
"I'm not suggesting that you rip apart the entire freeway system," she said. "But there are places where it has really kind of ruined the landscape, wasted a lot of land, and doesn't really reduce traffic congestion all that much."
In MinnPost, Harris summarized efforts in other states to undo urban freeways:
Other U.S. cities are contemplating taking matters a step further: Instead of hiding urban freeways from public view, they are talking about dismantling them. Elevated highways — or portions of them — have already been razed in San Francisco, Baltimore, New Haven and Providence. Groups in Dallas and St. Louis are pushing for their own freeway take-downs, and New Orleans is considering scrapping the Claiborne Expressway which divided black neighborhoods. New York City has on its agenda demolition of the Bronx' Sheridan Expressway.
"What would happen if you took some of these freeways down?" she asked on The Daily Circuit. Cities that have done so, she said, "have found that actually the normal street grid works pretty well to distribute traffic."
Norquist said that ripping up freeways might seem like an outlandish notion — at the moment. "It's counterintuitive to think that if you took them out, it would somehow help things," he said, "but eventually, I think, the world is coming to that conclusion. Maybe five years, 10 years from now, it won't seem like such a weird idea."