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Smart Growth Opportunities

Is The Urban Highway a Relic of the Past?

By Sam Schrader   

A new report issued by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) outlines the benefits of replacing urban highways, and the list is a long one.

Using five cities as case studies, the ITDP builds an intriguing case and a solution far more sustainable than the current situation.

The five cities chosen for this report are Portland, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Seoul and Bogatá. All of these cities at one point had enormous highways of various lengths making the city more accessible by car. But each decided to replace these highways with parks, boulevards or in one case, got rid of the highway entirely for land development.

The ITDP notes that while all of the cities had different initial reasons for tearing down their highways, each of them are experiencing extremely positive results.

In Portland, Oregon the Harbor Drive highway was three miles long, which ran along side the Willamette River and connected the city to more industrial areas.

Constructed in 1942, it carried on average 25,000 vehicles per day. The highway, after years of planning, was torn down and replaced with a park in 1978. The 37-acre Tom McCall Waterfront Park helped make the area more scenic, drove property values in the area up by 10% and crime plummeted due to increased visibility via the waterfront park. In 1999, the park proved to be such a success, the city decided to double its size.

Other cities in the study have similar stories to Portland. Each. . .

  • Has experienced significant increases in property values

  • Added pedestrian space

  • Increased local investment

  • Experienced growth in tourism

  • Saw reductions in crime

Of the five cities, only one mentioned a slight increase in commute time due to the destruction of the highway. But by getting rid of the highways, these cities have saved enormous amounts of tax payer dollars that would have otherwise been used on road repairs.

And as replacements, new investments in bike paths, mass transit and greenways have actually resulted in greater returns on investment.

The ITDP suggests the implementation of land use policies that discourage sprawl can help combat the need for urban highways to begin with. By developing areas near existing transit lines either by new building or renovations, the need for a new highway would be rendered moot.

Suffice it to say, the removal of urban highways has plenty of benefits both for the environment and local economies. But will lawmakers pay attention or seek to explore the same old path of uncontrolled sprawl and costly, government-funded projects that benefit special interests more than taxpayers?

Just something to chew on.

You can read the full ITDP report here:


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