How the construction of elevated highways came to an end

The trend of creating elevated highways in US cities is now widely seen as having been a mistake. Such highways are now facing the axe

An aerial view of the Denver Interstate 70 and Sloan Lake, US. Elevated highways were constructed to help cut commuter time as more people moved away from cities, but still required decent access 
Author: Tom Bailey
March 1, 2016

In the now-iconic opening credits of the television show The Sopranos, New Jersey-based mob boss Tony Soprano makes his journey from somewhere in the dense urban jungle of New York City – presumably having been there for business reasons – to the refuge of his family home in North Caldwell, a suburb in New Jersey.

In his retreat to the ’burbs, the commuting Mafioso cuts through the second tier cities on the coast of New Jersey that face westward out to New York City. He bypasses this urban sprawl with ease, using America’s famed road network, below through bridges and – most importantly – above, on elevated highways, allowing him to drive his 1999 Chevy directly in, and out, of his place of business in the city, to his place of residence – the tranquil suburbs.

Cities began to construct highways that cut above their own urban territory, raised high above the rest of the city, connecting one end or area of the city to another

This sort of journey became a staple throughout American cities in the 20th century, as more and more Americans bought into the dream of the white picket fence home in the suburbs, yet continued to wish (or were compelled) to work in the city.

To facilitate this commute, all across American cities large elevated highways were erected, allowing for cars to swoop over the congested and supposedly crowded cities, from the suburban outskirts to the business core. Now, however, many cities across America are reassessing this trend, and in some cases reversing it, viewing the elevated highway as a mistake.

Paved with good intentions
Dating back to the 1920s, one of the first of these roads was the West Side Elevated Highway in New York. However, it was in the post-war period, when car travel and America became synonymous, that their construction really took off. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower passed the now-famous Federal Highway Bill, which saw the construction of over 40,000 miles of modern roads, connecting America from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

While such plans had been discussed for decades, as Patrick Kennedy, a professional urban designer and co-head of the A New Dallas project, noted: “The actual implementation from a political and financial perspective really started with President Eisenhower’s frustration with the logistical challenges of moving huge armies during the First World War on small muddy roads, and then the impression and efficiency of the German autobahn system during the Second World War. He desired to create a national interstate system primarily for national defence purposes.”

Yet while the original plan was to connect different regions of the country, bringing together cities and towns, local and city governments around the country had other ideas. Increasingly, cities began to construct highways that cut above their own urban territory, raised high above the rest of the city, connecting one end or area of the city to another.

Such constructions, however, would often require the displacement of existing communities, or bring a number of inconveniences to urban residents left behind, such as noise or air pollution, unwanted shadows, as well as the loss of urban public space – generally seen as lowering the quality of life of residents. Valuable land, upon which residents could live, work and meet, would be lost to the highways, hollowing out city cores.

The reasons why city bureaucrats would want such imposing, elevated highways to cut across the urban landscape were numerous. The idea of highways looming over the cityscape itself has its roots – as with much controversy in 20th century urban planning and architecture – in the thinking of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier.

As Anthony Flint wrote in his book Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City: “Just as he streamlined form in his architecture, Le Corbusier has a grand vision for streamlining the city.

His concept of Ville Contemporaine and later the Ville Redieuse, or ‘Radiant City’, called for razing older sections of the city that been had built up randomly over time, to be replaced by dozens of cruciform high-rise towers in open plazas that could accommodate millions… All functions of life, like shopping or work, were to be strictly separated into distinct zones… Highways would be necessary to connect the various elements, and they would be elevated, directly serving buildings above the ground floors.”

Connected to this was the idea that elevated highways could result in urban renewal. As Kennedy noted: “Local governments could take the federal money, provided the states matched 10 percent of the total cost, and build the highways as they saw fit with little oversight.” The resulting construction would also provide thousands of jobs for the city.

End of the road
However, as quickly as the movement for elevated highways took off, opposition arose. As Nicole Gelinas, a contributing editor of City Journal, told World Finance, scepticism toward elevated highways “started in the 1950s and intensified through the 1960s, until the road-building era was really over by the 1970s. Opposition arose, as many city residents were faced with the unattractive prospect of being forced to relocate or deal with the less-than-beneficial consequences of having an elevated highway ferry cars above them.”

Kennedy also noted that “everywhere a highway has ever been built into an existing neighbourhood, it has made the area worse”. As Gelinas said: “People began to see that the car didn’t help cities compete with the suburbs. City roads simply couldn’t handle the level of traffic that came through them without severely harming quality of life. Building more highways, in turn, ruined more neighbourhoods without solving the problem of traffic.”

One of the most famous cases of opposition to elevated highways was the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, spearheaded by the New York City Planner, Robert Moses – dubbed New York’s ‘master builder’ – in the 1960s.

For Moses, such elevated highways were integral to the ability of New York competing with the suburbs, allowing cars and trucks to easily navigate the city, avoiding the dense and congested roads of Manhattan.

He dreamed of modernising what he saw as a cluttered and messy New York City, with a series of superhighways, both below and above ground. The Lower Manhattan Expressway – an above grade elevated highway – was intended to complete this vision.

The vision, however, was not to be: led by architectural journalist and author of the famous The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, local residents of Little Italy and SoHo – both of which would have been significantly affected by the expressway – rallied against the plan. The residents prevailed, and the expressway was shelved.

Reclaiming space from the sky
Shortly after the defeat of Moses’ grand plan for New York City in the 1970s, elevated skyways in urban areas fell out of favour and have gradually seen growing opposition from both the general public and public officials. For instance, as Kennedy added: “The 1989 earthquake damaged two standing elevated freeways in San Francisco, the Embarcadero and the Central Artery.”

Once the 1989 earthquake damaged the two roads and “after several years of political fighting”, it was decided that the city would remove “these two freeways and replace them with surface level boulevards, despite the protests of traffic engineers that warned of catastrophe” – a catastrophe which never arrived, although it did result in a revitalised waterfront area.

There now seems to be a trend towards such reversals. “I’m not sure I can name a city that isn’t thinking about removal”, Kennedy said. From Syracuse and Buffalo in New York State, to New Orleans and Dallas in the South and Detroit in the Mid West, cities are considering tearing down such highways. Removing Dallas’ IH345 elevated highway would greatly benefit the city.

Not only would it open urban space for people to enjoy “a vibrant urban core that is a place to go to, not just pass through”, but it would also improve the city economically, Kennedy told World Finance.

“Currently, the 245 acres occupied by the highway and its associated blight surrounding it only generates $3m per year in property taxes from only $19m in private improvements. Removal would generate $4bn in new private investment and generate $110m per year in new revenue for the city, doubling the tax base of the downtown”, added Kennedy.

As many of these elevated highways come up for renewal, rather than repair them, it is increasingly being seen as beneficial to tear them down – particularly as the trend in America increases towards a migration back to urban areas, reversing the 20th century trend of migration outwards.

As Kennedy concluded: “Building highways through the centre of our cities has proven to be one of the great follies of the 20th century… the emerging trend to selectively remove them is simply a correction to the systemic overshoot. Highways have an appropriate place. Our job for the 21st century is to prune the highway system so that both the highways and our cities can function better.”