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INTERVIEW: John Norquist and Our Congestion Obsession

The CEO of Congress New Urbanism and former Milwaukee mayor, who vanquished the Park East Freeway from his city, talks urban highway removal—where it’s been done, where it will happen next, and why we as a nation must overcome our one-track mind about relieving traffic congestion.

Congress for the New Urbanism

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In anticipation of the twentieth Congress for the New Urbanism coming up in May, Next American City will run interviews with several of the event’s key speakers and participants. For our second installment, NAC spoke with former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, now CEO of the Congress and author of The Wealth of Cities, an argument for using the free market to achieve urbanist goals. Here he discusses urban highway removal—where it’s been done, where it will happen next, and why we as a nation must overcome our congestion obsession.

Next American City: One of your most well-known achievements as mayor of Milwaukee was demolishing the Park East Freeway. Next American City just held a panel discussion about urban highway removal, where we heard many of the same, understandable fears that people have about traffic, funding, economics, etc. As local leaders around the country are now seriously considering highway removal in some form or another, how do you suggest convincing concerned residents that such a move is right for them and their city?

John Norquist: Well, you have to change the discussion from pure traffic count comparison to traffic distribution. A robust street grid, with lots of connections, will distribute traffic much better than a few large freeways.

For example, when the Embarcadero Freeway, a double-deck freeway, was torn down, a majority of the trips—according to a study by the city of San Francisco—got shorter and faster because of the increased connectivity. With the freeway, there were a lot of trips where you overshot your destination and had to come back. It also attracted trips that didn’t add any value to the neighborhood: People going from Oakland to Marin County were cutting through San Francisco. When the freeway was torn down and replaced by a boulevard, it suddenly didn’t look so attractive to go that way, and [drivers] found a different way to get to Marin Country or, in some cases, didn’t make the trip.

NAC: What about funding? Your tenure as mayor has been described as fiscally conservative, which makes you something of an anomaly among urbanism fans and advocates. What do you think is the best way to fund large-scale projects like urban highway removal?

JN: Well, they’re smaller-scale than rebuilding the highway. Particularly if it’s an elevated freeway, it’s going to cost a lot of money to rebuild. A lot of freeways are headed beyond their design life, so they have to be rebuilt. You can’t just resurface them again. It’s cheaper to just tear it down and replace it with a surface street, so you win the cost argument by comparing it with rebuilding the freeway.

As far as other funds that are available, you can try for some of the TIGER grants, and things like that, that might facilitate some of these things. New Orleans, New Haven—there’s a number of places that have either gotten TIGER II money or are applying for it. But I think the biggest single way to finance these things is to compare them with rebuilding the existing structure. In the case of Milwaukee, it cost about a third as much to tear it down as it would’ve been to rebuild it.

NAC: What are some of the highway removal projects around the country—not including Milwaukee—that you consider particularly admirable, and maybe worth copying?

JN: Well, there are a lot of them that aren’t completed. But the ones that are, they’re all admirable. New York’s West Side Highway was closed in 1975. It fell down once in ’73, and they repaired it, and it fell down again in ’75. At the end of its 40-year design life, it fell down right on schedule. And it was just really expensive, and politically unpopular, to rebuild it. A lot of the politicians wanted to rebuild it, but as soon as they figured out which way the wind was blowing, they changed their minds. Probably the most important conversion on the West Side Highway was [former U.S. Sen.] Pat Moynihan. Not only did he come out against rebuilding the freeway and against the Westway—which would have been a tunnel—but he became the leader in the Senate on transportation, and was really the father of the ISTEA program.

Anyway, the result of the West Side Highway coming down was [that] it really helped the rebirth of the real estate market in Chelsea, Tribeca, Battery Park City. In Portland, the riverfront section of the expressway was removed and there was a huge property value increase. People could see the [Willamette] River, and without the freeway in the way that made a huge difference. And then in Seoul, South Korea is the most spectacular one of all: They took out a freeway with over 150,000 cars a day and replaced it with two moving lanes on each side of a river, which they restored. And it works just fine because they have a really rich street grid in Seoul.

There are a whole bunch of projects pending where there’s some real good opportunity to have more success in tearing down freeways. Basically, freeways don’t belong in densely populated cities. They create more problems than they solve. They’re very expensive, so almost nobody’s building new ones. That tells you that they’re sort of doomed: When you’re not doing new ones, you’re going to eventually have to remove the old ones.

NAC: What about some of the pending projects? Are there any that stick out in your mind?

JN: I’d really, really love to see the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans reach a point where it can be removed. I think the neighborhood’s pretty well-convinced that it’s a great idea. Two alder members are for it. There’s a third councilmember who’s still debating if it’s a good idea, and then the mayor has said favorable things about it. He’s not completely locked in yet, but there’s a good chance of the Claiborne coming down. We’ve got to take care of some concerns. Like the Port of New Orleans—they haven’t quite wrapped their mind around us yet as a good thing for them. There are a lot of truck movements that have to do with the port, and some of those trucks go on the Claiborne. But it’s only three miles long, and a multi-lane boulevard would be able to handle the traffic at almost the same speed. Not quite as fast, but it might even work better in rush hour because it wouldn’t congest as much.

The elevated Claiborne Expressway.
Credit: Mark Folse on Flickr

That’s one of the things about freeways: They tend to fail when you need them the most. They fill up, and then there’s no escaping. One you’re on it, you just have to wait until they uncongest. Whereas when you’re on a surface street—like, say, Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.—even though it’s a big road that carries a lot of traffic, it really doesn’t come to a complete standstill, because there are so many cross streets that, if the thing congests, then people go to a different street instead. They turn right, get off the street and go to Massachusetts Avenue, or Wisconsin Avenue, or one of the other streets.

The Sheridan is another one—the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx. That’s one that I think is likely to get torn down. It doesn’t carry that much traffic—the last time I checked it was under 40,000 cars a day. It was a freeway that was meant to go a lot longer than it does. There’s no way they’re ever going to be able to make it longer, so they might as well tear it down.

Car Free Sheridan Hwy_045
A 2006 Tour de Bronx ride took over the Sheridan Expressway.
Credit: Majora Carter Group on Flickr

NAC: Despite underuse and pretty bad congestion on many urban freeways across the country, there’s still this strong, vocal element against removing freeways, people who still want them in their cities—

JN: We haven’t actually confronted an organized opposition. CNU is not heavily ideological, so we’re not anti-conservative or anything like that. I would expect at some point that Randal O’Toole and Wendell Cox will organize some sort of opposition against us. But we don’t have a specific group that’s organized to thwart our efforts to tear down freeways yet. That may be coming—that’ll actually be a sign of success, if it ever happens.

But it is a hard sell, because it’s counterintuitive. So the average person hears that you want to tear down the Claiborne Expressway, and they go, “You want to do what? How could you be against that big road? Cars probably need it. Traffic needs it.” So you have a lot of explaining to do, and it takes years, sometimes, to get to the point where the public says, “Oh, yeah, maybe that isn’t such an idiotic idea after all.”

NAC: Do you think that stems from a misunderstanding of highways and their effect, or is there something else at play there?

JN: Everybody’s been sort of trained to believe that if you’ve got a traffic problem, all you have to do is make the pipe bigger, you know, make the road wider and that’ll solve the problem. The Detroit metropolitan area is covered with freeways. Ever freeway you could possible imagine has been built—although there are a couple left on the drawing board—but more than any other place in the country, the Michigan DOT pretty much go its way.

And they have solved the problem that they identified, which was congestion. The city of Detroit doesn’t really have a problem with congestion anymore. That’s the least of their problems. So by creating a transportation system that encouraged people to leave town—the population of the city is about a third of what it was since 1950. They had 300 miles of streetcars at the end of the war. That’s all gone. Now they have these big roads. The street grid has been cut up, so it’s hard to move around on the surface streets. And normally that’s a big problem, but with Detroit the rush hour has become so uneventful that you really don’t have a problem with congestion. You have to go out to the suburbs to find congestion that you’re used to in America…

The stated goal was to battle congestion, and in Detroit, they did it. And there are side effects. You could take care of congestion in New York in a similar way: If you eliminate the 700 miles of subway, eliminate the commuter trains, build the Cross-Manhattan Expressway, put the West Side Highway back in—build all the freeways that Robert Moses didn’t get around to building—you could probably solve the congestion problem in New York. Manhattan’s population would drop from 2 million down to half a million, and the city would become a really poor place instead of a rich place.

The point I’m making is that, since the postwar period, federal transportation policy has been focused on eliminating congestion, and that’s too narrow a goal. The goal ought to be, What adds value to society? What adds value to the economy? If you look at the richest places in America, they’re the most congested.

LA Traffic
Traffic hasn’t stopped commerce in LA
credit: Pursue the Passion on Flickr

This interview is one in a series leading up to Congress for New Urbanism’s annual conference. The content is sponsored by Congress for New Urbanism.

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Tags: infrastructurebuilt environmenthighwaysmilwaukeerivers

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