8 Monster Interchanges That Blight American Cities

Ramming highways through the middle of American cities was undoubtedly one of the worst mistakes of the 20th century — demolishing urban habitat, dividing neighborhoods, and erecting structures that suck the life out of places. What could be worse than a highway through the middle of town? How about when two highways intersect, with all their assorted high-speed ramps carving out huge chunks of land to move cars.

But despite their massive scale and the huge sums we spend on them, highway interchanges in American cities can seem invisible. After all, no one ever goes to hang out by the interchange.

So, to give you a good look, we put together this list of some of the most enormous interchanges in U.S. cities. Just imagine what cities could do with all this space…

Louisville: Kennedy Interchange (64/65/71)

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Photo: Patrick Smith

Louisville’s Kennedy Interchange sits just north of downtown, forming an immense barrier to the city’s waterfront. Gigantic as it may be, this interchange will be getting even bigger as Kentucky and Indiana move forward with the $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges project. Even the New York Times lamented the effect of this highway expansion on downtown neighborhoods. But when Louisville activists argued that a portion of the roadway feeding into the interchange should be torn down, they were steamrolled by powerful political interests.

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Milwaukee: Marquette Interchange (94/43/794)

Marquette Interchange 9/09

Rebuilding and expanding Milwaukee’s Marquette Interchange, located not far from downtown Milwaukee by Marquette University, cost $810 million to complete in 2008. It took 2.25 million man hours to construct the 28 ramps and 21 miles of roadway. The concrete and steel needed to complete the project weighed 60,000 tons, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

To 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, this interchange expansion was a “billion dollar blunder.” Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration gave the project its “Award of Excellence in Highway Design.” Wisconsin is currently preparing for an even bigger interchange project: the $1.7 billion “Zoo Interchange,” not far away.

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Los Angeles: Pregerson Interchange (110/105)

Photo: Citydata
Photo: Citydata

LA’s Pregerson Interchange was completed in 1993 at a cost of $135 million. At the time it was the most expensive “traffic structure” Caltrans had ever built. The LA Times called it a “five-level maze of soaring and curving freeway lanes.” It includes nine miles of cloverleaf loops and is a mile and a half wide, a gargantuan pile of concrete looming over some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

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San Diego: I-5 and CA-163

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This interchange in San Diego is mostly tragic for its location, just on the border of Balboa Park, San Diego’s “crown jewel,” according to BikeSD’s Sam Ollinger. Despite the near constant congestion, the interchange is at least scenic, drivers say. But good luck getting to the Art and Space Museum on foot from downtown.

Columbus: I-670 and I-71

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The intersection of I-670 and I-71 in Columbus completely isolates part of the city bordering downtown and Columbus State Community College. Within the tangle of ramps is a school for the arts and a parking facility for Columbus Public School buses.

Construction to expand to the interchange began in 2011. The $200 million project includes the construction of 22 bridges, plus a “cultural wall designed with community input.” The project is part of a larger, $556 million rebuilding of three major interchanges by downtown. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime project,” an ODOT official told the local business publication.

Image: DLZ.com
Image: DLZ.com

Detroit: I-375 and I-75

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Streetsblog showed the damage done to east Detroit by I-375 in this compelling series of photos. This whole area was once a densely populated neighborhood of walkable blocks, home to much of the city’s African-American population. Downtown Detroit is completely surrounded by highways, forming a noose around the city. This interchange separates downtown Detroit from the Eastern Market, a major regional attraction.

The good news is there has been talk in Detroit of tearing out I-375. The road needs expensive repairs and the least costly option is being considered: replacing it with a pedestrian-friendly parkway.

Seattle: I-90 and I-5

Photo: Longbachnguyen
Photo: Longbachnguyen

Just outside downtown Seattle, the I-90/I-5 Interchange is a tangled mass of traffic. More than 1,600 people have “checked-in” at this location on Foursquare. “This sucks,” says one. “Nice shrub on the southbound side,” says another.

Seattle’s anti-highway activists halted a freeway expansion here in the 1970s, leaving behind “ramps to nowhere” that had been built in anticipation of future road construction. Some of those ramps were eventually incorporated into this interchange.

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Chicago: Circle Interchange (90/94/290)

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

This circular interchange merges the Dan Ryan, Kennedy, and Eisenhower expressways, just west of Chicago’s Loop. The Blue Line’s L train tracks pass under the interchange.

Constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Circle Interchange will be rebuilt and expanded in a $400 million project that the Illinois Department of Transportation recently rammed through, even though it never made the regional planning agency’s list of high priorities.

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  • Jeramey Jannene

    Obviously construction of the expressways through the cities rather than around them was a mistake, no question there. But, I have always thought the Circle Interchange represented a more responsible interchange than most. It fits within the grid and is low to the ground.

    If I’m not mistaken, John Norquist has even used it as an example of highway planning being bent to meet the needs of the city.

    Milwaukee’s highways are unfortunately completely at the whim of the state. Norquist had to accept the Marquette Interchange rebuild as part of the agreement to tear down the Park East Freeway.

  • francisco

    I just visited Louisville for the first time and was completely aghast at that monstrosity. Such a wasted opportunity.

  • Mark Walker

    But of course, “we can’t afford” transit. I’m not quoting anyone in particular. It’s just been said countless times in countless places.

  • Kevin Love

    Don’t forget “we can’t afford” cycle infrastructure. Even when it costs pennies in comparison…

  • lop

    Another big mess is the Whitestone Expressway/Northern Blvd/Grand Central Parkway/Van Wyck Expressway. Cuts off the marina from the rest of FMCP. Quite a few regular park goers are surprised to learn that yes, the park has a marina in Flushing bay.

  • Jeff

    Pretty much everything about FMCP. Whenever I go there I get the feeling that it’s more or less a massive highway interchange with little patches of land where you can hang out and do park stuff.

  • Truly S.

    One of the more notable wacky interchanges in American cities is the notorious “Can of Worms” in Rochester, N.Y.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Can_of_Worms_(interchange)
    Not as scary as it used to be, but still formidable.

  • Frank Henson

    Cincinnati has the power to slow I-71 down to 35mph to make a turn to protect corporate interests. Think about that.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    What’s going on right in the middle of that Louisville monstrosity? Judging from the impossible angle and the spiral ramp, is it supposed to be some kind of pedestrian amenity?

  • Michael O’Brien

    That is the Louisville approach to the Big 4 Bridge which is an old railroad bridge, and has been open for at least a year. Within the last few weeks the Indiana side has finally opened making it a truly useful amenity. This one has been a long time coming. I can’t wait to drive up from Nashville to use it.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    I walked across that bridge today. There’s really nothing at all on the Louisville side (one chain restaurant) and nothing will be easy to add because of the freeway. The Indiana side by contrasts drops you off in downtown Jeffersonville, which is already seeing new shops and such open, including a brewpub I visited today for a brief break in my walk.

  • Brent Jonas

    While I agree that some of these mega interchanges take up tons of valuable real estate (the situation in Louisville is most striking for the obvious benefits Louisville would have experienced by reconnecting the waterfront to the downtown area)…the truth of the matter is that the personal automobile will remain the primary choice for many folks to get around, for many decades to come, and some of these large interchanges do their job very effectively. Many European countries have also realized the value of building large interchanges and freeways, and have been constructing freeways at a feverish pace over the past 2 decades…in addition to expanding mass transit systems that are superior to almost anything here in the US. In fact, if you look around the developed world, one would quickly realize that many countries are building large-scale interchanges. It’s not just the US.

    In my mind, it’s better to funnel high volumes of traffic along a select number of key arteries, than to have many city streets suffocating with high levels of traffic. Even in San Francisco, one of the most anti-freeway cities in the US, the local politicians recognize that US 101 and I-80 is a transportation lifeline, and very few people would seriously suggest removing the routes.

    Finally, the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee, one of the interchanges featured in this article is probably viewed as more of a success story, than a case of urban blight…it greatly reduced congestion feeding into and out of the interchange, over its poorly designed predecessor, and is a regional transportation lifeline for the entire region.

  • Diagonalec

    You know that scene from “Alien” with spider-octopussish creature on deadman’s face? This is how I see the interchanges sucking life out of cities.

  • Diagonalec

    Brent Jonas: Im from Europe. Please, list positive european examples of newly built highways or highway interchanges.

    Europe is not all Netherlands, you know… There is an abundance of old school traffic engineers around here as well. Eastern Europe has built lots of new highways. Even if highways “go around” the cities, the effects are of same nature: 1. heavily motorized countryside with grey parking landscapes consuming fertile land and sprawling/killing old villages 2. shopping-mall boxes springing up in pristine nature all along the highway 3. Sucking life out of cities into sprawling poshy suburbia

    Highways and parking are a universal induced demand. In my view compared to public transport there simply is no positive example. But please surprise me. I promise to keep an open mind.

  • Ben Ross

    The I-40/I-275 interchange in Knoxville, Tennessee, is the same size as the city’s remaining downtown that it sits next to.

  • BSPABNY

    What’s really puzzling is Ohio DOT recently participated in building the deck over I-670 on either side of the High Street overpass, just west of that Google map image, creating a seamless pedestrian experience between the Convention Center and Short North. It’s one of the better examples in the U.S. of how the scars created by these urban freeways can be healed somewhat cost-effectively. Then they go and overdesign the new 670/71 interchange to fulfill some engineer’s/policitian’s “once in a lifetime” fantasy. That entire stretch of 670 just north of Columbus State CC could have been removed if a few missing ramps had been added to the northern 670/71 interchange.

  • Kentucky resident

    This falsehood renders this whole piece a big FAIL…

    “Louisville’s Kennedy Interchange sits just south of downtown…”

    South of downtown Jeffersonville, Ind,, maybe. If you can’t grasp basic geography, you’re going to suck at highway design.

  • Angie

    Thanks for the correction. We fixed that.

  • C Monroe

    Detroits 75/375 interchange redesign that features the boulevard is the favorite from most people that they have polled. Why? It has something that most like. It includes a new northbound on ramp from the stadiums to 75. A much simpler interchange with many less bridges, Opens up more property for development, gets rid of the short spur between Eastern Market(top right corner) and Gratiot and streamlines 75 around the bend in a gentler curve(the government owns the land that used to house caprini style projects that is to the top left of the pic). Oh and the 375 boulevard would get rid of another bad interchange at Jefferson and open up to the riverfront and reduce the bridges along its 3/4 mile length.

  • C Monroe

    And the cost to do it is the cheapest in both the rebuild and long term maintenance.

  • Katja

    Facehuggers!

    That’s a good analogy.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think with Louisville it helps to understand the context. When I was a kid–and for many decades before–the area around this interchange was nothing but scrap yards full of towering stacks of dead cars and bent construction scrap. Louisville had long considered the riverfront a foul-smelling, mosquito-infested hell where nobody would ever want to go, so it made sense to put a big freeway interchange there.

    Flash forward to the ’90s, and Louisville finally realized what the riverfront could be. They cleaned it up, built a ball park and a really nice city park with lots of open space that still manages to thrive even with the interstate running overhead.Now, It would be nice if they could have gotten rid of 64 or 71, but the park land has emerged despite what’s there. That area today is far, far nicer than it was in 1950.

  • BlueFairlane

    I wouldn’t say those shops are new. That little enclave has been there quite a while, long before they finished the Big 4 connection.

  • Anne A

    The reconstruction of Chicago’s Circle interchange will include a flyover which will have major impacts on nearby residential properties and on ped/bike traffic in its shadow. Many people have spoken up against that reconfiguration, but IDOT, in its lack of wisdom, still plans to build that unfortunate design.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    The Harry Pregerson interchange is an amazing and awe-inspiring thing. I’m always reminded of the 18th century concept of the “sublime” (the sight of something huge, awe-inspiring, and slightly terrifying, like the Alps, or the Grand Canyon) when I drive over this, especially on the HOV-lane connection, which probably takes you higher in the air than any building within five miles of this site.

    But still, massive as it is, it just doesn’t seem as horribly destructive to the urban environment as the East LA Interchange, which has at least three or four sets of junctions, connecting the 101, the 60, both halves of the 5, and both halves of the 10, and cuts Boyle Heights off from the river and downtown.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    coming from the 90/5 interchange being home I also always have been absolutely amazed at how Chicago sends 3 freeways together inside a city block with nothing going above ground level really. It’s magnificent. It’s a shame they’re gonna mess it up.

  • JackieChilesIsSpeechless

    Regarding the 110/105 interchange in LA: It includes nine miles of cloverleaf loops . . .
    Huh?! No, it doesn’t. It has one cloverleaf ramp about 300 yards long.

    And about the 5/163 interchange in San Diego: But good luck getting to the Art and Space Museum on foot from downtown.
    Actually, it’s easy. You just go up Park Blvd.

    It’s hard to make a compelling point when you can’t get basic facts straight.

  • Mcass777

    Do you ever think we will see an article on the best interchanges in America on this blog?

  • rj

    I will never forget the indignant gasps and boos that went up from the (largely pro-car) crowd at a LA neighborhood meeting when a DOT representative reported the cost of adding bike lanes to a local street: $12,000. Meanwhile, about a billion dollars was being spent adding carpool lanes to a 10-mile section of the 405 freeway.

  • Cold Shoaler

    Aren’t you clever? Go ahead and make some nominations for the best, preferably ones in your neighborhood.

  • Diagonalec

    I say – let DOT build this flyover. Then close the whole Circle for car traffic. It will be the best skate-park ever! 🙂

  • Mcass777

    Boston, the big dig.

  • Diagonalec

    Oh, they have a name? 🙂 So, here is a new proposal for a Streetsblog award:

    Following the “Crater awards” I propose an Urban Facehugger Award for the most monsterish interchange 🙂

  • jeff wegerson

    Actually the Circle one is pretty good. At the time it was built it was outside of downtown and it is compact certainly compared to the others.

    But no, you are correct, this blog’s job is to tout cities and their needs for denser transportation options than the automobile. So actually the fact that we will never see an article touting the best interchanges is a feature not a bug.

  • cjlane

    “But good luck getting to the Art and Space Museum on foot from downtown.Actually, it’s easy. You just go up Park Blvd.”

    Had the same reaction.

    Then thought “Maybe meant Bankers Hill, esp the south end, instead of ‘Downtown'”,

    for which the response is, of course:

    “the Cabrillo Freeway is in a canyon, that would need a bridge over it *anyway*, and there just isnt a call for another bridge south of the Cabrillo Bridge”.

    Now, it does kinda suck that Cabrillo Canyon is a freeway, but that has nothing to do with access issues from Bankers Hill (or Downtown) to Balboa Park and the museums.

  • David Howland

    That’s reasonable…the Big Dig was a project to remove a highway, bury it, and undo the impacts that this article is about. The greenway and the fact that you can now walk to the North End worked fantastically, all construction problems aside.

  • gneiss

    Let’s not forget how much the Big Dig cost – over $14.5 Billion, more than $1 Billion per mile of roadway constructed. The amount of money that was (and still is) sucked out of the state transportation budget is still causing ripple effects for lack of investment in other areas, particularly in the western part of the state which saw absolutely ‘no’ benefit from that project. All told, the Big Dig will end up costs taxpayers over $21 Billion once all the bonds are payed off – a truly staggering amount of money for a roadway project.

  • ChrisLoos

    In defense of LA’s 110/105 Interchange: It does have a rapid bus station AND a light rail station contained within in. Also some pretty amazing views of the basin, downtown LA, and the San Gabriel mountains from the HOV flyover ramps 🙂

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Brent,

    Your opinion, however depressing, “that the personal automobile will remain the primary choice for many folks to get around” does not excuse unconscionable planning efforts, nor can anything which supports autocentrism be “viewed as…a success story.”

    The longer we allocate our limited capital toward projects such as these, the longer it will take our society to make the substantive changes necessary to insure our future health and prosperity.

    The construction of 20th century-style “mega interchanges” should be relegated to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

    Garl B. Latham

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Michael,

    Do you know how that former railroad bridge’s name appears in print? I don’t mean to be pedantic, but the line you mentioned was named the “Big Four Route” – not the Big 4. It was part of the classic New York Central System.

    Thanks,
    Garl

  • Steve Porter

    Community- Suckers

  • Lex Luger

    I don’t see a lot of green spaces near the Marquette interchange. Looks like a bunch of warehouses. Try harder next time, car haters.

  • Lex Luger

    Where do you propose for all this traffic to go? It’s not going to disappear once you remove the freeway. It’s going to be dispersed onto residential streets and arterials, and pollution will go up because of cars sitting and idling at traffic lights. Take a look at the failed Watkins Drive (US 71) in Kansas City. The stubborn residents didn’t want a freeway going through the neighborhood and played the race card and a “compromise” that benefits nobody was built, The current Watkins Drive is a multilane divided road with 3 traffic lights on it. It is wider than a conventional freeway (it is basically the frontage roads for a freeway, Texas style). It is deadly as many fatal and nonfatal accidents have happened there. It causes neighborhood pollution because of the cars sitting on the road idling at traffic lights. It is less efficient than a full freeway at handling traffic, so it’s a parking lot at rush hour. When I lived in KC, I often took the two lane Prospect Avenue (old US 71) to work because it was faster than Watkins Drive! Luckily, MoDOT built the road with freeway upgrades in mind, as there’s plenty of room for a freeway in the median. What the neighborhood got was a road wider than a freeway, with poor pedestrian access and more pollution. What the motorists got was spending more time in traffic and being at more risk of an accident. One day, the demographics of the neighborhood will change and a proper freeway will be built, but how many lives will have to be lost before it is done? How many hours will be wasted sitting in traffic? The residents of that neighborhood have blood on their hands, and it doesn’t benefit them one way or the other. A full freeway with a footbridge every 1/4 mile would be sufficient and more pedestrian friendly than the monstrosity that is there now.

  • ForrestalMN

    Amazing engineering. The US highway system is the envy of much of the world.

  • Nathanael

    About 30% – 50% of the traffic does just disappear when you remove the freeway — this is proven by many, many real-world examples.

    In the case of the Milwaukee and Detroit freeways, there really isn’t enough traffic to justify the existing freeway structures in the first place — they’re operating well below capacity. Same is true in Louisville. I’d bet the same is true in Columbus, though I haven’t checked. Accordingly, these are *vastly overbuilt* and shouldn’t exist at all.

    Chicago, LA, San Diego, and Seattle actually use their freeway intersections.

    The LA intersection features a light rail line, a busway, and an “HOV flyover” used for speeding buses from downtown to the airport. It’s honestly the best intersection on this list.

    The Chicago intersection is remarkably compact and well-designed — it really doesn’t need a super-expensive rebuilding, though, it’s fine the way it is.

    San Diego’s an interesting case. I-5 is well-designed and not a problem. The north-south “Cabrillo Freeway” *is* a problem. It severs Balboa Park into two pieces, makes all kinds of air pollution problems for the sensitive plant preserves located in the park, and it’s essentially redundant with other freeways very close by — it isn’t a through route. The local streets, many of which are nearly empty all day, would easily absorb the Cabrillo Freeway traffic if it were converted to an ordinary street from downtown to Washington Street.

    Seattle’s intersection is a mess, but I don’t see any alternative to it, and it *is* heavily used.

  • Those highways would work much better if overly dense cities weren’t clogging them up with excessive traffic. Transforming urban areas into suburbs is the answer.

  • Nathanael

    The Cabrillo Canyon freeway causes air pollution problems for the various botanical garden and nature preserve stuff within Balboa Park. It also chops Balboa Park into two pieces, making a lot of walking/hiking paths impossible. It messes up stormwater drainage, too.

    It’s also frankly redundant. It has no through-traffic value, and for local traffic, the local streets have *plenty* of capacity. It should be converted to a local park road.

    I-5 in San Diego is actually very well designed; the Cabrillo Canyon Freeway seems to be a matter of “hey, here’s a canyon, we can pave it!”

    The Cabrillo Canyon Freeway predates all the other freeways in San Diego; it seemed useful before they were built. But it is redundant now and it should be torn out.

  • Nathanael

    We’ll get right back to you on that as soon as the population drops massively.

    Here in the real world, suburbs generate traffic, as people drive from one suburb (all-residential) to another (all-business). The way to eliminate traffic is to make sure businesses are located next to homes.

  • Nathanael

    Detroit’s freeways are frankly too close to each other. When people talk about a city being “choked by freeways”, they’re talking about this. Removal of this stub of freeway will be convenient for everyone. People who want to take the freeway can afford to take the freeway *a mile away*.

  • Nathanael

    Don’t forget “we can’t afford” sidewalks (!!!!!) But adding entire lanes to roads to support all the traffic caused by being unable to walk down the street, why that they can afford.

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