How to Slay a Highway: Notes on the Mt. Hood Freeway and Harbor Drive

I promised in my last post to tell you the triumphant stories of citizens beating back highways, both planned and already built. Here are more stories from the Rail~volution bike tour around Portland’s “lost highways.”

Exhibit A: The Mount Hood Freeway

“There was a period of ignorance, a period of enlightenment and catharsis, and a period of change.”

A drawing of the proposed Mount Hood Freeway. Richard Ross put a red dot where his friend's house still stands, despite plans to pave over it.
A drawing of the proposed Mount Hood Freeway. Former planning chief Richard Ross marked a red dot where his friend's house still stands, despite plans to pave over it.

Longtime local planning official Dick Feeney says Portlanders shouldn’t be too smug about their much-touted bicycle network and strides on transit. After all, he says, “Portland founded the Good Roads movement,” which had its basis in the gas tax. “And the gas tax became this monumental engine to give a private subsidy to the private automobile. It started right here, folks… part of our own destruction started right here.”

The Mount Hood Freeway was almost part of that destruction. Proposed by the Oregon State Highway Department in 1955, the road would have been eight lanes wide and removed one percent of all the private housing stock in the city. An estimated 3,700 children would have had to cross it to get to school.

In the 1960s, the city of Portland set about buying up houses they’d need to demolish to build the freeway – including the home next door to State Rep. Grace Peck, who wanted her neighbor’s house torn down early “to keep hippies from living there,” according to Richard Ross, former head of planning for the Portland suburb of Gresham.

Before long, the freeways became the polarizing issue in Portland, on which every aspiring politician had to take a position, firmly in one camp or another. Unions wanted highway construction to provide jobs. Environmentalists and farmers sided against it. Finally, popular opposition to the project reached the point where the city and county withdrew support, and the project died.

Exhibit B: Harbor Drive

Okay, Portland, you can get a little smug about Harbor Drive.

Harbor Drive today (otherwise known as Waterfront Park.)
Harbor Drive today (otherwise known as Waterfront Park).

Portland was the first major city to rip out an existing highway, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer stretch of land. Harbor Drive ran along the western shore of the Willamette River in downtown. In 1968, as I-405 was being built, Governor Tom McCall appointed a task force to study the possibility of tearing out Harbor Drive and making it a park.

Urban planner Ernie Munch advocated for the teardown:

The committee went on and on and on and on until 1973 or 1974, when Tom McCall and Glenn Jackson, who was the head of the highway division, were going over that ramp onto the Markham Bridge, and they looked down on this area and they said, “Let’s just do it. Let’s just take it out.” So in 1974, Harbor Drive was removed. It was, at the time, the city’s busiest arterial. One-third of the traffic went to the freeways on either side of the downtown. One-third went in to the downtown. And one-third has never been heard of since.

What happened to those cars? Where did they go? It’s hard to say precisely, but the example of Harbor Drive stands as a good reminder that the amount people drive rises and falls with car capacity — and infinitely expanding roads won’t keep them clear of traffic jams.

It’s important to note that it wasn’t just one good man in power that made Harbor Drive the waterfront park that it is today. A whole citizens’ movement mobilized in support of the teardown plan. In the summer of 1969, Portlanders even organized “consciousness-raising picnics” along Harbor Drive.

5 thoughts on How to Slay a Highway: Notes on the Mt. Hood Freeway and Harbor Drive

  1. As a native Oregonian, I have to say downtown Portland is much better with the waterfront park than with a highway. But it is important to give a little more serious attention to the traffic dynamics that made this possible, as well as the impacts of the new highways that diverted the traffic.

    First, the Marquam Bridge opened just a few years earlier, carrying much of the traffic across the river on I-5 to the more industrial east bank of the Willamette.

    Then, I-405 (covered by Streetsblog yesterday) opened almost in conjunction with the closure of the highway along Harbor Drive, diverting traffic around downtown, instead of straight down the waterfront.

    Finally, the Oil Crisis took a bite out of traffic in general, and I think changing work/shopping locations attracted some trips to locations other than downtown. It seems very unlikely there was any diversion of traffic due to capacity constraints in the example of Portland’s Harbor Drive.

    Converting Harbor Drive into a park was clearly the right decision. But people need to be careful about using it to conclude that traffic can “just disappear.”

    It is not consistent to praise the park without acknowledging the investments and impacts from I-405 that allowed it to work. To the extent that people went to destinations other than downtown, it would be important to note the character of the growth in those areas (I think you would find positive signs there, but there were policies and planning in place to avoid rampant low-density suburban development as an alternative to commuting downtown).

    These nuances are important to understand how to meet the needs of a metropolitan area and avoid unintended consequences. There is more to good planning than just closing a highway and assuming the traffic will just disappear.

  2. Jay – Vancouver, BC seems to do just fine without any freeways in their downtown. When freeways are closed, some traffic will “evaporate” – I think that’s pretty well established whether there is an easy alternate route or not.

    If I-5 and I-405 did not traverse downtown Portland, the surface streets would carry more car traffic, but there would be fewer people in cars overall. There would also be more people using transit, bikes, and their own feet. Capacity always induces some demand, whether it’s auto, transit, pedestrian, or bikes. No amount of traffic of any particular mode is pre-ordained – it occurs based on what infrastructure is provided for it.

    I’m not saying closing the freeways is the right thing to do, but if you did, traffic would indeed just disappear.

  3. I think we would all agree there would be a decline in total traffic if we closed a major highway. What concerns me is that many people don’t take the range of effects seriously enough. Sometimes removing a highway can be good; sometimes it may not be. Each case has to be considered carefully based on its own merits. I do not believe any highway removal could achieve its best results without a serious consideration about where the trips go. Yet, unfortunately, many people just want to chant the mantra that “traffic just disappears.” I find that dangerous.

    Sure, sometimes they’ll throw in some platitudes about transit. Then they’ll proceed to make suggestions for expensive new trains that connect entirely different origins and destinations, apparently indifferent to the needs of any of the people they would actually impact.

    So it concerns me when people use Portland as an example of how “traffic just disappears,” while ignoring some of the basic, relevant facts. In Portland, the traffic really did not disappear. It went elsewhere, and there were very real impacts associated with constructing the alternate routes. Personally, I find the other routes more suitable than cutting downtown off from the Willamette, but the removal of the highway along the river cannot honestly be described as a reduction in capacity when considered in the context of the interstate construction.

    But let’s consider the notion that traffic “just disappears.” That could not be further from the truth. You’ve clearly got the basics correct when you say, “There would also be more people using transit, bikes, and their own feet.” In many ways, those shifts are certainly desirable. They are more environmentally sustainable. They consume less urban land, and may free up space for more greenspace.

    At the same time, I think we should be careful to consider the impacts to the traveling public. If new options are not added in conjunction with the removal of highway capacity, individual trips will be worse (if people could make a trip that was more convenient for them with an existing alternative, they would already be doing so).

    Yes, taking away the highway capacity may even provide the opportunity to provide a new, superior transit alternative. The point I want to make is that we need to work through the whole problem, considering multiple perspectives. That isn’t what happens when people assume that “traffic just disappears.”

    But let’s also consider that some people will find the trip less desirable, and will choose to travel to other destinations. There is a risk that removing a highway could result in increased scattered suburban development unless there are adequate planning policies in place. Again, this can be addressed… but actual planning is necessary. You can’t just get rid of the highway and necessarily get better results.

    We also need to consider that some people will find the trip less desirable, and simply not make the trip. This may represent an economic loss for the economy, and that effect may not be desirable.

    Until we’ve carefully worked through any proposed changes, we don’t know what impacts are likely, and how to craft the most beneficial alternatives to improve the lives of residents. Unfortunately, I never seem to see the slightest inclination to do any of that actual work when people tell me “the traffic will just disappear.”

    I suspect we probably agree on most of this. I’m probably just grumpy, but I remain concerned that simplistic rhetoric can lead to counter-productive political decisions.

    p.s. I have a pet peeve about the term “induced demand.” I know it’s standard terminology in planning, but whoever coined the phrase should have been required to repeat a course in economics. Building a highway does not induce “demand.” The demand is already there. It may be latent, but building a highway simply does not create more demand. People are no more interested in doing some activity downtown just because the road is there. They are just more likely to drive, and perhaps more likely to get off the couch to make the trip at all, when it becomes easier. There are induced “trips,” but the “demand” is not induced.

  4. I don’t think anyone believes traffic just disappears when roadway capacity is reduced or eliminated. What we do know – for certain – is that more roadway capacity means more traffic. Provided there are alternatives to driving and the costs associated with driving (time and money) create additional inducement to leave the car at home, to travel during off-peak hours, or maybe drive only part of the way to where a viable alternative can be accessed, then I think it’s pretty much a slam dunk call to suggest that traffic – the number of cars on the road – will be reduced and the indirect effects to the balance of the network will be a net positive… likely signficantly so.

  5. This is really sad. You claim Harbor Drive was the most driven freeway in Portland in the early 1970’s. The Banfield by far was more traveled at that time by a long shot. The problem Harbor Drive supporters fell into was that they wanted to widen the freeway to more lanes which would have dug deeper into downtown. With that said the banfield was already obsolete and the government wanted to move I80N onto I205 south bound 2 miles and then having 8 lanes in a trench at first to Powell. The politicians of Portland knew how to put the project into limbo by saying they wanted to put the Mt Hood Freeway along Division St. heading west and east. The land was already bought and they were already demolishing the house. Neil Goldschmidt did not want a vote which the Port of Portland thought for sure would have passed if there was an election. Whenever you hear that phrase Mt Hood Freeway politics that is saying that the people did not vote for what they did or did not want. That was the case here in the 1970’s in Portland. I write this because there is a lot of flaws of politics in Portland, Oregon now. The democrats wanted there national convention here some years ago but couldn’t. There wasn’t enough hotel space in the area. You see if you have more hotel space you need more freeway lanes to accommodate the travelers on the freeway system. Portland has never had an NBA allstar game also because the resources to have one in Portland are few. They also have no stadium over 21,000 people because you need more freeway lanes to not have chaos. To be honest Portland deserves better than the third world politics that has oppressed the hard working people of Portland. You also did not state that the other counties of Clackamas and Washington have four lanes but entering into Multnomah county they go down to three lanes in the big Rose City. Making Portland the biggest American City of Chaos. This is more of an Abe Lincoln reply to the true Portland, Oregon.

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