10 Urban Freeways That Need to Come Down

The Congress for New Urbanism has named its top ten candidates for urban highway removal. Map:  CNU
The Congress for New Urbanism has named its top ten candidates for urban highway removal. Map: CNU

When cities tear down their freeways, they don’t regret it. New York’s Hudson River waterfront is doing great without the West Side Highway, Seoul doesn’t want to rebuild the Cheonggyecheon Freeway, San Francisco’s Embarcadero Expressway isn’t coming back, and neither is Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway.

Without those highway segments, traffic declined and space opened up for walkable development. It’s a wonder more cities don’t do the same.

There are excellent candidates for freeway removal in many American cities, where roads built 50 or 60 years ago are nearing the end of their useful lives. Removal makes a lot more sense than expensive rehabs.

Every two years, the Congress for New Urbanism names the most promising highway teardown candidates in its “Freeways Without Futures” list. Here’s a look at this year’s freeways that need to come down.

Buffalo: Scajaquada Expressway

Photo: CNU
Photo: CNU

This 1960s highway cuts neighborhoods off from a beautiful park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Responding to grassroots pressure, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State DOT have a plan to convert the highway to a 30 mph street with pedestrian and bicycle crossings. Last April, Cuomo promised $30 million in state funds for the $115 million project.

However, local advocates say the state’s design is too much like a highway, with overly wide crossings and no on-street bikeway.

Dallas: Interstate 345

Dallas' I-345

This two-mile freeway corridor severs downtown from the Deep Ellum neighborhood. Thanks to the hard work of two local local advocates — Patrick Kennedy and Brandon Hancock — the state is now considering tearing down the freeway as one of three options. Removing the highway would open 245 acres of land to walkable development and help Dallas break the vicious cycle of highway widening and car dependence.

Denver: I-70

Denver's I-70

I-70 was rammed through three working class Denver neighborhoods during the height of the Interstate era. Now the Colorado Department of Transportation is planning to spend $1.2 billion to widen the highway and put it in a trench. While the sunken highway will be much wider than the current viaduct, CDOT is greenwashing the expansion by capping a small section of the road with a park.

Rather than repeat past mistakes, local advocates want to remove the viaduct and replace it with a walkable surface street, rerouting highway traffic north of the city. The Sierra Club is suing the EPA to halt the project, saying it was approved under faulty assumptions about air quality.

Detroit: Interstate 375

I-375 in Detroit

This mile-long 1950s-era highway stump isn’t doing Detroit any favors. I-375 was built as part of a notoriously racist “urban renewal” program that destroyed housing in the city’s predominantly African American Black Bottom neighborhood two generations ago. It now separates the waterfront, Greektown, Eastern Market, and stadium district.

With the support of local groups, the Michigan Department of Transportation is currently exploring several options for the highway, including replacing it with an at-grade boulevard. The conversion would open up 12 acres for development.

Oakland: Interstate 980

Oakland's Interstate 980

There’s a growing movement in Oakland to tear down Interstate 980 — an underused 18-lane highway remnant that isolates West Oakland. Replacing the road with a surface boulevard would knit neighborhoods back together and create 21 new blocks of developable land, according to the group ConnectOAKLAND. The city has given its stamp of approval to the concept and wants agencies like Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration to begin a more formal study.

Pasadena: Route 710

Pasadena's Route 710

The Connecting Pasadena Project is a grassroots campaign to replace Route 710 in Pasadena with up to 50 acres of mixed-use development — perhaps the biggest development site available in all of Los Angeles County.

The highway replacement is one of three options Caltrans is studying, but the construction industry and Governor Jerry Brown prefer a $6 billion freeway tunnel and expansion instead.

Rochester: The Inner Loop

Rochester's Inner Loop Freeway

Rochester has started to heal the damage caused by the “Inner Loop” freeway, which contributed to an urban exodus when it was constructed in the mid 1960s. A federal grant helped the city fill in one mile of the highway, turning it into a surface street last year. That opened up six acres to development, and one 70-unit apartment building has already taken root, CNU reports.

Now the city is eyeing the northern portion of the highway — which carries only about 20-25,000 vehicles a day — for the next phase of removal.

San Francisco: Interstate 280


The removal of this 1.2-mile freeway spur could provide San Francisco with much-needed opportunities for infill housing and connect the Mission Bay, Potrero Hill, and SoMa neighborhoods. The highway removal is endorsed by Mayor Ed Lee, and the city is studying it plans for the Transbay Terminal, a big downtown transit and rail hub.

Syracuse: I-81


When this elevated 1.4-mile freeway was built 50 years ago, 1,300 homes in predominantly black neighborhoods were demolished. Today, Mayor Stephanie Miller and the City Council support tearing it down and replacing it with an at-grade boulevard. That would reconnect downtown to the university district, save $400 million compared to rebuilding the highway, and add up to $140 million in taxable development to the city’s rolls.

Another option, spending $2 billion on a replacement tunnel, is much more expensive and had been rejected by the state DOT, but Governor Andrew Cuomo recently instructed the state to reconsider it, bowing to suburban political pressure.

Trenton: Route 29

Route 29 Trenton

Route 29 cuts off Trenton’s downtown from the Delaware River waterfront. For almost 30 years, local advocates have dreamed of tearing it down. Now, CNU reports, those efforts are gathering momentum.

Converting the limited-access highway into a surface boulevard would open up 18 acres to waterfront development. The regional planning agency recently awarded the city $100,000 to study the concept.

90 thoughts on 10 Urban Freeways That Need to Come Down

  1. No, I-5 is the major north-south artery in the state, with massive amounts of heavy truck travel. You surely cannot want them on local streets?

  2. One that should really top the list maybe is NYC’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It ikely cuts through some of the densest housing near a highway in the country.

  3. While not a run-down highway in any way, I-705 in Tacoma is a great candidate for removal. Since the freeway is mostly elevated on a steep hillside, it would be a great park with fantastic views of the waterfront and the port. My dream is to then build a lid over the railroad tracks that parallel the freeway, reconnecting downtown Tacoma with its waterfront.

  4. It is widely documented, and circumstantially obvious, that the urban freeways that destroyed or divided neighborhoods were built predominately through minority areas, which of course happened to be poorer and less politically-connected than their white counterparts. The criteria that justified the expendability of these neighborhoods were inherently biased toward minority ethnic and racial groups—so yes, describing such projects as “racist” is both fair and accurate. The fact that some urban freeways got built through some predominately white neighborhoods doesn’t change those facts.

  5. In addition to my prior comment, it is also worth noting that Buffalo’s Scajaquada Expressway (Route 198) was built through both predominately white and black/minority neighborhoods.

  6. No, that is a wilful misrepresentation. Freeways tended to be built in flat areas and, historically, the white would live in the hills and on higher ground, while blacks were in the flatlands. Look at Oakland – almost a textbook example where it’s black west of 13 and white east of there

    And nobody is going to build a highway over or through hills if they don’t have to.

  7. Yeah, Angie always tries to shoehorn race into this stuff. Check out her new piece on Atlanta for further evidence. Seems that white liberals just can’t help themselves.

  8. Urban freeways also followed urban geography, not just natural geography. They were often built along rail and industrial corridors, which also happened to be the location of many poorer minority neighborhoods. Many of these neighborhoods were already redlined by government policy due to their minority population mix. In planning documents at the time, they were thus considered expendable for the purposes of so-called Urban Renewal projects such as freeways. It also certainly helped that these neighborhoods had very little political clout, and couldn’t fight City Hall as effectively. In any case, my response was to the original comment, which cited several cities across the nation: Buffalo, Rochester, Dallas, and Oakland. I’m not familiar with Oakland or it’s natural/urban geography, but that it a single city, and does not necessarily represent the whole nation. For every condition in Oakland, I could cite numerous contradictory examples from many other places.

  9. Removing a freeway doesn’t mean you eliminate roads or ban cars. People will still drive (or take transit or bike)—but the reconnected surface street network will handle the traffic instead. Traditional street networks are inherently better at absorbing and dispersing traffic.

  10. The topic of race doesn’t have to be shoehorned into this particular discussion. It is a natural fit. Indeed, race is integral to the story. To use your kind of thinking, it seems that white conservatives just can’t help but to reflexively deny racism even when it is woefully obvious.

  11. Well, it cuts both ways. If a liberal plays a race card no matter what the topic is, then a conservative will respond by accusing the liberal of identity politics.

    But in this case the reason has more to do with engineering.

  12. No, the trend of blacks living in the lower lying areas and river basins was national. In fact it was the basis of the slur “mud people”. Richer folks have always preferred the hills, if they exist anyway.

    And as you say, the design of freeways simply followed rivers and railroad ROWs in many cases. It wasn’t overt racism.

  13. Yes, the real leadership is in squeezing down the remaining street. Removing a highway and putting down a wide street is folly. Putting down a 1 lane each direction street solves the traffic problem in short order. Stop inducing bad behavior.

  14. Why does that matter? The point is that all demand in “induced” in one way or the other. It’s not unique to cars.

  15. Alas, the freeway is on a cliff, portions tunnel under a park, portions are double-decker, so there probably isn’t any developable land.

  16. I have been there and seen it. Ask they developers, they will find a way to make money. There is plenty of high value land there. It could be the next little Italy with narrow roads, mixed use….lots of choices. Of course, knowing Tacoma, they are in love with their roads.

  17. The “bad behavior” referred to is by people who have to drive in that part of San Francisco. One lane in each direction would presumably punish those bad people for persisting—in the Senator Warren sense of the word—in driving motor vehicles. Why can’t they all ride bikes?

  18. What you’re likely referring to is a transient effect. Temporary freeway closures don’t count. It takes about three to six months for traffic behaviors to change. Usually about 30% of the prior traffic is induced and vanishes, and a the remainder finds other routes. Of course, this assumes the freeway was originally embedded within a traditional, fine-grained network of surface streets, which is the topic of this article.

    Long-distance, inter-urban freeways are another story altogether, and no one highway removal project can undo decades of auto-oriented suburban sprawl.

  19. Yes, racism was both overt and covert, casual and institutionalized, intended and unintended. And in the majority of cases, it is a necessary part of the story.

  20. Like I mentioned before, this article and the comment in question concern many cities, including Buffalo, Rochester, Dallas, and Oakland. Oakland’s situation may have indeed been primarily a question of geography, and in that particular case there is certainly a chance that racism played no part, either overt or unintentional. But again, if so, this does not reflect the well-documented experience of most other cities across the nation.

  21. Reduced demand is, in the case of cars, better for a city if it can be pulled off successfully, economically, health-wise, safety-wise, and sometimes congestion-wise. Freeway tear-outs around the world in all types of cities have shown that this is a repeatable effect.

  22. They are unusual situations. In most cities, the first neighborhoods to receive elevated freeways were black, and when they went to put them into white neighborhoods, they encountered local opposition.

  23. I have to disagree about the I-280 in San Francisco. Seems to me as though in-fill development is proceeding rapidly, now that the land around I-280 is valuable. Office buildings, for example are rising, abutting the freeway very closely. Beneath and near this freeway are lots of green spaces, plazas, and streets getting laid out in or near Mission Bay and the UCSF campus. It seems to be working fine. If we were to put that same traffic onto the surface streets or boulevards, it would be very disruptive and hectic for people on foot and introduce traffic that was simply passing through to the South Bay. These new neighborhoods taking shape in these previously desolate areas are doing well because the overhead freeway keeps that through traffic out of them.

  24. In my opinion it’s untruthful to call it racist in any case. Because it’s quite childish to think that the traffic engineers sit there and laugh manically ripping highways through black neighborhoods for the fun of it. They put the highways through the areas where the land is the cheapest, because land is among one of the highest costs of road building. Land values are lower in ghetto areas, that’s just the reality. I’m not justifying it, I’m just saying it has nothing to do with racism.

  25. There is very little green space below I-280, and the green space that there is is harmed by the shadow of the freeway. The value of the land around I-280 is high because all land in San Francisco is high. But it is not high compared to other parts of San Francisco. I-280 adds nothing to the neighborhoods that it passes through. It is only for suburbanites driving into the City.

  26. Freeways were built where land prices were the lowest. Land is one of the most expensive parts of building a road, and engineers in the 50s and 60s (and now too, to be fair) built freeways in the marshes of Louisiana and through the flattest, most boring parts of Nebraska for cost reduction. Why would they make an exception for urban areas?

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