How Highways Squeezed Taxable Land Out of Cities

Downtown Bridgeport through the years. Images: UConn via  CNU..org
Downtown Bridgeport through the years. Images: UConn via CNU..org

When transportation planners gouged interstate highways through urban areas in the 20th century, they damaged some cities irreparably. One under-appreciated effect was the removal of central city land from the tax rolls.

Thanks to the work of Kristin Floberg, an engineering master’s student at UConn, we can see just how much was lost in Bridgeport, Connecticut [PDF]. Floberg used historical fire insurance maps to inventory every building in downtown Bridgeport before cars came on the scene in 1913. She then compared the land uses to maps of 2013.

Bridgeport, like many cities in Connecticut, is fiscally distressed. The city attempted to declare municipal bankruptcy in 1991, an effort that was blocked by a federal judge.

In retrospect, the decision to ram I-95 and Route 8 right through downtown Bridgeport must be a factor in those troubles, when you look at the enormous amount of taxable land value the downtown area lost to highway infrastructure. Check out this chart based on data Floberg’s research, which was overseen by professor Norm Garrick:

Data: Kristin Floberg, UConn
Data: Kristin Floberg, UConn

So car-centric roads and highways consumed 21 percent of the total land area in downtown, doubling the amount of real estate taken up by road infrastructure.

Floberg also looked at how land uses shifted among structures that remain. There were dramatic changes that further reduced the taxable value of land downtown:

Data: UConn
Data: UConn

You can see in these before and after 3D renderings how dramatically the form of the city shifted. Green buildings are residential, blue are commercial, purple are industrial, and orange are municipal or tax-free structures.

Land uses in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1913. Image: Floberg/UConn

bridgeport after

Of course, aside from the budgetary implications, all of these changes — the added asphalt, the loss of buildings — made downtown much less walkable. Floberg quantifies that as well.

Using the downtown Bridgeport Metro-North train station as the reference point, she cataloged the number of buildings you could walk to in 1913 versus 2013.

Data:
Data: Kristin Floberg/UConn

In short, the number of commercial buildings within a short walk of the train station has fallen nearly 80 percent, the number of residential buildings has fallen 94 percent, while the number of tax exempt buildings has increased 250 percent.

“I think the big thing we took away from it was how much more diversity there was in 1913,” Floberg told Streetsblog. “Now in downtown Bridgeport there are mostly just municipal functions and commercial, and by commercial mostly large office buildings.”

“In 1913, there were so many different types of uses, little mom and pop shops and little factories. It brings so many different people to the city for different purposes.”

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Parking Craters Aren’t Just Ugly, They’re a Cancer on Your City’s Downtown

|
Streetsblog’s Parking Madness competition has highlighted the blight that results when large surface parking lots take over a city’s downtown. Even though Rochester, winner of 2014’s Golden Crater, certainly gains bragging rights, all of the competitors have something to worry about: Cumulatively, the past 50 years of building parking have had a debilitating effect on America’s downtowns. […]

Ghost Parcels Show How Urban Highways Squandered Valuable Land

|
Love that Cook County still keeps track of the parcels under the expressways punched through Chicago pic.twitter.com/wcLXNcbZmM — Neil Freeman (@fitnr) September 22, 2015 Here’s a great illustration of how incredibly destructive and wasteful it is to run elevated highways through cities. New York City-based artist and planning consultant Neil Freeman, who grew up in Chicago, […]

Oklahoma DOT Dismisses Highway-to-Street-Grid Proposal in OKC

|
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation has rejected a proposal championed by residents of Oklahoma City to replace a highway segment with an interconnected street grid. Last year, a coalition that includes City Council Member Ed Shadid prevailed on the Federal Highway Administration to compel Oklahoma DOT to consider the consider the highway-street-grid idea, in addition to the […]