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.”

  • elvevaag

    Great post!

  • AstoriaBlowin

    Just guessing but wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of the growth in municipal buildings in downtown was to try to bring in some state/local government jobs to “revitalize” the downtown but were probably a mixed blessing in that they pay no property tax on that land and crowd out other types of development like dense mixed use that would have 24/7 activity.

  • SynerGenetics

    Build over roadways?

  • 1980Gardener

    Hartford is considering tunnels which would open up lots of land for development in the downtown and help traffic.

  • thielges

    Kristin Floberg’s research makes a great counterpoint to the “roads=prosperity” meme. Roads are necessary though they are often overbuilt.

    My town has been doing a series of conversions from 4 lanes to 2+1 car + 2 bike lanes. The first few were opposed with fears of carmageddon followed by economic decay. But the opposite has occurred in every case, leaving the obstructionists without any real life examples to point to.

  • Vooch

    great start on a big question.

    My hobby horse is the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The BQE sits on about 1,500 acres of prime valuable land.

    Some of that land is worth $1 billion an acre.

    Restoring the pre-existing street grid and restoring the pre existing neighborhoods would add ( at current densities ) housing for 300,000 people plus shops, schools, offices, and even parks.

    Selling the land currently blighted by the BQE would generate enough capital to pay for 1) a new subway line serving the area and 2) a 2 lane commercial only tunnel

    can some bright graduate student validate this ?

  • Vooch

    that’s a disaster, too expensive, too destructive on & off ramps blight vast stretches of the urban fabric

    better remove the atrocities and restore the pre-existing street grid.

  • GregKamin

    “Some of that land is worth $1 billion an acre.”

    No doubt, but how much of that value is due to the access provided by the very highways that you wish to remove? The reality is that access is a key part of the value.

  • Vooch

    zero added value from the blight of the BQE zero

    it’s entire value is provided by access via transit & walkability & cycling

    cars subtract froms value in cities

    maybe in bumf*ck idaho cars add value, but not in NYC

  • Joe

    Don’t forget about the border vacuums these created in the process!

  • Jeff

    I’m assuming the commenter is talking about industrial areas, which are indeed made more useful by highway access?

  • 1980Gardener

    i’m not sure how the pre-existing street grid could handle the traffic – it would be overwhelmed.

  • Vooch

    the pedestrian traffic ?

    the bicycling traffic ?

  • Vooch

    like the Brooklyn Navy Yard didn’t exist until the BQE ?

    LOL

  • 1980Gardener

    I just don’t see how you take traffic from interstates 91 and 84 and have those people walk/cycle
    – do you? Just the trucks alone would fill up every street in Hartford.

  • 1980Gardener

    some more background may be helpful:

    – Hartford has interstates 84 and 91 run through downtown
    – very little of such traffic is intra-city traffic – most are long-distance drivers and trucks.
    – putting these hundreds of thousands of trucks and cars on a city grid would destroy the city and make it completely unlivable.

  • ocschwar

    If it’s not Hartford traffic, then it’s not Hartford’s problem. Let the truckers figure otu a different route.

  • GregKamin

    No, as someone who has been very involved in real estate valuations, I can tell you that homes near a highway are always worth more. Personally I’d rather live away from freeways but the reality is that people value convenience over things like noise and pollution

  • WaitingToBeZapped

    Great research and article. Very thought provoking, thanks for sharing

  • Neil Olinski

    Pertaining to I84, truck traffic not destined for Hartford could get through the area instead via I691-I91 around Hartford. With a project this big, we need to think outside of the box if CT is going to stop this slide. Instead of re-slamming I84 through Hartford, the 84 corridor within Hartford city limits should return to the old street grid and be redeveloped for the reasons discussed in this article. And we ought to spend as much time trying to figure out how to get commuters from out of town into Hartford by modes other than SOV (by vastly improving and expanding transit) as has been spent trying to re-funnel the highway ADT along a new version of the highway. Not everyone would or could ditch their car for transit, but if done right many, many more would.

  • Vooch

    yeah – in the sticks values increase next to highway, but in the real world. not

  • Vooch

    Roll out the The Caramegon argument.

    Guess what it’s been thoroughly discredited. Every time a urban superhighway has been removed, Caramegdon never happens.

  • Vooch

    induced demand

    look it up

  • GregKamin

    No, it’s true in cities as well.

    Personally I think it’s odd that someone wants to live next to a freeway but, in practice, you will often see “easy highway access” or some such in the realtor’s blurb. Convenience and time-saving sells.

  • 1980Gardener

    Can you just explain why you think it wouldn’t happen here? I’m just not sure how you expect trucks to get through.

    Can you give an example of a similar situation, perhaps upon which you are relying?

  • 1980Gardener

    “Pertaining to I84, truck traffic not destined for Hartford could get through the area instead via I691-I91 around Hartford.”

    – And you believe capacity on those highways exist?

    “With a project this big, we need to think outside of the box if CT is going to stop this slide. Instead of re-slamming I84 through Hartford, the 84 corridor within Hartford city limits should return to the old street grid and be redeveloped for the reasons discussed in this article.”

    – yes, that is one of the goals of the tunnel proposal.

    ” And we ought to spend as much time trying to figure out how to get commuters from out of town into Hartford by modes other than SOV (by vastly improving and expanding transit) as has been spent trying to re-funnel the highway ADT along a new version of the highway. Not everyone would or could ditch their car for transit, but if done right many, many more would.”

    – A possible goal, though one which would be exceptionally challenging in the Hartford area.

  • 1980Gardener

    hartford cannot pretend it is not part of the state in which it sits.

  • Neil Olinski

    The tunnel option is incredibly expensive for a state and city that isn’t very big. Let’s not also forget about maintenance costs. As far as capacity of 691-91 goes, apparently only around 15% of the peak period through-traffic along 84 through Hartford does not stop in Hartford. That 15% should be able to instead go 691-91 if some capacity increases were made to that stretch which would only cost a fraction of what the tunnel price tag.

  • 1980Gardener

    Rerouting through traffic on 691/91 could be explored but I would want to see actual capacity figures to evaluate.

    Another expense with that option would be a massive investment in mass transit to get people in and out of Hartford at peak periods due to a dramatic decline in car carrying capacity.

  • Neil Olinski

    Exactly what I would like to see studied as well.

  • 1980Gardener

    i’m curious – where did you see that only 15% of traffic during peak hours is thru traffic? I’d like to review that data as it sound interesting.

  • Vooch

    There are six examples usually cited

  • Vooch

    meaning 1-3 miles away

  • Neil Olinski

    Was told that was the approximate estimate from the state project manager.

  • 1980Gardener

    too bad. I was hoping to compare 691/91’s current available capacity with the 84 thru traffic.

    I was also hoping to take the Hartford 84 traffic volume and compare it to the capacity that would theoretical exist without 84 existing.

  • Neil Olinski

    I’m sure with a little digging you can do a back of the envelope v/c check. The 691/91 pinch point are likely to be at the ramps from 84-691-91-84.

  • midringrider

    Make them all toll roads to cover lost tax receipts.

  • Vava

    Sorry for throwing cold water but this is a shallow study. Bridgeport was a massive production site for the “Whites” during the Russian Civil War. Bridgeport was on the losing end, had years of debt, and started to decline. That 1934 photo shows a city already in decline. The highways removed several brownfields and future superfund sites. One could build four new highways in Bridgeport and the city would still have a large collection of taxable land that nobody wants. This study is just another New Urbanism project grab

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