For me, freeways have always seemed pretty cool. I grew up in a rural area and as an adult have spent very little time living in larger cities. So, from my perspective, freeways never seemed like a problem. All I saw were the upsides to them. They save time, are less stressful to drive on than surface streets, and made getting through cities on my way to somewhere else a lot more convenient (assuming I was smart enough to time my drive to avoid rush hour).
But, for people who’ve lived in America’s urban cores during the second half of the 20th century, the situation wasn’t nearly as nice. The first interstate highways to cut through often destroyed whole neighborhoods, and they usually targeted minorities and the poor in the planning phase. Many of these places never recovered. Later projects led to “highway revolts“. Because residents saw problems previous projects had created, they organized and often successfully blocked new projects.
One great example of this kept Interstate 10 from being completed for decades. The final stretch through downtown Phoenix was only able to be completed when designers came up with a plan to build the “deck park” over the freeway to keep it from disrupting the urban environment as much.
Residents have increasingly turned against highway construction and car-centric development because they’ve seen urban environments become hellscapes. As much as I like cars out on the open road, I often avoid driving in downtown areas because it’s a painful experience. Congestion is the biggest problem, but parking and just the general experience of visiting a downtown area that’s packed with cars and parking lots makes the experience a lot less pleasant.
So, putting the freeways underground or above the built environment makes a lot of sense. Let the cars go through, but avoid letting them take away from the needs of the locals, right? But, it turns out that something similar to approach was actually the original plan for many urban highways, especially in California. (article continues after video)
What really brought this whole issue to light was the I-10 freeway fire in Los Angeles. The spaces under freeways were largely an “out of sight, out of mind” issue. But, when a bunch of freight pallets caught fire and destroyed a section of the road, everyone lost their minds. Now that it had become a problem, people became aware that the state’s department of transportation owns the space beneath the road and is renting it out to almost anyone willing to pay the rent.
But, while everyone’s worried about the heaps of trash and flammables under the freeways, the video goes for a much deeper dive. There are a few problem tenants under freeways, but the vast majority of them are either parking lots or businesses that don’t pose any danger to the infrastructure. Plus, the state has been ramping up inspections and enforcement to avoid a repeat.
The much bigger issue is that this wasn’t really the original plan, at least not in its entirety. For one, the benefits of “airspace leasing” were supposed to be a lot more widespread. These spaces around freeways are supposed to both bring in money for the state via leasing revenue while also restoring parcels to being taxable property for local governments who would have otherwise lost out on that (state property generally doesn’t pay property taxes).
While this approach has found a lot of success under highways, it was also supposed to happen above them. There’s airspace above highways, too, right? This approach would have let cities reclaim the space freeways took up when they weren’t built on stilts, which would have alleviated at least some of the problems they’ve caused.
But, legal problems and complexities have kept this from happening in many places around the United States.
In some places, local zoning ordinances kept projects from happening. This led most under and over projects to becoming parking lots, because parking lots are easier to fit into any zoning regime. But, in other cases, projects to build housing and other projects over top of freeways were simply killed in the zoning process and subsequent legal battles, because existing property owners valued the open space and view over the freeway more than additional usable space.
In other cases, the cost of building a project over a freeway gets in the way. It was easy for highway planners to say that a new highway could simply be built over later, but coming up with the money to actually build something there was a lot harder. At least one project in Nevada died from that complication, but there could be many others that weren’t started.
This alone doesn’t explain all of the problems or solve them, obviously. First off, things like housing shortages would only be partially alleviated if additional skyscrapers were built over top of freeways. Much larger problems, like single-family-only zoning laws have kept the market from providing sufficient housing for decades.
Other problems, like congestion and the space needed for car parking and infrastructure, are not completely solved by burying the roads. There are people who think that there are silver bullets to these problems, like tunnels or transit, but complex problems often require complex solutions that combine multiple fixes to get at the heart of the problems.
But, it is obvious that the problem has been made worse by not doing what was originally promised in many areas.
The biggest problem here is that we tend to defer to local governments far too much in the United States. We want to have governments that are “closer to the people” and accountable to local voters. We also don’t want “one size fits all” solutions, because they often cause more trouble than they’re worth by not being responsive to local needs.
But, things like the Tenth Amendment (which reserves all non-delegated governmental powers to the states) and Dillon’s Rule doesn’t mean that local governments have unlimited power to do whatever they want. Individual rights, like property ownership, need to be protected from the whims of local bureaucrats and the Karen neighbors who don’t want to see new construction projects. If the state and federal governments did their damned jobs and protected the right to build, there would be a lot less of a problem.
Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.