Monthly Archives: December 2008

Rethinking I-81: OCL’s Study Blog


As we saw in San Francisco’s ‘Freeway Revolt’, the city’s quality of life  and economic development priorities fired opposition to freeways and influenced decisions to reject the building of expressways through the city in the 1950’s and 60’s and their rebuilding in the 1990’s.    But citizen opposition alone is not the only influence on local transportation planning decisions. A recent examination of three cases of freeway removal in the U.S. suggests that four conditions must be met to create an environment where change will take place.

 “Shifting Urban Priorities?  Removal of Inner City Freeways in the United Statesin the 2008 issue of Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board,  presents an analysis of three cases in which freeway removal was a seriously considered option – San Francisco and Milwaukee, where freeways were removed, and Washington, D.C., where the Whitehurst Freeway, which did not generate strong community support for removal, was rehabilitated.  The authors, Francesca Napolitan of Nelson/Nygaard Associates and P. Christopher Zegras of MIT, note that many of the interstate highways built after passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956 are reaching, or have reached, the end of their useful life.  Today, the need for large public investment in rebuilding of the aging infrastructure is juxtaposed with movements toward the need for more sustainable transportation, as well as concerns about urban quality of life. 

 What are the conditions that seem to be requisite for a freeway removal decision?  The authors’ analysis concluded that first, the freeway must be considered unsafe (as in post-earthquake Central Freeway in San Francisco or aging and deteriorating Park East Freeway in Milwaukee).  Secondly, there is often some event that brings the removal alternative to the forefront, or creates a ‘window of opportunity’. The window could be the rise of a champion, such as the election of Mayor Norquist in Milwaukee, or the advancement of the idea by a successful test such as the temporary shutdown of the Central Freeway for repair, which failed to present any major traffic problems. The third consideration at play is that mobility (of vehicles) is a lower priority than other community goals such as quality of life or economic development.  In San Francisco, the residents valued quality of life over high-speed access; in Milwaukee the economic development potential of the re-knit downtown and waterfront was the higher priority than vehicle mobility. Lastly, the writers theorize that the highway removal must have a champion who is an “empowered agent of change”. That is, the “other than mobility” value must be rooted in the power of an individual, such as an influential elected official, or in a group, such as voters in the case of a referendum, or an influential neighborhood grassroots organization.

Washington D.C.’s Whitehurst Freeway was the only one of the cases studied where the decision was made to retain the existing freeway.  Several factors specific to that roadway, the surrounding neighborhood, and the political jurisdiction contributed to the decision to rehabilitate.  But the authors also note that the decision-makers and residents in that situation, which played out in the 1980’s, did not have the benefit of studying a recent, high profile precedent like  San Francisco’s Embarcadero, which had been destroyed by the 1989 earthquake and demolished two years later. 

While no two highways are alike, the authors suggest a new framework for evaluating freeway projects that recognizes a paradigm shift away from pure engineering efficiency to include other community priorities:  along with the standard “fix-it first” and rebuild options, it may be time to include a “tear-down” option when deciding what to do with aging infrastructure.


A working paper version of the published journal article can be found at: