America’s Highways are Crumbling. Is That a Bad Thing?

September 21, 2015 5 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Our highway infrastructure is falling apart and John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee, believes this is a good thing. Ryan Holeywell of the Houston-based Kinder Institute for Urban Research examines Norquist's position.

America’s “crumbling” highways has become an inescapable topic of hand wringing for just about anyone interested in infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country’s roads a paltry “D” rating.

Meanwhile, Congress hasn’t passed a long-term highway bill since 2005, and it hasn’t increased the federal gas tax since 1993.

All those factors have left many people decrying the stat of America’s highways. John Norquist, however, has a different perspective: why not let them crumble?

Norquist, the former Milwaukee mayor, earned national attention for successfully pushing for the removal of an elevated freeway in Milwaukee in 2002.

Today he’s continuing to preach that message to anyone who will listen. He’ll speak in Houston Sept. 22.

“A freeway is really a rural form,” says Norquist, the recently-retired longtime head of the Congress for the New Urbanism, one of the country’s most influential urban planning organizations.

“It’s meant to move vehicles at high speeds, but it tends to not do that when there’s too much traffic. It breaks down when you need it the most. At rush hour, it tends to fail. It concentrates traffic instead of distributing it.”

His message comes at a time when there’s a growing debate about the future of the Pierce Elevated, the section of I-45 that separates Houston’s Midtown and Downtown districts. Some advocates hope to demolish it, while others hope to transform it into a High Line-style park.

Houston’s not alone in rethinking the elevated roadway. Across the country, governments are moving to tear down urban highways. The Los Angeles Times wrote last year:

It’s an idea that’s catching on as cities across America try to revitalize downtowns decimated by highway construction and the departure of industry. Baltimore, Milwaukee and San Francisco have all torn down urban freeways and built parks or walkable areas in their place.

“It seems like it’s gaining popularity,” said Ted Shelton, a professor of architecture at the University of Tennessee who studies urban highway removal. “For so long, we’ve thought when a highway gets to capacity, we need to add a lane. But what we’ve learned is there’s no way you can build enough capacity.”

More cities — including Long Beach, Dallas, New Orleans, Nashville and Hartford, Conn. — are debating the idea of tearing down highways and creating something designed to keep people in the city, not send people out.

Norquist isn’t totally anti-highway. He sees them as useful in a few places: rural areas, rings around cities, connecting places over far-flung distances. But he believes they’re woefully inefficient tools for intracity travel. In fact, he believes they do more to encourage congestion than prevent it.

“It’s counterintuitive,” Norquist says. “You think the more road and the bigger road, the more you’re going to be able to drive fast. It takes a while to look at it differently.”

In Houston, he’ll make the case for an approach to transportation that focuses on the existing street grid, as well as transit, rather than major urban highways.

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