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.

Norquist argues that the way we build road infrastructure matters not just for environmental reasons but for economic reasons too. Houston has a vested interest in being a place that’s attractive to the global business community. The street grid, not highways, helps create a community’s “sense of place” that makes communities seem desirable.

He said many people think his ideas are liberal, but he said it shouldn’t be seen as a political issue. It’s about economics.

“There’s no place more expensive to build a big, grade-separated highway than in a dense metropolitan area,” Norquist says.

At the same time, he argued, big freeways push economic value away from the city and concentrate traffic in a way that undermines the value of the street grid. He said places that are economically conservative understand his reasoning.

Switzerland is considered to be conservative, but it’s a city with strong connectivity and transit, Norquist said. Vancouver has no grade-separated freeways within its city limits. The policy is the result of conservative resistance to massive public works programs.

“It hasn’t hurt them to have a freeway-free street system,” Norquist says.

In Seoul, South Korea, the government has removed more than a dozen elevated freeways, including one that allowed for the development of stream that meanders through the urban core. “There were no traffic problems,” Norquist says. “A lot of it disappears into the complexity of the grid.”

But in Houston – the heart of the oil industry and the country’s unofficial sprawl capital – is it really practical to argue for the removal of highways?

Norquist acknowledges that the concept may be a difficult sell here. But leaders can at least prioritize other modes of transportation over highway expansion. Houston has historically been one of the most auto-centric cities in the country, but Norquist believes its bus network overhaul and new light rail lines are steps in the right direction.

Meanwhile, in this year’s Kinder Houston Area Survey, 43 percent of respondents said transit is the best long-term solution to dealing with Houston’s traffic problems, compared to just 26 percent who picked highways. It seems residents are hungry for a change.

And as Norquist sees it, citizens and political leaders may not have much of a choice in the matter. The ongoing federal stalemate over infrastructure spending suggests highways aren’t much of a priority.

“The federal government has run out of money to throw away on projects that they don’t pay attention to,” Norquist said. “The federal government just doesn’t have the money.”

Original article by Ryan Holeywell of Rice Kinder Institute For Urban Research: The Kinder Institute for Urban Research is a multi-disciplinary ‘think-and-do tank’ housed on the Rice University campus in central Houston, focusing on urban issues in Houston, the American Sunbelt, and around the world.”

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