Wednesday, April 7, 2021 | 2 a.m.
With the inclusion of funding to remove or replace elevated expressways in several U.S. cities, President Joe Biden offered a wonderful bit of addition by subtraction in his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.
Getting rid of these expressways isn’t just a matter of modernizing transportation grids, improving traffic flows and beautifying cities. It’s about correcting destructive urban planning from yesteryear, and revitalizing numerous urban communities that suffered decay and despair because of these ugly, ineffective roads.
Expressways went up in numerous cities from the 1940s through their hey-day in the 1950s and ’60s, the product of car-centric civic leaders and traffic designers who contended that expanding the capacity of roads was the key to reducing congestion.
That thinking has been proven horribly wrong — increasing the capacity just brought more traffic — but worse yet, the expressways fractured the neighborhoods in which they were built, and helped hollow them out by creating paths for white flight to suburbs. In some cases, that was an unintended result of city leaders who wrongly saw the expressways as a form of urban renewal and believed there was no harm in tearing down something old to build something new. In others, it was a product of racist leadership deliberately disadvantaging minority communities.
Either way, neighborhoods suffered greatly.
Take the Clairborne Expressway in New Orleans, which the Biden administration cited as an example of replacement projects envisioned under the plan.
The roadway, completed in 1968, was built through a long-established, well-functioning and predominantly Black community whose main thoroughfare was lined with businesses, homes and majestic oak trees. Then came the bulldozers for the expressway, and all that was gone. The buildings were razed, the trees were cut down and the thoroughfare was paved over so that the expressway could run above it.
Decay soon set in. Residents moved away, and property values plummeted — who would want to live in a neighborhood with few remaining businesses and an eyesore of a road running through it, after all? Meanwhile, the expressways fueled white flight to the suburbs, further hollowing out urban cores and compounding their economic struggles. Poverty and crime crept in, and the downward cycle continued.
It happened in city after city throughout the United States: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas. There and elsewhere, public works officials flattened swaths of homes and businesses in neighborhoods to create elevated expressways that would soon become like toxic rivers to those communities.
Today, these decaying roadways bring air pollution and tire particles that blacken homes around them, along with noise, sludgy rainwater runoffs and vibrations from the stream of trucks and cars. The areas underneath serve as magnets for homeless camps and vandals.
Biden is taking a responsible step in trying to rid cities of these destructive roadways.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen highway and transportation infrastructure considered through a social lens as well as a transportation lens,” said Ben Crowther, the leader of an organization that advocates for walkable cities, to The Washington Post.
Several communities have taken that action on their own in recent years, as transportation officials now acknowledge that elevated roadways were not only highly problematic socially but were an ineffective way to move cars around. There’s a long list of cities that have torn down their expressways — Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and the list goes on. And that’s not to mention several metros in other nations that have followed suit. In every case, when the expressways are removed, vibrant urban life flourishes once more.
As shown in those cities, there are numerous alternatives to expressways that can both address traffic flow and improve the vitality of cities. One example is Seattle, where a tunnel replaced an elevated freeway that once separated the waterfront from downtown. Now, work is underway to replace the expressway with pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly parks and a landscaped promenade that will connect the tourist-heavy waterfront with the central business district. It wasn’t cheap, nor was it a quick fix, but the work is a vast improvement.
Unfortunately, Las Vegas has been slow to get the message that other communities are making loud and clear by imploding their elevated roadways — that they’re incredibly destructive to urban life.
The community had to beat back a proposal four years ago to build an expressway between McCarran International Airport and the resort corridor, which was followed by another misguided proposal to build an elevated intersection at Tropicana Avenue and Swenson Street/Paradise Road to alleviate congestion there.
The community must deal with the traffic between the airport and the Strip, especially as Las Vegas reopens from the pandemic, but the solution doesn’t lie in roads. It lies in public transportation, specifically a light rail system. That’s a critical need, as it would not only whisk travelers to and from the airport and the resorts and improve the visitor experience, but, with the inclusion of park-and-ride lots and future expansion, would provide convenient and easy transportation to and from the Strip for the resort workers who form the backbone of Southern Nevada’s economy.
This is the future that Las Vegas should be envisioning, not solutions that have been proven obsolete and were the products of discriminatory minds. Biden’s plan, while mostly focusing on modernizing and enhancing infrastructure, offers a strong reminder that bad infrastructure can significantly damage cities too.