Reckoning with the Three-Digit Interstate: Part IV

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IV: Moving Forward: Road Diets and Overlapping Jurisdictions

Building sustainable cities is an endlessly complex problem that needs to be understood from multiple angles. With this look at suburban expressways, my message is not that focusing on improving urban cores is misguided. It’s that we have yet another angle that needs to be addressed. We can create the perfect city center, with density, integration initiatives, affordable housing, and excellent transit, and still fail to trigger a movement into that city. Consider that the original interstate system passed 50% completion in 1965; a person turning 16 that year would be 70 today. Only about 3% of the labor force is over 70; therefore, virtually every working American has only known an interstate-influenced commuting experience.

I am reluctant to use the age-old example of carrots and sticks in this case, since even the wholesale removal of suburban freeways doesn’t (and shouldn’t) impede one’s freedom to live in a place of their choosing (and to have whatever commute results). But if these concrete noodles are to ever be demolished, the conversation has to start changing soon.

The obvious intermediate step to a zero-lane freeway is a narrowing of the road in question, often termed a road diet. (Most road diets take a four-lane road and turn it into a two-lane road with a central turn lane and either parking or bike lanes.) But even this step is somewhat unprecedented: a search for freeway road diets turned up nothing, indicating that if such a thing has ever happened, it is incredibly rare.

Indeed, because we are biased toward the status quo, it feels like one thing to advocate against the widening of a freeway and entirely another to advocate that it be actively narrowed. While we know that we can, to some extent, un-induce demand by narrowing roads and taking similar measures, the lack of prior performance also means that there’s the possibility that a road diet might produce unpredictable results when applied to freeways.

But at the same time, certain sections of certain metros are so overloaded with freeways that even if demand doesn’t fully adjust to a narrowed or removed road, traffic can legitimately find another route. Starting with cases like this, perhaps in places like Minneapolis, Kansas City, or Miami, might be the proof of concept we need.

Part of the problem, though, is that induced demand assumes that at least some of the increased traffic on a widened road arises out of redistribution. That is, the wider road is still congested not only because new residents and businesses exist, but because existing residents and businesses are no longer modifying their behavior to avoid the road (whether it is driving more at peak times, no longer choosing mass transit, or otherwise). There may well be at least some potential additional congestion that needs to be accounted for.

It may therefore make sense, then, to accompany the road diet with some transit improvement. Kansas City implementing fare-free transit, for example, is an expected imminent reform that would provide a second compelling incentive to try to drive less, perhaps by considering park-and-ride options.

This brings up another potential point, though. Kansas City’s transit system is multi-jurisdictional, but the vote to search for funding for fare-free transit was carried out solely by Kansas City, Missouri’s city council alone. Given the way that their decision was made, it seems unlikely that any other stakeholder in its transit system can undo the change. But since there is no clear precedent, it’s unclear what levels of government would be able to have a say before any road diet would be implemented on an interstate highway. Could the federal government veto a state’s decision to narrow an interstate highway? Would that answer change depending on whether the new interstate conformed to official federal standards?

What about the flipside? Could the federal government direct funds for a project narrowing a highway over a state’s objection? What say, if any, would a municipality have in either of these scenarios? These questions almost certainly have answers, but experts and USDOT lawyers might be the only people who would know where to look. And if the federal government could push these initiatives unilaterally, our resulting activism is at least easy to target, even if it may still require major effort.

Still, it’s plausible that the path of least resistance, at least at first, might be with a non-interstate, removing at least one level of government from the picture. Fortunately, most networks of excessive freeways do include at least a couple non-interstate freeways, but it does perhaps limit initial creativity.

Another way to pair a road diet and a transit improvement might be by creating rail rights-of-way within radial freeways, the way Chicago does with its subways. While this road diet would not come at the initial expense of the beltways and other assorted freeways that are worth targeting, it would at least create capacity to decrease reliance on wide crosstown roads. (It may make sense to narrow both a beltway and a radial road in conjunction with the rail right-of-way, but the timing does not have to align.) Keep in mind that the goal should be to discourage crosstown trips, so crosstown trains might not be a good initial step.

These rail rights-of-way, especially in midsize cities like Cleveland and Columbus, are likely to be more useful if they resemble commuter rail more than the New York City subway. (Many systems in mid-to-large cities, like BART and WMATA, already have some commuter rail–like traits.) While gracing the outer suburbs with a train station could easily backfire, it is important to recognize that to the extent white flight is driving an exodus, it might be counterproductive to create a system that could lead to racial stigmatization, either of the riders or of the system itself.

Or, perhaps, the minorities caught up in the cycle of displacement and white flight are the ones who deserve the transit improvements, and the onus should be on the outer suburban folks to improve themselves and move closer.

Still, it’s unclear if our climate can wait long enough for that process to happen.

In the meantime, we can only try.

Click here to return to Part I (Toledo, Minneapolis, and the Entrenchment of Suburban Freeways).
Click here to return to Part II (Intermediate Freeways: The Ballad of Garfield Heights).
Click here to return to Part III (Outer Freeways: The Stretching of Columbus, Ohio).

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