Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Providence, 195 Tear-Out to Torn-Out

Providence, RI has town out a segment of intra-city freeway.  Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic writes about it here for Next American City (subscription):
Like many American downtowns, Providence’s historic center was hacked apart to make way for an elevated interstate highway in the mid-20th century. I-195 fundamentally repositioned the inner city away from the pedestrian and toward the automobile. In the late 1980s, Rhode Island began to rethink that decision. Leaders chose to remove and relocate a portion of the Interstate cutting through Providence, embarking on a costly reverse engineering of the decision made a generation earlier. It reflected a trend that’s been seen in highway-split cities around the country, fromPortland, Milwaukee and San Francisco to New Orleans, which is now considering a plan to tear down a section of its downtown expressway.
Add Baltimore and OKC to that list somewhere between "considering" and "planning."

However, the most interesting thing about the Providence tear-out comes from looking at the traffic numbers on 195 before the tear-out.  Of the years recorded, the traffic steadily increased each time until peaking in 2003, the last year on record (that I have available, anyway), at 158,000 vehicles per day on this .9 mile segment of elevated freeway.

That number is significant, because that is right about where 345 is in downtown Dallas, 160,000 give or take.  It's also important because everyone's first question is where does the traffic go?  A question, I answer  here and here, by not only answering, but suggesting that overall mobility is actually increased by removing freeway capacity.

The reason for tearing out superfluous intra-city highways is simple, it's profitable to do so for city, citizen, and investor alike.  The genesis arose with a simple understanding of a complex issue, downtown revitalization, which very few of the downtown efforts actually address:  that land prices are too high and demand is too low.  The equation is upside down and therefore, various forms of subsidy are required to make any deal work.  It's simply too expensive for the city to keep up on every single parcel.

To return the development market to stable, healthy normalcy, we have to reverse the equation, increase demand (by removing a freeway) and drop the cost of land (by flooding the market with public right-of-way).  Yes, it's another form of subsidy, semantics, but one in concert within the logical order cities were built and sustained over time, the public side provides the infrastructure (integration), the market responds with built space (accommodation).