Urban Freeway Myths

NPR aired an interesting piece last week about cities that are thinking about tearing down their urban freeways. It's a reversal of a decades-long trend of building new freeways and adding lanes whenever possible. In many cases, these roads simply don't make cities better or more livable places.

(from bankbryan on Flickr)

I really have two separate comments to make about NPR's story. The first is a general statement about freeways - they aren't cheap to build and they aren't cheap to maintain. Today, plenty of cities are motivated by the almighty dollar to remove this infrastructure. It's clear that freeways aren't sustainable in the long-term, so long as we insist that they be available for "free" to whoever wishes to use them.

Perhaps more importantly though, is the question of who really benefits from an urban freeway. The NPR story quotes an annoyed Cleveland motorist who doesn't like the idea that the freeway she uses to commute to work might go away.
To Clevelanders like Judie Vegh, the whole idea of tearing down a freeway just sounds crazy. "I think it's a pretty bad idea for commuters because I commute every morning downtown," she says. Vegh takes the West Shoreway each day from her home in the nearby suburb of Lakewood, Ohio. When she learned that the city plans to convert this freeway into a slower, tree-lined boulevard, she was not amused. "If it was 35 miles per hour, I would just be later than usual," Vegh says.
I was curious how much time someone saves commuting from Lakewood to downtown Cleveland via freeway, so I did a little playing around on Google Maps.

Let's say you start at Bunts Road and Detroit Avenue and you commute to Public Square. You could take Detroit Avenue - a 5.4 mile trip that Google estimates would take 11 minutes. Or you could take the Shoreway - a 6.2 mile trip that Google estimates would also take 11 minutes. Depending on your starting and ending points, the estimates always stay roughly the same - it takes about the same amount of time to drive from Lakewood to Cleveland on the Shoreway as it does on city streets.

But of course these are just estimates and maybe it is slightly quicker to take the Shoreway to get to downtown. How much faster? Given the short distance and Cleveland's generally light traffic, probably no more than a few minutes. Nevertheless, Angie Schmitt writes that Ohio state bureaucrats are doing everything in their power to ensure that Cleveland doesn't have anything resembling the tree-lined boulevard the NPR story hints at.

The ultimate question becomes, why should Cleveland have to give up one of its greatest assets (access to the lakefront) so that some commuters can save, at best, a minute or two commuting downtown? The first time I ever visited Chicago I was envious of the city's beautiful lakefront, even resentful that Cleveland has so badly squandered the opportunity to offer its citizens something similarly valuable.

Turning Cleveland's Shoreway into an urban boulevard is one of those no-brainier public policies that would benefit many at the cost of a few. Yet, frustratingly, as long as the suburban commuter is able to wield a large amount of political leverage, too cities will continue to be places that exist for people drive into for work, and little else.


    On March 28, 2011 rg said...

    Perhaps I am splitting hairs, but NPR screwed up by referring to Judie Vegh as a "Clevelander." According to the story, she lives in the nearby suburb of Lakewood, which meand she is as much a "Clevelander" as someone living in Burke is a "Washingtonian." Which gets back to the point that freeways do not necessarily best serve the interest of the residents of the city they bisect.


    Depending on your starting and ending points, the estimates always stay roughly the same - it takes about the same amount of time to drive from Lakewood to Cleveland on the Shoreway as it does on city streets.

    I don't think I believe that. Detroit has a LOT of lights. On the other hand, Clifton + a slowed down West Shoreway probably is probably still faster than Detroit.

    The funny thing about the West Shoreway from a driver's point of view is that Lakewood gets most of the benefit from it. If you start out futher west, like even Rocky River or the west end of Lakewood, it takes you so long to get to the Shoreway that I90 doesn't really look so bad.

    I agree with your larger point, though: the fact that the West Shoreway is very helpful to a certain set of car commuters is not really a good enough reason to continue to cut most of the west side of Cleveland off from the Lake. I90 is there, and nobody is proposing that it be removed.

    On May 23, 2011 Judie Vegh, Clevelander said...

    NPR actually screwed up by leaving out much of what else I said during the interview. Ah, the beauty of media. I am a Clevelander, thank you. Born and raised on the east side of CLE, and then a west side implant. I have worked downtown for some time now. Sure, I can use 90, but the Shoreway is somewhat of a "hidden gem" for those who do use it (the majority being from Cleveland/Lakewood as it's easy to shoot down Lake Ave. with minimal lights and traffic).

    Perhaps a handful of commuters is not a good enough reason to stall plans of the Shoreway Project, however, doesn't Cleveland have enough vacant spots that can be utilized instead of building something from scratch?


    Hello to any and all new readers.

    For the record, I lived in Cleveland for most of my life - about 20 years - and I worked downtown from 2008-2010, before I left. My experience with commuting in Cleveland is based mostly on my own experience; the Google experiment was mainly intended to add evidence to that - to include some numbers to point, so it could go beyond a simple he said / she said discussion.

    Regular readers of this blog will know that Cleveland topics occassionally get covered here because of my past experience.

    I'm sorry to hear the NPR story misquoted Judy Vegh, which is something I wasn't aware of months ago when this post was originally written.