The future of the country’s aging interstate highway system looks bleak, and that’s a good thing for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. Outdated infrastructure presents an opportunity to replace it with more efficient solutions that are friendlier to more modes of transportation.
In April Syracuse drew one step closer to a major transportation project slated to eliminate more than 4 million vehicle miles traveled by 2020. After six years of study, the New York State Department of Transportation recommended replacing portions of the city’s aging elevated highway, Interstate 81, with a street-level, four-lane boulevard. The “community grid” project would also restore connections among city streets and improve cyclist and pedestrian infrastructure.
The state’s Department of Transportation is soliciting public input on the proposal through June. If approved, Syracuse will join a handful of other cities across the country to replace elevated highways with more human-scale infrastructure designed to promote walking and biking, among them Boston, Milwaukee, Chattanooga, and San Francisco. And it may serve as a model for the dozen or so other cities across the U.S. considering razing their aging highways to restore neighborhoods redlined by highway building and create more opportunities for walking, cycling, and public transit.
Out-of-Date and End-of-Life
The opportunity to reconsider the future of I-81 came about because the elevated parts of the highway, which opened between 1959 and 1969, have neared the end of their lifespan. Another pressing issue is the highway’s design, which does not meet current roadway safety standards; coupled with often heavy and slow traffic, accident rates on elevated portions of I-81 are three times higher than state averages. Congestion is also a problem, especially on highway interchanges in downtown Syracuse and University Hill, the city’s major employment centers. Together, such design and traffic problems slow traffic and waste fuel.
The proposed I-81 replacement boulevard, designed to support walking, cycling, and driving, is the hallmark of a “successful street,” says Ben Crowther, manager of the Congress for New Urbanism’s Highways to Boulevards initiative. It gives people “freedom to choose” among many modes of transportation, he says. The choice to bike or walk can be pivotal for fuel-savings, given that some 40 percent of car trips are fewer than two miles. (Some 35,000 trips on I-81 are made to Syracuse each morning; 13,000 of them originate in Syracuse.) Highways or even eight-lane-wide boulevards limit people to driving—even for trips of only a half-mile.
In weighing options for I-81’s future, the Department of Transportation considered rehabilitating the elevated highway. This so-called “viaduct option” would have increased vehicle miles traveled, the department’s report states, “because additional traffic would be attracted to I-81 in response to improvements.” That seemingly counter-intuitive outcome—that more (or in this case, better) roads attract more traffic—is borne out by work by economists Matthew Turner and Gilles Duranton, who found that when cities expanded their roads, they also increased traffic and pollution.
By contrast, the proposed community grid will decrease vehicle miles traveled by more than 4 million in 2020, 2030, and 2050, respectively. The project will also reduce emissions by dispersing traffic to smaller streets and lessening congestion: concentrations of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, VoC, and particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) are slated to fall by seven to 29 percent from 2020 to 2050.
Reclaiming the Streets
But removing an elevated highway and dispersing traffic to local streets is not enough to get people out of their cars. As the America Walks’s “Steps to a Walkable Community” plan asserts, pedestrians need streets that are connected, accessible, safe, and attractive. Even something as seemingly simple as traffic signals can promote walking; a 2013 study in San Francisco, for instance, found higher rates of pedestrians in areas with traffic signals. The I-81 plan calls for such amenities, including new traffic signals at 19 intersections, crosswalks, sidewalks, and lane markings for bike lanes.
I-81 is not the only elevated highway in Upstate New York whose future is under consideration. Three highways are up for potential remove in Buffalo, a Rust Belt town that, like Syracuse, has lost significant population since the 1950s—when its elevated highways were built. The city of Niagara Falls has been working to redesign its Niagara Scenic Parkway to integrate Niagara Falls State Park and better connect the city to it. And in 2017 Rochester removed its Inner Loop East freeway, converting it into a boulevard at grade-level with traffic signals and paths for cyclists and pedestrians.
“We view large-scale infrastructure as if it’s eternal, and that it can’t change,” says Crowther. But with so many of the nation’s highways reaching the ends of their lifespans, we have a chance to challenge that thinking, he says. “Imagine what we can do with city streets. We can reclaim them for other uses beyond transportation -– as social spaces, places of gathering, things they have been used for historically in an urban context,” he says. “And with a boulevard, we can still use them for transportation.”
Rachel Somerstein is an assistant professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz.