When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 – ordering the construction of 33,000 miles of interstate highways across the United States – it was never his intention to run those freeways through urban areas. “…The matter of running Interstate routes through congested parts of cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes; he never anticipated the program would turn out this way,” reads a memorandum from a 1960 meeting in the Oval Office.
But with $25 billion earmarked over ten years – at the time, the largest public works project in American history – local politicians saw a fiscal opportunity they couldn’t ignore. With the assistance of planners, economists, and industry lobbyists, they argued that urban freeways would transport suburban commuters into the core, bringing personal mobility and financial prosperity for all. Building these (often elevated) freeways also provided them with adequate cover to demolish lower-income, multi-ethnic parts of town they viewed as “blight”, under the guise of “urban renewal”.
Sixty years later, these metropolitan expressways are widely considered one of the worst planning mistakes of the 20th century. They exacerbated the devastating effects of car dependency and suburban sprawl like inefficient land use, congestion, traffic violence, climate change, social inequality, lack of affordability, obesity, declining air quality, and increased social isolation.
Equally as detrimental are the roles they've played in physically dissecting and segmenting our communities, creating physical and psychological barriers between neighbourhoods, waterfronts, shopping districts, and all of the other amenities that make our cities vibrant, connected, and enjoyable places to live.
Worst of all, the shortsighted thinking behind “urban renewal” wasn’t isolated to the United States, as American-inspired transportation engineers spread the same flawed concept to cities around the world, many of whom were desperately looking for ways to deal with unprecedented post-war growth.
The Story of Vancouver’s Successful Freeway Fight
The story of how Vancouver became the only major North American city without a freeway is an intriguing and inspiring one, centred on citizen intervention rather than political will, which we recount in the latest episode of our new six-part podcast series, “The Strait and Narrows”.
In the fall of 1968, 21-year-old SFU student Shirley Chan and her family were facing eviction from their Keefer Street home; part of a ten-year, government-led “slum clearance” project that strangled Strathcona by freezing property values and building permits. The end game was an elevated expressway that would connect Highway 1 to the foot of Granville Street, displacing over 6,350 residents, but touted by politicians and business leaders as a necessary step in Vancouver's march towards becoming a modern metropolis.
Rather than accept the City’s paltry offer of $6,000 for their home, Chan and her parents decided to mobilize their community, forming the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA). Chan hired 25-year-old lawyer Mike Harcourt to represent them, telling him at the time: “Don’t worry about it. We’re just taking on the city, the province, the federal government, the development industry, the transportation and car industries, the oil and gas industry. Other than that, don’t worry about it.”
During a bus tour of the effected areas arranged by herself and social worker Darlene Marzari, Chan was invited to sit next to Paul Hellyer, the federal minister responsible for housing, and had the opportunity to plead her case. Upon returning to Ottawa, Hellyer immediately put a moratorium on the project, which – with ballooning budgets and increased opposition – was eventually scrapped by Council, but not before the 1,300 metre long Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts were built, permanently erasing the heart of the city’s black community: Hogan’s Alley.
It’s impossible to overstate the positive impact these events have had on the future of our region. Vancouverites certainly wouldn’t experience the quality of life they enjoy: with walkable, bikeable, transit-rich neighbourhoods; and unparalleled access to the ocean, mountains, and the myriad recreational opportunities that surround us.
Most City Dwellers are Effectively Living on Islands
That isn’t to say that cities without urban highways don’t experience similar problems, they are just distributed differently. While a brittle freeway system aggregates traffic to certain corridors, an admittedly more resilient grid system distributes it across a wider area. This may (slightly) reduce the number of cars entering the city, but it doesn’t make their negative effects any less severe.
Dr. Steven Fleming – an architect, bicycle urbanist, and author of the book Cycle Space: Architecture and Urban Design in the Age of the Bicycle – began studying and mapping the consequences of these grids on walking and cycling rates, and the results were quite astounding. He surmised that when the effects of uncrossable arterial roads and rat running motorists are visualized, most city dwellers are effectively living on islands.
“To a risk averse cyclist, a child for example, the city would feel like a hundred small islands with what might as well be oceans between them,” Fleming observes. “Arterial roads with limited safe crossing opportunities, and residential streets engineered to provide drivers with shortcuts leave most cyclists trapped on the street where they live.”
This research perfectly reflects our personal experiences in Vancouver. Despite living in a neighbourhood with some of the lowest rates of car ownership and usage in the region, we find ourselves surrounded on four sides by four-to-six lane arterial roads carrying upwards of 30,000 vehicles per day – the vast majority of which are just passing through at 60 km/hr. Not only does this affect our health, happiness, and mobility, but it also limits the ability of our children to walk or cycle a few blocks to school, the park, or a friend’s house.
Increased Traffic and Decreased Social Interaction
Appleyard famously chronicled the decreased social cohesion that occurs when our shared public realm is designed solely for one use: moving cars. Unsurprisingly, the higher number of vehicles travelling along a given street, the fewer social interactions took place, with each neighbour on that street laying claim to fewer friends and acquaintances.
While the drivers of those cars can’t be entirely faulted for wanting to get from A to B as quickly as possible, these examples underline the very real, and very destructive consequences our land use and transportation planning decisions can sometimes have on their surrounding populations. And these impacts are particularly acute when it comes to vulnerable groups such as the young, the elderly, and residents with lower incomes.
Waking Up to the Error of Our Ways
Fortunately, it appears local levels of government are waking up to the error of their ways, and many mayors and municipal leaders are working tirelessly to heal the divide created by these roadways (some even removing them entirely), and building safe, healthy, and connected communities. State and federal officials, however, still seem stubbornly invested in maintaining motordom’s hegemony, leading to a major conflict of priorities between lower and upper levels of government.
On the frontline of that fight is New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Cote, the second subject of the aforementioned podcast episode, currently dealing with the damaging effects of traffic created by provincial and federal policies. A staggering 400,000 vehicles pass through his city’s seven square miles each day without stopping. If that wasn’t enough, the provincial government is currently pushing for a widening of the Pattullo Bridge from six lanes to eight, an unnecessary upgrade that Mayor Cote has (so far) successfully opposed, along with the unwavering support of his constituents.
When Vancouver Council voted to demolish the only remnants of their abandoned freeway system – the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts – in late 2015, beginning the lengthy process of planning and redeveloping Northeast False Creek, there was a surprising amount of outrage over the decision. Frustratingly, the discussion in the media centred around how the movement of automobiles would be impacted, rather than how the quality of life for all Vancouver citizens would vastly improve.
We must aspire to build cities that are more than just sewage pipes through which we pump cars. For Mayor Cote, it means making the streets of New Westminster safer for his daughters and their peers, so they can grow up in a place where they are comfortable to roam and enjoy their independence. These are the more important conversations we need to have moving forward; rather than worrying about how to shave a few minutes off someone’s drive time.