Each year Americans collectively drive a total of 3 trillion miles — a number that can only be properly understood in cosmic terms, being equivalent to half of a light-year. This one number is a major factor explaining why Americans use a quarter of the world's oil and are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
And our over-dependency on cars is perhaps the leading reason so many of our central cities are struggling to regain urban vitality. We have learned over the past 60 years that cities do not co-exist well with large numbers of automobiles. The reason is simple: Aside from fuel, the next most important need for the automobile to operate is a copious amount of space — a commodity that is at a premium in any place that is worthy of being called a good city.
It is no wonder then that the most vibrant cities in America — New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington — are ones that have been able to curb the voracious appetite of the car for space. The cities we love around the world are the ones that have been able to devote more space to people and less to cars.
The level of automobile dependency that we currently experience in America is not something that simply happened. And it is not due to the fact that we are bad people or that we love our cars more than people in other nations. It is a situation that was created by a long history of policy choices about how we spent our transportation funds and how we reinforced car-oriented places through zoning and planning regulations.
In essence, much of the U.S. spent the past 60 years building a world where driving is often the only viable option for carrying out the simplest everyday task. We started out with the good intention of giving people more freedom. But we have actually achieved the opposite. We have dismantled efficient, equitable and convenient mass transit and substituted a system where there is no freedom of movement without a car, and no choice except a car.
In doing so, we radically transformed the types of places where we live and work, abandoning hundreds of years of human experience of place-making.
In this transformation, the federal government was the enabler-in-chief, handing out massive sums for urban renewal and freeway construction — the two main mechanisms in the devolution of our cities.
Doubts about the wisdom of building freeways in cities soon emerged, though, and many cities saw highway revolts that prevented the destruction of neighborhoods for freeway construction. The fortunate outcome of these revolts is that some of the most valuable real estate in the country sits on land that would now be freeways if not for visionary community leaders in places such as San Francisco, Boston and Washington. They took on the powerful highway lobby and won.
Still, it was not until the 1970s that cities began to have buyer's remorse. And some actually dared contemplate the radical step of freeway removal. The first American city to undertake this bold act was Portland, Ore, which created a riverfront park on the site of a downtown freeway.
In San Francisco, the story was slightly different. True, it was the earthquake that damaged the freeways, but it was the vision of the leaders and its citizens who saw the potential in removing two different freeways and replacing them with urban boulevards that are now such iconic images of urban life that they are showing up in TV commercials.
Cities around the country are beginning to learn how they can restore their communities by removing or minimizing highways that serve as dividers and destroyers of property value. The examples of Portland, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Seoul teach us how highway removal can reverse the process of disurbanism — and create great social and economic value in the process. Moreover, these cities have not only avoided creating gridlock — they have, in fact, been able to maintain and enhance access, demonstrating the point that traditional streets and boulevards are far superior to limited-access roads for moving traffic in urban settings.
This week, we in Hartford and New Haven will get a first-hand account Milwaukee's highway removal, and that of other cities, from John Norquist. As mayor of Milwaukee in the 1990s, Mr. Norquist successfully fought for the removal of a freeway and then supervised its replacement with urban boulevards and streets, setting the stage for the development of a major new mixed-use center in the city.
Mr. Norquist, now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and author of "The Wealth of Cities," will speak Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Hartford Public Library, 500 Main St.
He will speak Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Career High School, 140 Legion Ave., New Haven, on the city's plan to develop the Route 34 corridor. Both events are free and open to the public.
Norman W. Garrick is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Transportation and Urban Planning at the University of Connecticut. He is also a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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