Freeways and the death of the great American city

Tim Lee’s post on the decline of St. Louis is fascinating and heart-breaking all at once. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a visceral dislike of city freeways. This is partly because I’ve lived in cities that avoided this catastrophe and in cities that, sadly, did not. A city like Phoenix which is essentially built for freeways will never be a great city; a city such as St. Louis which was once a far more vibrant metropolis, has had its vitality strangled out of it by the network of freeways cutting one neighborhood off from the other.

If you’re not convinced, just imagine if the anti-freeway camp had lost the fight to keep a freeway out of downtown Manhattan.

Tim describes the destruction of a downtown neighborhood in St. Louis to create a park and to revitalize downtown by constructing the Gateway Arch.

St. Louis, where I lived between 2005 and 2008, is a textbook example. Consider the St. Louis Arch, which began as a Depression-era project to “revitalize” downtown St. Louis by leveling about 20 blocks of prime riverfront real estate to make room for a park. Not surprisingly, this plan drew fierce opposition from the people who were living and working in those 20 blocks. But the government used its power of eminent domain to take the properties over their objections. (As an aside: the Arch is formally the centerpiece of theJefferson National Expansion Memorial. There’s something perversely fitting about the fact that thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their land to make room for a monument to commemorate the forcible eviction of Native Americans from their land.)

Anyway, after a few years of litigation, demolitions began in 1940. Then the project got bogged down in budget problems and more litigation, and so the area was used as a gigantic parking lot for two decades, before work on the arch finally began in 1963.

Meanwhile, work began on the urban portion of the Interstate Highway System. Planners in St. Louis, as in most American cities, decided that the new expressways would run directly through the cities’ downtowns. One of them (I-44/I-70) now runs North to South between the park and downtown. Not surprisingly, if you visit the park today you’ll find a light sprinkling of tourists, but nothing like the throngs of locals you’ll find in successful urban parks like New York’s Union Square, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, or DC’s Dupont Circle. Whatever “revitalizing” effects the park might have had on the rest of the city were undermined by the fact that the park isn’t really accessible to pedestrians in the rest of the city.

Unsurprisingly, the careful planning and exorbitant spending required to ‘revitalize’ downtown areas by bulldozing buildings and erecting inaccessible parks, and the ‘convenience’ afforded residents of a city by paving huge freeways through their most interesting urban areas, all fall short of the economic boons that dense, walkable areas provide:

Cities generate wealth by bringing large numbers of people into proximity with one another. Two adjacent high-density neighborhoods will be richer than either could be alone because businesses at the edge of each neighborhood will be enriched by pedestrian traffic from the other. Driving a freeway through the middle of a healthy urban neighborhood not only destroys thousands of homes, it rips apart tightly integrated neighborhoods. Pedestrians rarely walk across freeways, so businesses near a new freeway are immediately deprived of half their customers. Similarly, residents near a new freeway lose access to half the businesses near them. The area along the freeway becomes what Jacobs calls a “border vaccuum” and goes into a kind of death spiral: because it contains little pedestrian traffic, businesses there don’t succeed. And because there are no interesting businesses there, even fewer people go there, which hurts the sales of businesses further from the freeway. The harms from such a freeway extends for blocks on either side.

All of which pushes urbanites out of the city and into the suburbs. As Tim notes, this exodus is hardly chosen.

If there was ever an item so ripe for liberal-libertarian cooperation, this is it. Really, this strikes me as a human concern, and one which members of whatever political stripe should be up in arms over. Whether there is much that can be done to repair the damage already wrought on American cities is another question.

On a side note, this reminds me of Austin’s post over at The American Conservative earlier this year. He wrote at the time:

It’s odd that self-described libertarians such as Stossel are so slow to grasp that government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous. You would think that libertarians would instinctively grasp the deeply statist nature of suburban development.  First of all, with a depressingly few exceptions, virtually every town in America looks the same. That is, it has the same landscape of arterial roads, strip malls, and residential subdivisions, accessibly only by car. Surely, given America’s celebrated diversity, you would also see a diversity of places. As it turns out, all but a few people live the same suburban lifestyle.  Government, as libertarian assumptions would predict, is the culprit.

Second, the few places in America that have a distinctive character are also exceedingly expensive. John Stossel himself admits to living in an apartment and walking to work most days. Now, I don’t know where exactly Mr. Stossel lives, but it sounds as if he lives in Manhattan, where residential space costs over $1000 a square foot (that means a two-bedroom apartment where a family of four could fit costs at least $1.5 million).  If Mr. Stossel’s lifestyle, as he puts it, is less popular than the suburban lifestyle, then why does his cost so much more? He apparently never asks himself the question. Had he done so, he might have discovered that government artificially restricts the supply of Manhattan-like places but artificially increases the supply of sprawl. That’s the reason Americans “prefer” to live in the suburbs. They don’t have a choice.

I think on a psychological (or spiritual) level we haven’t even begun to understand the effects these policies have had on American cities and the residents either displaced or whose economies have been so irreparably disrupted by these clever city planners. I’m not sure the American city will ever recover.

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16 thoughts on “Freeways and the death of the great American city

  1. Now, you are talking to a person who is from Michigan and is a car nut, but there is some sense in your views as well. I do have a keen interest in freeways and always have since I was a little kid, but I do think there is something to be said about not having freeways barrel into cities. In my hometown of Flint, MI, the freeway that came into the city went through a primarily black neighborhood displacing the residents and the same can be said for Interstate 94 when it went through St. Paul, MN (I live in Minneapolis) and displaced the Rondo neighborhood which also was mainly African American. I’m not anti-freeway (nor am I anti-mass transit) but I can say that urban freeways did hurt African Americans immensely.

    I would disagree with your take on the death of American cities and the suburbs however. St. Louis’ decline isn’t simply because a freeway went in, but for a lot of reasons. Minneapolis and St. Paul both have a lot of life in their cities and they have been great places to live. Being from the Rust Belt, there are a lot of reasons (mostly economic) that cities decline.

    As for suburbs, well, while they are not my perferred place to live, the fact of the matter is a lot of Americans do live in the suburbs. While there might be a sense of sameness at some level, I also think there is a lot more diversity in the suburbs than meets the eye. Twin Cities suburbs are becoming home to thriving immigrant populations for one thing. I guess I tend to favor some of what Joel Kotkin has said about suburbs, and while it isn’t my cup of tea, it is not always the bland hell that those of us that are urban tend to think.


    • @Dennis, You make a good point about the immigrant communities.
      In Kansas City, there is a huge Italian population, and not a single grocer would think of not carrying Italian sausage. It’s kind of difficult to find in St. Louis, if you’re able to find it at all.
      St. Louis does have a sizable Croatian community, and it’s common these days to see an aisle at the grocers with that writing I don’t understand.
      When I was in Milwaukee, I started going to a Polish deli to buy my beer and tea. Sometimes I would have to wait for them to bring someone who spoke English up to help me, but that didn’t bother me at all. I always had high quality tea and beer.
      Unfortunately, I took a liking to the Zywiec (pronounced ZIV- yitch) porter, and I’m not able to find it anywhere else. (There’s also a sausage called “Zywiecka” which is very good). I buy the place out (except for one or two) whenever I go to Milwaukee.


  2. St. Louis is a special case. What happened was, long ago, the city decided that the county was taking up too much of its services while not paying enough to fund them. So, they removed themselves from the county. The City of St. Louis is not within St. Louis County– it’s not in any county at all.
    The Earnings Tax (3% of the gross for everyone that lives or works in the City of St. Louis) convinced a lot of people and businesses to move from the city to the county.
    Meanwhile, the county has always been a vibrant and diversified community. I remember reading at a display (about the World Fair) at a museum there that families would often come to Forest Park with blankets to spread out on the grass, and they would sleep there overnight (there was a heat wave going on at the time). That area (University City, I believe) is still a popular place.
    The County is strong, but the city is dwindling, and it’s been like that for a long time. They cut their own throats. The story is indeed one of poor foresight, but it’s much larger than a single park.
    And Lindbergh runs parallel (curve and all) with 270, right through downtown Kirkwood and on to Lemay. I don’t see Kirkwood suffering for lack of a freeway (or Clayton, or Oakville, etc.).
    I don’t see why anyone would go to the city when the county is so much nicer.


  3. I would second Dennis on the effects of freeway routes and African American communities. The story of I-40 in Nashville is one of the most nakedly racist tales I’ve ever encountered. The planning of Ellington Parkway was similar. Both these highways destroyed vibrant, predominantly African American, neighborhoods.

    Also, I grew up in the ultimate car town – Detroit, home to the first urban depressed freeway in America! Built in 1942, the Davidson freeway coincides with Detroit’s peak population (about1.8 million) and the place has been sliding downhill ever since. If there’s a correlation it’s weak, but I think it’s striking that the decline of Detroit almost perfectly mirrors the rise of the freeway.


  4. I wanna agree partially with Dennis about Minneapolis. The c ity has a vibrant magnificent downtown. But I believe this is despite the freeways. I used to live in the Loring neighborhood which was a upper crust neighborhood on the edge of downtown. It had and still has magnificent churches built by their well to do. But when the highway came in all the wealthy abandoned the neighborhood and all their graceful townhouses and manors were converted into apartments. The neighborhoods are only just beginning to regenerate now.


  5. “A city like Phoenix which is essentially built for freeways will never be a great city.”

    OK. But does it want to be a great city? Does it try to be? It must be a nice place to live. A lot of people are moving there, or have in the recent past. (People make this argument about NYC all the time, and it rings true to me.) I understand that policy has a huge impact on peoples’ preferences. I get it. But many years of preference-making have… made preferences. And a lot of people prefer a 3,500-square-foot single-family home with a yard and a garage. And when a few million of them get together and invent a place to live, you get Phoenix. Not London. So be it. I just have a hard time buying the agrument that this basket of preferences is “spiritually” deficient.

    “All of which pushes urbanites out of the city and into the suburbs. As Tim notes, this exodus is hardly chosen.”

    Again, I am not so sure. I suspect that preferences and policy were working in the same direction, rather than one “causing” or “pushing” the other. Read Mencken some time. There were LOTS of reasons people did not like living in cities like Baltimore. And many of those reasons had nothing to do with highways or parking requirements.


    • @Sam M,

      I mostly agree with this comment. If you want to stick 3 million people together, you really have a couple of options. You either pack them in tightly or you rely on freeways to allow them to spread out. Both cases have their pluses and minuses. Both cases have their pluses and minuses. You simply can’t talk about suburbs without also talking about the ability to have larger houses and yards and so on. And you can’t dismiss these benefits as something that people only think they want without simply disregarding preferences that are not your own.

      That being said, there is a good counterargument in that there are a lot of Phoenices and very few NYCs and without government intervention there might be a better balance. My guess is that given their druthers a lot of people would prefer to be more packed in with the benefits that it provides and because of public policies it is made more difficult.

      I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should try to help those that want to live the NYC lifestyle in other cities do so. But I am unsympathetic to the argument that we should try to turn every city into a regional variant of NYC. EDK doesn’t like the freeways and the sprawl, but a lot of people do… and it’s not that we’ve been duped.


      • @Trumwill,

        I would be happy to let the market hold more sway. And I think ED and people like MY make a great point when they argue that a vast national campaign of highway building and minimum parking requirements is not, actually, some kind of libertarian utopia. Libertarians do not take that argument seriously enough.

        At the same time, I go back to my objection that casting this in “spiritual” terms is hugely overwrought. It’s not like prefering to live in a 20-story building with 450-square-foot studio apartments gives you more access to the divine. For almost all of history, living that way was well-nigh impossible, and peoples’ spirits survived just fine.

        Yes, modern american suburbia was an accident of policy, economics, culture, preferences and a whole host of other factors. But so was “The Great American City.” They both have their place, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that either is “better” on some cosmic level.


        • @Sam M, unfortunately, the market is inherently warped by government policy because even if we set aside land-use restrictions in the like, we still have public utilities, road-building, and so on. I don’t think it’s remotely possible to do these in a truly neutral manner.

          Regarding the supposed spirituality-dearth of the suburbs, I am in 100% agreement. I don’t really comment on it because it’s one of those intangible things that people feel rather than know and EDK and I have irreconcilably different views.


  6. I think it’s important to denote the difference between ‘freeways’ (usually ring roads that are intended for use by the city’s residents) and interstates. I think interstates are the primary problems. Routing interstate traffic through urban areas is a mess and creates numerous problems for the residents. We’re having the same battle in Louisville trying to getrid of expansion plans for I-64 right in the middle of our downtown area. It’s a real mess for us because we have three interstates that merge right in the middle of our city center.


    • @Mike at The Big Stick, I don’t entirely agree about routing Interstates through interstates*, but what you call “freeways” most places I’ve been are simply called “loops” and freeways represent any road with controlled access, most of which are Interstates or State Highways that connect cities and run through cities while connecting to other cities.

      * – The problem in my home town is that if you do away with those, you have to add to the loop for people trying to get from one side of town to the other. The interstates that go through the city alleviate traffic on the loop going around it.


  7. Well, some situations can be redeemed. When Boston buried the Central Artery, it reunited Charlestown with the rest of the city. And replaced one of the ugliest roads in America with walkways and parkways. Not that the project has been a worldbeating success overall, but that part was, I think.


  8. Pingback: Are freeways to blame?

  9. I think a great counterpoint to all of this discussion is Boston: the city itself is small with one of if not the largest suburban to urban population ratio in the country. A huge network of tunnels connects northern suburbs to southern suburbs, and ferries and subways respectively bring people to the city from the eastern and western suburbs. No one would say Boston is a lousy, uncultured city, yet it seems to defy most of the discussion on this site about this topic. I’m not saying there’s anything causal about it, and Boston may even be “the exception that proves the rule” although I’ve never really understood what that expression means. Anyways, just throwing out some food for thought.


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