Freeways in Cities: An Uneasy Connection

In the half-century plus since Congress authorized its legislation, the impact of the Interstate Highway System on American transportation has been nothing short of transformative.  America’s freeway system created a more accessible nation, allowed us to more easily reach our distant family and friends, and revealed the promise of the open road.  But, like so many large-scale government programs, it is not without its share of problems.  One fateful component of the plan has had particularly damaging effects on American cities – the decision to allow freeways to directly enter our urban cityscapes.

Norman Bel Geddes, considered by many the conceptual father of the Interstate Freeway System, first proposed the idea of an interstate highway system to President Franklin Roosevelt just prior to WWII.  Bel Geddes had been impressed with the development of limited access roads in Europe, particularly the German autobahn.  However, he warned explicitly that this new system should not interfere with existing street networks, arguing that it would disrupt the efficient distribution of traffic.  In fact, Bel Geddes concluded:  “the interests of local traffic are exactly opposite to those of through traffic… Of all the vehicles on the road, only those shall enter the community which actually have business there.”  This view was not lost on the Eisenhower administration, as the President agreed that interstates should “contain only roads that carry intercity traffic around and into cities” and advocated that urban highways not be part of the plan.

Unfortunately, state and municipal policy-makers saw what they believed to be a unique opportunity to employ highway engineering as a means to help remediate some of the perceived major issues (urban divestment, social demographic shifts, etc.) that were facing American cities at the time.  Mayors and municipal associations testified strongly in favor of the Interstate System because of the benefits the cities expected to receive from urban highways.  Despite last-minute actions by the Eisenhower Administration to have them removed from the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, urban Interstates played a large role in Congress’ decision to pass this transformative legislation and thus were included. So, with heavy municipal support, the Federal Government steamrolled its way through the heart of many of America’s great cities.

I-70 construction

Construction of I-70, 1964

The new interstate highways, mostly completed from the 1950s to the early 1970s, had enormous consequences. In large metropolitan areas, interstates linked central cities with emerging postwar suburbs, issuing in the age of automobile commuting while undermining what was left of inner-city mass transit.  The effect of the urban interstates was profound.  Predicated on the slum clearance policies of the past, urban expressways were built directly through long-established inner-city residential communities, destroying low-income housing on a vast and unprecedented scale.  While some new development was stimulated in downtown areas as a result, the lion’s share was pushed out to suburban areas and took shape into the shopping malls, office parks, and subdivisions so familiar today.

San Francisco Embarcadero, photo by vision63

As the deleterious effects of the urban interstates began to mount, a movement began to build, calling for certain urban expressways to be removed in favor of the traditional urban street grid that once helped make American cities the most vibrant and prosperous in the world.   Cities such as New York, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Portland, removed entire urban sections of the interstate with little or no lasting disruption to traffic conditions.  In these cases, the existing roadways were more than adequate to support the additional traffic.  Each of these cities also saw significant and measurable economic and civic progress predicated on highway removal.

It is time for St. Louis to take a closer look at what these cities were able to accomplish and start taking the right steps to ensure that the divisive stretch of Interstate 70 cutting through downtown be removed.  Only then will our city recapture its true essence as a livable, walkable community.  After all, that’s what the founders of the freeway system and President Eisenhower had in mind all along.


Bel Geddes, Norman. Magic Motorways. New York: Random House, 1940.

Removing Freeways – Restoring Cities. Siegel, Charles.  2007. The Preservation Institute. 21 June 2010.

Eisenhower Interstate Highway System Web site. 2009. 18 June 2010.

2 Responses to “Freeways in Cities: An Uneasy Connection”

  1. Craig says:

    I lived in Golden Gateway Center in the summer of 1991, and listened to the jackhammer staccato of the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway, I believe that the Freeway had been damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in October, 1989. That gave proponents of freeway removal a better shot at success

    I googled this and found a great article worth reading to see how hollow the pro-freeway argument was and how it was demolished:

    Freeways surely damage the urban environment, but they damage the suburban environment where I live in southern Kansas City, Missouri. The roar of the freeway — once only audible in the dead of winter — is now constant, though I live a mile away. Sound walls for the poor sods adjacent to the highway provide an aspirin-level of relief to a morphine-level situation. Local traffic is blocked by the highway, and traffic lights from on/off ramps cause locals to drive miles to avoid those choke points. And even if they are removed, the massive scars upon the land will be difficult to cover up.

  2. There was a very interesting case study of highways in Bangkok Thailand as well, there were whole systems of large pile that had been erected and then left to crumble many years later.

Leave a Reply