Were Urban Freeways a Good Idea?


It’s almost a truism in urbanist circles that construction of urban freeways was a bad idea.

Indianapolis Monthly magazine takes a somewhat more charitable view in its retrospective on the 40th anniversary of the completion of the downtown “inner loop” freeway.

"But even before its grand opening, the inner loop—31 miles of interstate within I-465, built at a cost of nearly $300 million—had begun paying downtown dividends. Real estate values around the superhighway increased in the early 1970s, reversing a 35-year decline, and Mayor Hudnut also credited the road with stimulating such projects as the Hilton Hotel, the Indiana National Bank building, and the $150 million expansion of Eli Lilly & Co.

Hudnut predicted the new freeway would spur 20,000 new jobs, and state legislators embraced the spirit: In 1973, when a federal reimbursement slowdown threatened to add 10 years to its completion date, they fronted the money for the last leg of I-65/I-70."

The conventional wisdom is that downtown freeways were unmitigated disasters. It says they destroyed vast tracts of urban neighborhoods, with a racist targeting of black ones, then remained as huge barriers to redevelopment.

The Indy Monthly article acknowledges the downsides of the construction:

"But little relief awaited the neighborhoods that were carved up for the inner loop. The project displaced a total of 17,000 residents, including 6,000 from Fountain Square (one-fourth of the population).

Linda Osborne, owner of Arthur’s Music Store, remembers Fountain Square as a vibrant full-service community during the 1950s and early ’60s. “There were theaters, grocery stores, shoe stores—all the things you have in a small town,” says Osborne, whose family business opened in 1952. Interstate construction, however, dug a wide channel that isolated Fountain Square from downtown. Then as now, a Virginia Avenue bridge carried traffic over the chasm, but the commercial district soon tanked, Osborne says."

I previously posted an article documenting the destruction in Fountain Square. It features pictures from Historic Indianapolis, including this one showing the scale of the destruction.

historic indianpolis

I don’t have Fountain Square’s demographics at the time, but what evidence I do have suggests it was a largely white community, which it remains to this day. So in this case the place with the most destruction wasn’t a minority area.

Indy Monthly also points out the example of downtown Ft. Wayne. That city decided to go with a bypass option rather than a downtown alignment. The result was that they did indeed prevent neighborhoods from being destroyed, but those neighborhoods and the city’s downtown severely declined anyway. While there are some interesting things going on downtown Ft. Wayne to be sure, it’s unarguable that Indy’s downtown is on a completely different plane of development, though to be sure Indy is a much larger city.

In fact, this is the pattern we see. Urban decline happened pretty much everywhere, urban freeway or no. When there’s a downtown freeway to blame, people do that. Where there’s not, people blame the bypass. Hence most attributing of blame for decline to urban freeways is simply incorrect.

Indy Monthly argues that the freeway system provided for convenient access to downtown. Without that access. businesses would have fled, it would be impossible to host large events, etc.

There is something to this, I think. If there were no freeway access to downtown Indianapolis, it seems likely it would be a much diminished urban center. Keep in mind, there was limited transit access and no real prospect of creating it.

But we should separate two things, the freeways that provide access to downtown and the ones that run through it. It’s certainly possible that freeway spurs could have been built into the center of the city without building them as through-routes. This is the idea behind much of the boulevarding advocacy movement.

Twice within the last decade, the state implemented multi-month closures of the Indianapolis inner loop to through traffic. This was a good real world test of whether it was needed at all.

I wasn’t living there at the time but did do some driving around rush hour during one of the closures. The best alternate route for through traffic is to use I-465 to the south. This did get heavily congested, suggesting that this road would need to be widened prior to removing the inner loop. Some folks did say some surface routes near downtown were more congested during rush hour. But there didn’t seem to be any show-stoppers to permanent closure.

In my view, removal of the inner loop is feasible, though highly unlikely to ever occur. But it goes to show that the benefits of freeway access to downtown could have been implemented in ways that were less invasive, using freeway spurs and boulevard distributors. In this scenario, the inner loop itself would no longer be a barrier, and the demolition associated with its construction could have been largely avoided. The freeway spurs could have been build with lower capacity, since no through traffic need be designed for. Some interchange complexes would have been eliminated.

Removing or never building the inner loop would indeed likely add to peak of the peak congestion. The extent to which this dominates local thinking is hard to overstate. It’s revealing that the biggest source Indy Monthly used for quotes was Bill Benner, a sports columnist, and sports and events loom large.

"To fully appreciate Indy’s middle-aged expressway, imagine 65,000-plus NFL fans spilling out of Lucas Oil Stadium and heading home on the stoplight-laden likes of Meridian Street, Washington Street, Kentucky Avenue, and other prime thoroughfares of yesteryear. Or don’t imagine it—because without this key piece of infrastructure, there might never have been a Lucas Oil Stadium.

“It was a series of dominoes,” Benner recalls. “Without the interstate, it would have really held back downtown development. So maybe you don’t have the Hoosier Dome, or the Indianapolis Colts, or the Super Bowl. And maybe you don’t have Circle Centre or Victory Field.”

Designing a transport system around sports event peaks, particularly low-frequency ones like NFL home games, illustrates the Faustian bargain Indianapolis made to revive its downtown.

Indianapolis made its downtown America’s most friendly to major events. So you can get people to and from the Super Bowl the one time the city hosts it. (I would suspect getting people to and from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for so many decades powerfully shaped this mode of thinking).

But the design of the transport system is very hostile to almost everything else, whether that be residential uses or pedestrian access. This has changed somewhat with the Cultural Trail, Georgia St. and others. But to truly change the game would require a major change in psychological orientation to be able to care less about peak of the peak congestion after Colts games and more about the average ordinary experience of the city. I suspect a similar dynamic is at play in many other places.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian, Forbes.com, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: By reddit user MikeSanborn. Cf. https://www.reddit.com/r/indianapolis/comments/3jx7n5/my_favorite_view_o... (https://imgur.com/oJLlvTS) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons