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Economy & Business

Rethinking St. Louis Highways

Congress for New Urbanism

The creation of the new I-70 bridge over the Mississippi just north of downtown has created renewed interest in a plan to remove the part of I-70 that currently runs through downtown.

John Norquist is the President of the Congress for New Urbanism, where he champions a growing movement encouraging cities to tear down their freeways. 

Norquist gave a talk at Washington University entitled “Rethinking Our Streets: The Value of Flexible Street Design”

Adam Allington:  Can traffic move through cities without freeways or highways?

John Norquist:  “Well it does in most of the world.  It does in Europe .  Vancouver for example has no freeways whatsoever and it has the most buoyant real-estate market of any North American city in the last 25 years.

Expensive property and complicated human activity, businesses, social activity, really need something that’s scaled to work with those activities and giant roads usually don’t work . 

In Europe they intuitively understood that.  They only built freeways between cities and around the outer edges of urban areas--they didn’t build them in them. 

Paris for example, has one freeway which is now being removed, the Autoroute Pompidou.  San Francisco has removed two freeways; New York City removed the West-Side Highway and replaced it with a street.  Portland removed a freeway, Chattanooga, Tennessee removed a freeway and Milwaukee removed a freeway and in every case the traffic distribution got better. The property values went up and people liked it and nobody talks about putting the freeways back

Adam Allington:  What about congestion, what about gridlock?

John Norquist:  Well congestion is an issue.  Congestion is usually thought of as a bad thing and the national and state policies in the U.S. tend to be a battle against congestion.  But congestion is a little bit like cholesterol.  There is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, and you die without cholesterol.  Well the same is true of a city, you need a certain amount of congestion—congestion is a symptom of prosperity. 

So Greenwich Village is congested, but not just with traffic, it’s congested with money, people, restaurant customers, people who live in the neighborhoods and enjoy it, high real estate values.  San Francisco is congested.  Congestion is a problem but it’s like Yogi Berra said, “nobody goes to New York any more, it’s too crowded.”

Adam Allington:  When you were mayor of Milwaukee you championed the removal of the Park East Freeway, what was the reaction of your constituents.

Well it’s counter intuitive, so it does take some explaining.  What we did in Milwaukee to make it happen was I really worked closely with the property owners downtown so that they would understand what was going on, they had a chance to think about it, and they eventually understood it was going to help them.  It was going to make their property worth more money.

Adam Allington:  Well is what we’re seeing today enough to call it a real trend. And can the process of seeing all these highways going up be reversed and at what cost?

John Norquist:  It’s actually cheaper to tear them down; most of them are at, or beyond their lifespan.  If it’s an elevated freeway it’s really expensive to rebuild it and there is not enough money.  The Federal Government is not giving extra money for roads to states anymore, they have a fixed allocation for Missouri, or Illinois, or any other state.  There’s just not enough money to replace all this infrastructure so there is an opportunity—instead of replacing it with what’s there, replace it with things that actually add value to the city.

Adam Allington:  What do you think about the growth potential of St. Louis?

John Norquist:  I think St. Louis made a lot of really bad decisions in the sixty years after WWII—eliminating their street car system, building all of the freeways. 

But with the light rail system that you’ve built, you have the core of that system in place, and with more and more people enjoying the older suburbs and the older neighborhoods that are in the City of St. Louis itself.  The trend is already set, this city is going to regenerate and the metro area is going to regenerate.  I would be very confident about St. Louis’ future.

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