Friday, June 4, 2010

Route 66 And US 75 - ctd

Texola, Oklahoma
Texola, Oklahoma
Yesterday, I blogged about old Route 66 and the small towns along it that withered and died when the new Interstate Highway bypassed them. I suggested that the towns may have been doomed in any case, but the freeways played their role. I suggested that fear of the same thing happening again is what keeps city fathers worshipping at the feet of freeways today. No one wants to be the next Texola, Oklahoma.

I quoted Patrick Kennedy as claiming that freeways are sucking the lifeblood out of cities and are a lifeline for suburbs that the suburbs would be better off severing to enable much needed reinvention. I said there was something that didn't seem quite right about that argument, but I never did get around to saying what it was. That's because I wasn't sure myself.

After the jump, my rambling attempt to understand just what it is that bothers me about Kennedy's argument.

Any good rambling should start at the very beginning. In this case, that's rivers. No one built a river to serve cities. Cities sprang up at convenient points along the rivers. Canals and railroads and highways were not like that. They were built where they were needed (or wanted). The Erie Canal connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes. The B&O Railroad connected Baltimore with western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Route 66 connected Chicago with Los Angeles.

More recently, highways were built to connect city centers with suburbs. Only the suburbs didn't exist yet. It was the highway that enabled them to exist. Were the highways built to meet a need for tract home developments in the suburbs (build it and they will come), or were the tract home developments built to take advantage of the convenient transportation afforded by the new highways (don't look a gift horse in the mouth)? In the end, it doesn't matter. Highways and suburbs grew together. The combination of cheap land and cheap gasoline was irresistable. Nothing and no one could have stopped it, even if they had wanted to, and they didn't want to. Don't forget, R.L. Thornton and Woodall Rodgers were mayors before they were freeways.

Richardson, 1959
The history of Richardson is consistent with this broader history. Look at this aerial photo from 1959 of "downtown" Richardson. No way was Central Expressway built to connect Richardson to anywhere. Richardson was essentially non-existent in 1959. Central Expressway was the catalyst for development in north Dallas, Richardson, Plano, and now all the way to McKinney. This freeway wasn't built to connect cities. This freeway was built to facilitate the creation and growth of new cities.

Maybe it would have been wiser, in retrospect, to have better controlled the urban sprawl before it happened, but we don't have that option. Our challenge is to figure out where we go from here.

It's one thing to imagine those downtown Dallas INTRA-city freeways replaced with tree-lined boulevards that residents feel safe enough to ride bikes on or jaywalk across. It's something else entirely to imagine doing the same thing to those INTER-city freeways that stretch out from Dallas for 20 miles or more before reaching open country. Rip up Central Expressway through Richardson and you weaken the regional economy.

What Richardson *can* do is ameliorate some of the downside of growing up along an INTER-city freeway. We can resist the pressure to lay more concrete for ever wider highways. We can "punch holes" in Central Expressway, holes big enough to connect east and west Richardson. We can continue to promote DART and mass transit-oriented development like Brick Row and Galatyn Park. We can reinvest and reinvent the west Spring Valley corridor, including where it intersects Central Expressway. And, yes, we can promote development along the new freeway in town, the Bush tollway.

On the whole, Central Expressway has been more of a boon than a drag on Richardson over its history. It's still more boon than drag today. It can remain so into the indefinite future as long as Richardson stays in control, keeps reinvesting, and balances development to keep the city as a whole prosperous.

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