Thursday, June 3, 2010

Route 66 And US 75

Texola, Oklahoma
Texola, Oklahoma

Recently, I've been thinking about how US 75, which bisects Richardson, is a blessing and a curse. Texas Instruments, a huge economic engine in Richardson's history, wouldn't be where it is without US 75 being where it is. More recently, Telecom Corridor wouldn't be here either without US 75. And yet those benefits come with a price.

Significantly, US 75 is also known as Central Expressway. The name has nothing to do with Richardson, but the name is fitting for what it does to Richardson, slicing it in two down the middle. In the past, I've argued that we need to punch holes in Central Expressway to knit east and west Richardson together again and make it whole. Patrick Kennedy, who runs the most excellent WalkableDFW blog, has been even more ambitious in his thinking. Rather than punch holes in the freeways, he wants to narrow the highways or rip them up altogether.

After the jump, where he and I talk to each other or through each other, I can't decide which.

Recently, I came across a series of tweets by Kennedy in which he argues that freeways are the death of cities and, for suburbs, a lifeline they are best off severing.

"Downtown freeways are both barrier to local economies and lifeline for suburbia. They are the straw by which downtowns blood is siphoned.

"In fact the best thing for suburban reinvention and sustainability is to sever the lifeline. Burbs need to adapt and be more resilient.

"freeways are important to regional economies but they're death to local ones. you find most euro fwys outside city boundaries."

"Euro freeways are then linked to city core and local economies contextually. Boulevards and train hubs."

As much as I understand and agree that the freeways around and through downtown Dallas have strangled the city, there's something about Kennedy's argument that just doesn't sound right. In turn, I tweeted:
"Travel old Route 66 today and see all the towns that died when the Interstate bypassed them. Then you'll know why cities don't cut the cord."

This prompted a long and thoughtful post by Kennedy in which he says, "Mark is right that the highway bypass killed those small towns, but wrong that it is still relevant today, at least to big cities."

Kennedy read too much into my tweet. I suspect the small towns were doomed with or without the Interstate Highways. The towns simply didn't have the scale to survive. I don't know if there's a name that went with the tendency of businesses and investments to move beyond the small town markets to larger markets around the country as a whole, but when the same thing happened on a global scale in the 2000's, it was called globalization. Nationalization is what killed the small towns. Being bypassed by the Interstates was just a part of a larger historical movement. But fair or not, they get the blame.

I also suspect the experience of Route 66 may not be relevant today. Just like it's said that generals are always preparing to fight the last war, urban planners today are fighting to prevent what happened to Texola, Oklahoma, in the 1950s from happening to them today. For Dallas, they think that means doing what it takes to keep those freeways going and growing. Whether it's building a new Trinity River tollway in downtown Dallas or expanding LBJ Freeway in north Dallas, there is a relentless rush to accommodate the freeways.

My tweet about Route 66 was meant as explanation why today's urban planners don't cut the cord, not that they are necessarily correct in the lessons they draw from the experience of Route 66's small towns. I tend to align with Kennedy's arguments that downtown Dallas would be better off if it can somehow manage to quit its addiction to ever wider and more intrusive freeways. But I also understand why the Dallas city fathers don't quit. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, "Nothing focuses the mind like that photograph of Texola, Oklahoma."

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