Monday, April 2, 2012

Tear Down Central Expressway - update

Regular readers know of my quixotic dream to rip up North Central Expressway from LBJ Freeway to the President George Bush Turnpike and replace it with a grand central boulevard for Richardson -- human-scaled, walkable, lined with trees and sidewalk cafes, designed for pedestrians, not just cars.

I know this is a pipe dream, but I like to think of it as just a larger-scale version of smaller steps Richardson has already taken to impede the flow of traffic elsewhere. For example, the intersection at Campbell Rd and West Shore Dr at the entrance to UT-Dallas is a messy maze of turn lanes designed with a single purpose in mind -- to keep drivers from going directly from UT-Dallas onto West Shore Dr (or vice versa). For another example, where N Collins Blvd meets Renner Rd, it has been completely blocked off to prevent drivers from going directly from Renner Rd or Alma Rd to N Collins Blvd (or vice versa). For a third example, Grove Rd, where it intersects Centennial Blvd, has been narrowed to one lane -- by the addition of a bike lane and by the construction of a bottleneck at the intersection. The goal there is to discourage drivers from proceeding north on Audelia Rd across Centennial Blvd onto Grove Rd.

Given these concrete examples of Richardson deliberately impeding traffic in order to, presumably, increase the livability of the neighborhoods cut off by these actions, should I really be faulted for dreaming big and imagining something similar happening to North Central Expressway?

After the jump, news from the rest of world that keeps hope alive.

In an interview with Next American City, John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee who championed the demolition of the downtown Park East Freeway in that city, explains not only why such moves are possible, but can actually be good for cities. The argument hinges on correcting misconceptions that drove the freeway construction binge of the last fifty years.

One misconception is that freeways can carry more cars than surface streets. That's obviously true in a one-to-one comparison, but a street grid with lots of connections is actually more robust than a freeway. Moreover, it's more flexible, too. A single accident can bring a freeway to a dead stop, whereas drivers can more easily navigate to alternate routes if an accident occurs in a grid.

Another argument is that there is a negative associated with what freeways are designed to do. Freeways accomplish their ends, clearing congestion, by draining the lifeblood away from cities. Norquist compares Detroit to New York City. Detroit, the Motor City, pretty much solved its traffic congestion problems by covering the city in freeways. Then it bled to death as residents used those freeways to flee for the suburbs. New York City, on the other hand, which famously killed some large Manhattan freeway projects, puts up with traffic congestion on a daily business, but that hasn't stopped two million residents from wanting to live in Manhattan.

Another argument, perhaps the one most likely to carry the day, is that our freeways are aging and will be very expensive to replace. Tearing out a freeway and replacing it with a grid of surface streets is more affordable than rebuilding it. Pocketbook concerns might finally force us to do what might have been in our best interests all along.

I don't expect North Central Expressway to change form in my lifetime. Richardson is a suburb, not an urban center. Central is an intercity freeway that just happens to run through Richardson. Richardson is not the destination of travelers going either north or south on Central. Dallas might very well rip up its downtown freeways that are strangling it, but it would never allow the closure of its freeway lifelines to Houston, to Austin and San Antonio, and, yes, to Oklahoma and points north. So, my quixotic dream will remain a dream. Like many dreams, it's probably best left that way.

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