FREEWAYS SPECIAL REPORT: Suddenly, the topic of freeway removal is on the public agenda – at least in Sydney. So The Fifth Estate spoke to two US officials about their real-life experiences with removing a freeway.

In recent weeks, both Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and NSW Cities Minister Rob Stokes have both come out in favour of demolishing (or at least repurposing) Sydney’s Cahill Expressway. They say the ugly 1950s eyesore is a major concrete barrier between Sydney’s Circular Quay, Harbour Bridge and Manly Ferry and the rest of the Sydney CBD.

Lord Mayor Moore argues that by demolishing the freeway and moving the City Circle railway underground over the next 20 years, Sydney could open up a new harbourside green space and Federation Square style public square that reconnects the city to the waterfront.

It’s a similar idea to what San Francisco did when it demolished the Embarcadero Freeway to reconnect its downtown to the waterfront and transform its Fisherman’s Wharf district into a tourism icon.

Recently, The Fifth Estate published a special report asking whether Australian cities should have a serious conversation about removing freeways.

The reaction to that article was interesting, to say the least. On the one hand, many Australian transport planners and academics were already familiar with how cities from Seoul to Helsinki had successfully removed freeways, and were keen to offer more research and examples.

On the other hand, many professionals in the broader property and sustainability sector, as well as many environmentalists, were surprised to learn that removing a freeway is something that’s even possible.

That’s not the case overseas, where the idea is rapidly gaining traction. Even in the US, the Biden Administration has set aside $US1 billion ($A1.3 billion) for urban freeway removal as part of its infrastructure bill.

But what’s involved with removing a freeway? Unfortunately, there aren’t many examples of freeway removal in Australia (yet). So The Fifth Estate reached out to the City of Rochester in the US and spoke (at an early hour) to two of its officials to learn how they went about removing a freeway.

How Rochester bulldozed a freeway

Rochester is an older industrial city of over 200,000 people on Lake Ontario in upstate New York – it’s geographically closer to Toronto in Canada than to New York City. 

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a roughly 4.3 kilometre ring road freeway, called the Inner Loop, was built with the aim of alleviating congestion by distributing car traffic around the city’s downtown area.

As with many freeway projects of the era in the US, the road cut through existing, often Black and working class, neighbourhoods. 

“You had all of the negative side effects of a highway, meaning depressed property values and the separation of neighbourhoods from downtown,” deputy commissioner of neighbourhood and business development Erik Frisch told The Fifth Estate.

“Its construction led to demolition of structures, homes and the social networks that had existed prior, as well as the safety concerns that result from having a high speed highway hemmed into an urban area.”

The many problems with the freeway led to growing opposition. By 1990, the City of Rochester included removal of the freeway in an urban strategy document called Vision 2000

By 2000, the city began looking seriously at taking the first step towards removing the freeway by demolishing an under-utilised eastern section of the 10-to-12 lane road, known as Inner Loop East, which was around 1 kilometre (two-thirds of a mile) long.

“This section of the expressway was very underutilised. It wasn’t serving anywhere near the traffic volumes that it was built to serve. The first real planning efforts around it looked at feasibility, in terms of traffic volumes, and what would happen if the highway were removed, ultimately resulting in ‘yes, there is a feasible project here to move forward’,” Mr Frisch said.

After conducting a scoping study and initial designs around 2007 and 2008, the city secured funding through the Obama Administration’s TIGER competitive grants program. Demolition of Inner Loop East got under way in 2007 and wrapped up in 2014, with the city now working on removing additional sections of the road.

Big benefits for a low cost

In an era where infrastructure megaprojects typically run into the billions of dollars, the removal of Inner Loop East had a surprisingly affordable price of just $US24 million ($A33.4 million).

“Because it was a sunken expressway, it wasn’t elevated, you didn’t have large overhead structures to deal with dismantling and then building something new in its place,” Mr Frisch said.

A common objection to the idea of removing freeways is it will create more traffic on other nearby roads. 

But this argument ignores the well-documented phenomena of induced demand, where new roads generate traffic by encouraging people to drive further and more often. Likewise, fewer roads cause people to reconsider unnecessary trips.

Rochester used some of the reclaimed land to make footpaths wider and recreate the street grid that had been severed by the freeway, which improved walkability. It also built a high-quality separated bidirectional bike lane.

The new tree-lined streets and bike paths all feed people on to previously existing bus lines that cross the corridor, meaning a narrow street was all that was needed to move the remaining cars.

“We’ve done the counts and we know that there are greatly increased numbers of people that are actively walking and biking in the neighbourhood, which is one of those ways that we can prove this is a great success,” Mr Frisch said.

An opportunity to reimagine the city

Removing the freeway and reimposing a street and grid structure ended up creating a seven block canvas for the city– and its residents – to reimagine.

“That involved some visioning and workshops. We had a design and urban design expert give us some suggestions. We had many public meetings,” assistant commissioner of neighbourhood and business development Anne Dasilva Tella said.

“We balanced those wishes with what was actually needed in reality and also what the market could bear.”

The city opted for mixed use developments in the space, with retail shopfronts on the ground floor to support the new active transport corridor. The upper floors featured some office space and around 530 new residential units, including a mix of both luxury and affordable housing.

“It created more of a balance by giving us more affordable housing to balance out what had been happening in the years before that, which was mostly high end market rate housing,” Ms Dasilva Tella said.

The site also created an opportunity to expand a local institution that was located alongside the freeway, the Strong National Museum of Play, into a national tourism drawcard for the city. 

“I don’t know if it was just coincidence, but they were reimagining themselves to become more of a national draw,” Ms Dasilva Tella said. “So now we have a hotel, we have some small scale stores, all near the Museum of Play.”

More freeway removal work planned

As with many cities that have demolished a freeway, the first project demonstrated the many benefits of removing a major road, and cleared the way for additional freeways to be cleared. 

The City of Rochester is now working on a follow-up project that will remove the remainder of its ring road, known as Inner Loop North, which has higher traffic volumes.

The city anticipates this second phase project will make a big positive impact on racial equity by reconnecting a neighbourhood called Market View Heights with the downtown core, creating new opportunities and healing wounds that have festered since the freeway was first built.

“That project is now fully funded. We expect to get into preliminary design on that later this year, with a goal of breaking ground on the construction in two years, so in which time the entire loop will be upon completion. The entire loop will be gone,” Mr Frisch said.

Lessons for Australia

Having successfully removed a freeway, Mr Fritsch has a few pieces of advice for his Australian peers who are thinking of removing their own roads.

The first, and perhaps most important, of these steps is to have strong community engagement around the project, including around what to do with the freed up land.

“There was a time, when the expressway was built, where decisions were made mostly behind closed doors. There wasn’t a lot of ability for the public to sway matters,” he said. 

“If you’re not working with the community from the start, then you’re basically telling people what they want, and that supports repeating that same mistake.”

While the biggest potential beneficiaries of a freeway removal will be residents and businesses in the immediate region, it’s vitally important to recognise and engage with stakeholders in the broader region. 

“That might be a manufacturer that relies on that road to ship their goods. You have to work with them and say: ‘what can we do to make this palatable for you, so that you don’t have to relocate your facility?’ Otherwise, you’re taking steps backwards.

“When you’re talking about a project that really does affect multiple layers, you need to have champions and broad based support. So that’s your mayor, your council, your regional governments, your state or provincial governments, involving them on the way and making everybody feel like they have a sense of ownership,” Mr Fritsch said.

It’s also vitally important to make sure your project achieves the goals you originally set out for. 

For example, it can be tempting to replace a six-lane freeway with a six-lane boulevard. But if you do that, what are you really achieving?

“If that’s not an easy boulevard to cross, if it’s packed with traffic, if you didn’t provide high quality bicycle and pedestrian accommodations or transit services, are you actually eliminating that barrier?

“On the projects we’ve done, we’ve removed the highway and didn’t build a new massive street in its place. We built a standard city street.

“We created opportunities for development, which has led to increased housing, increased residents, increased jobs, increased attractions for people to come in and experience and, over time, it’s creating a brand new neighbourhood.”

Building the city you want

In the bigger picture, the story of how Rochester removed Inner Loop East is far bigger than just how one city in upstate New York removed a freeway. It’s about how we have the power to create the vibrant, sustainable cities we want.

“You never have to accept the city you have now. You should always be working towards what you want it to be. And those involved in government should know that they have the power to make change,” Mr Fritsch said.

“If your community would be better served by something other than that highway, then plan for it and build the constituency, vote the vision, show why it would be a good thing and be deliberate about it. 

“Our project is relatively small on a global picture, but it’s obviously attracted a lot of attention by virtue of what we’ve what we achieved and if we had just started and said: ‘well, it’s a highway, it’s there, we got to live with it’, then we would have never gotten anywhere.”

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  1. Much more sustainable would be to keep the Cahill Expy road deck to develop as a “High Line”, keep the railway and open up the currently infilled space below the railway so there is a ground level visual and physical link. Keep the working ferry wharfs and their timber character.
    Circular Quay is a fantastic transport interchange between the railway and the ferries and the light rail, and the road deck would become a brilliant cycleway between Macquarie St and Observatory Hill (and beyond in each direction), also a spectacular viewing platform, and place to enjoy the outdoors out of the traffic, with interesting neuks and spaces for many activities. A wonderful transparent lift or lifts could bring people from the ground level up to the walkway on the northern elevation. See the High Line at
    A large square would be just that, a large square, for the most part under-utilised with no human or environmental intimacy or routine function apart from occasional ceremonial events.
    There are many freeways in Sydney which should go (or not be built at all), particularly all the spaghetti over Darling Harbour. The Cahill Expy is not one of them. Its design is much more considered, and it has a proud history, albeit outdated. This is just the opportunity to transform it into a real attraction for cycling, pedestrian use and just wandering, dining or looking at ships.
    An audit should be undertaken into the embodied energy in the existing structure, and the carbon costs of demolition and undergrounding the railway. It is a strong structure, with the roadway just waiting to be reimagined and recycled.

  2. Seoul SKorea removed a large main freeway from the centre of the city and returned it to a water channel feature which now is one of the most attractive parts of the city for both locals and tourists

    but there’s a bad side to that story about what got bulldozed …