FREEWAYS SPECIAL REPORT: A growing number of cities in the US and around the world have started demolishing freeways. Is it time for Australia to start doing the same?

Today in Australia, the idea of demolishing a freeway is pretty much unthinkable. 

And yet, around the world, cities from Seoul to Helsinki have begun tearing theirs down.

Even the US, the homeland of Dwight D Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, the idea is gaining traction. The Biden Administration has set aside $US1 billion ($A1.3 billion) for urban freeway removal, as part of its infrastructure bill. Cities from San Francisco to Rochester in upstate New York have already called in the bulldozers on their freeways.

There have been massive benefits to developers, governments and communities alike. Some of these benefits include more green space, less pollution, improved social equity and, ironically, less traffic.

So, is it time for Australian cities to follow suit?

The Fifth Estate spoke to local and international transport experts to discuss the case for why Australia should start looking seriously at removing our freeways.

Are freeways an expensive policy failure?

For the past 60 years or so, roads have dominated Australian transport policy. Since the opening of Sydney’s Cahill Expressway in 1958 and Henry Bolte’s 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan, Australian governments have spent billions building new freeways.

With each new freeway that’s been built, and each new lane that’s been added, the promise has been made that—this time—it will solve our congestion woes and get us to where we need to go faster. Yet, as anyone who has sat in peak hour traffic will tell you, that simply hasn’t happened.

Could it be that successive governments from both parties have wasted billions of dollars on an expensive policy failure?

The Biden Administration’s freeway removal policies have “sparked the imagination” of even more cities, such as New Orleans. “There’s no one particular region or area where this is popping up. This is really a widespread phenomenon.”

Benjamin Crowther

US transport expert Benjamin Crowther, who manages the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Highways to Boulevards and Freeways Without Futures initiatives, said there are big benefits to removing freeways.

“Highways are a liability. We often think of them as assets. If you think about assets, assets typically gain value over time and highways are always depreciating. You always have to pour more money into them for upkeep,” Dr Crowther said.

Two of the big problems with freeways is that they cause pollution in the neighbourhoods they cut through, and also divide neighbourhoods and communities.

“You’re removing a source of emissions from usually residential neighbourhoods and cities. But you’re also able to reclaim the land that’s underneath highways, and in some cases that’s quite a lot of land. This is at a time where our cities are rather built up and land is scarce,” Dr Crowther said.

Unlocking that land opens the possibility of building new homes to alleviate the housing crisis and also open up new public spaces that give people more access to parks and recreation. 

Where freeways run through low-income or ethnically diverse communities, there are social benefits as well.

“In the US, we tend to think of highway removal projects as reparative projects, because oftentimes it was low income communities and communities of colour here that were the most affected by highway building,” Dr Crowther said.

“There’s an opportunity now, in removing some of these highways, to return some of that land to community members for community purposes and really focus on community centred design.”

Induced demand, and why there won’t be carmageddon 

A big objection to the idea of removing freeways is that it will simply lead to more traffic on other nearby roads. Yet that hasn’t been the experience of US cities that have removed freeways.

“In the United States, there have always been predictions that carmageddon will happen. There have now been well over a dozen freeway removal projects here. That has never happened,” Dr Crowther said.

“There’s been studies that have been done, over 100, I believe, on different road reduction capacity reduction projects across the world, including removing highways, and in each of those cases, traffic decreases by about 25 per cent.”

A great real-world example of this is the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. Built in the 1950s, the road carried around 93,000 trips a day, severing the city’s downtown from its iconic Fisherman’s Wharf district.

Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco cut off the CBD from the waterfront. Image courtesy GeraldPHawkins on Wikimedia Commons. Shared under CC BY 3.0.

Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the County Board of Supervisors voted to not rebuild the freeway. A subsequent survey asked motorists how the road closure affected the trips they made.

“What this survey found out was that some people use alternate routes, a smaller percentage switched to public transit, but about 20 per cent of the respondents just said they skipped unnecessary trips,” Dr Crowther said.

“They didn’t drive to the corner store for a gallon of milk, instead they got that gallon of milk when they went to the grocery store once a week. It’s not that it was dispersed along other streets, but rather behaviour just changed and people re-evaluated the necessity of some of their trips.”

This ties in with a concept in planning circles known as induced demand. 

Countless studies have shown that building more roads doesn’t clear traffic jams, because that new road capacity just encourages drivers to make more trips and move further from their destinations.

“It’s like putting out free pizza. You know, as much pizza as you put out it will all disappear. By the end of the night someone will take it.”

Reclaiming the soul of Seoul

An international poster child for freeway removal is Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, South Korea.

In July 2003, Seoul’s then-mayor Myung-bak Lee announced plans to demolish an elevated freeway that had been built over a stream after the Second World War. The structure had developed concrete cancer and had been in dire need of repair.

Cheonggyecheon today. Creative Commons: Originally posted to Flickr as Cheong Gye Cheon 1.

Jason Byrne, professor of human geography and planning at the University of Tasmania, told The Fifth Estate the road’s demolition opened up the stream below, creating a 10.9 kilometre greenway through the city.

“There was a reduction in temperature of around 3 degrees Celsius, an increase in the use of the metropolitan transport system, massive increases in property value along the length of the new greenway, and then a huge increase in tourism.”

The project was so popular that Lee ended up being elected the president of South Korea, while another 15 freeways were subsequently demolished across the city, with more removals on the drawing boards. 

A revival in Rochester

In America, 18 cities so far have either removed, covered, or committed to transform an urban freeway. 

According to Dr Crowther, the Biden Administration’s freeway removal policies have “sparked the imagination” of even more cities, such as New Orleans. “There’s no one particular region or area where this is popping up. This is really a widespread phenomenon.”

One of the first cities to close a freeway was Rochester in New York, which tore down the eastern section of its Inner Loop Highway in 2017. The road had cut through a predominantly Black working class neighbourhood. 

“The project cost $US25 million ($A32.9 million). And in the first two years alone Rochester saw $US229 million of economic development along that corridor. That’s a 10-fold return on investment,” Dr Crowther said.

Before and after. Images courtesy City of Rochester.

Along with an economic boost, there were a range of social benefits for the community. It knitted the community back together. A total of 540 new houses were built in the space where the road once stood, with half being affordable housing.

“Rochester has leveraged some of that $US229 million to support social programs. So along the corridor now, there’s now subsidised housing for ex offenders who are re-entering the workplace, for people with HIV and for elders too.”

The council also spoke to local residents about the services that were lacking in the area, such as pharmacies and day care centres, and made sure they were included in the development plans for the corridor.

Just like Seoul, Rochester is now in the process of removing more of its freeways.

But what about Down Under?

While there have been some discussions in Australia about removing freeways, unfortunately to date they unfortunately haven’t received the same traction as projects overseas.

Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway. Image courtesy Kgbo on WIkimedia Commons. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

Professor Byrne said two projects that have been discussed as possible demolition targets are Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway, which runs along the Brisbane River near the city’s CBD, and the Cahill Expressway in Sydney’s Circular Quay.

“There’s been on-again off-again conversations over the years to think about removing the Riverside Expressway and opening up the waterfront, much like San Francisco. But that hasn’t received a huge amount of traction,” he said.

“The one that has received more traction is the idea of demolishing the Cahill Expressway in Sydney. The City of Sydney has long been entertaining promoting the idea of removing that freeway.”

Public transport is part of the solution

The key to successfully removing a freeway is to build good quality public transport, along with cycling paths and walkable neighbourhoods.

A freeway lane can carry roughly 1800 vehicles per hour, which works out to 2000 people per hour with an average of 1.11 passengers per vehicle. That means a typical six-lane freeway can move around 12,000 people an hour in both directions. 

In comparison, a double-track railway with a modern signalling system can easily support a train every three minutes in each direction. A six-car train can carry around 1000 passengers, which means a train line can carry 40,000 people an hour in both directions.

two projects that have been discussed as possible demolition targets are Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway, which runs along the Brisbane River near the city’s CBD, and the Cahill Expressway in Sydney’s Circular Quay.

According to Daniel Bowen, convenor of Victoria’s Public Transport Users’ Association, more frequent services are needed across the public transport network so can efficiently interchange between trains, trams and buses.

“What we see in most Australian cities is there are public transport networks, which are quite good for some trips in peak hours. But the service levels drop off outside peak hours. There are some parts of those cities that never get frequent services,” Mr Bowen said.

“So it’s a matter of making sure that public transport options do present a viable alternative to getting in the car driving somewhere. And that’s not just the trips into the central city but also around the suburbs as well.”

The good news is that roads are so inefficient at moving people that removing them can increase the number of people you can move.

“The right of way of highways is so wide that it can easily accommodate a city street with bike lanes with ample sidewalks with dedicated bus lanes, even light rail if you want to scale up to that level,” Dr Corwther said.

Let’s have the conversation

Today in Australia, the idea of demolishing a freeway is pretty much unthinkable. 

But given the many potential benefits, and the growing number of overseas examples, there is a strong case for at least starting the conversation.

“Freeways are a terribly inefficient form of transportation, both in terms of space and the energy they consume. They’re essentially fossil fuel infrastructure. They also create barriers between different neighbourhoods,” Dr Corwther said.

“We’re now in the 21st century. And I think we realised that largely our 20th century transportation infrastructure that we built is not sustainable. There’s an opportunity to do better.”

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  1. Because they are generally “public private partnerships”, covered by all sorts of extreme confidentiality laws that prevent the public from finding out much, or anything, about how our money is being spent to build the next “missing link” in our broken transport system, the private tollways that litter Australian cities make excellent money laundering devices. None of them work out as transport, but they attract organised crime like, well, like they were set up to do. And the politicians just keep coming back for more bribes, in spite of all the evidence that tollways just cause more congestion in the rest of the traffic network.

    1. Indeed and the Westerns Harbour Tunnel / Northern Beaches links are a perfect example of a lack of transparency. You have to question who is running the state – our elected representatives or the big end of town?

  2. Oh yes please: to the demolition of the riverside expressway! What an eyesore. A relic of the 60s. Good riddance!
    Can you believe they recently built a lovely exercise area underneath it. Fitness equipment, ping-pong tables, play equipment… all drowning in fumes drifting down from above. No one uses it, of course. It’s poisonous.

  3. Not quite a freeway, but Perth’s Riverside Drive was cut when Elizabeth Quay was developed. The opposition raised concerns about increased congestion… which didn’t come to pass. Interestingly, this happened around the same time that one block away, the same section of parallel-running St George’s Terrace (the main drag through Perth CBD) was narrowed from three lanes each way to one lane plus a bus lane. This segment could potentially have taken diverted traffic, so it was quite a decrease in east-west road capacity. Still there no traffic chaos.