"The Life and Death of Urban Highways"

787 Corning view

Another log for the "tear down 787" fire: The Life and Death of Urban Highways, a survey of why cities around the world have been tearing down urban highways -- and what has happened when they've done so. (Update: That link wasn't working for some reason Tuesday evening, so the report is now embedded after the jump.)

Among the reasons cited by the report that urban highways have fallen out of favor:

+ Costs of reconstruction and repair: Cities are finding out how much it costs to maintain these highways and are deciding the money is better spent other ways.

+ Economic revitalization: Removing the highways, which serve as dividers in the urban landscape, has opened the way for new development of neighborhoods -- and in many cases, higher property values.

+ Making accessible waterfronts: Many urban highways -- like 787 -- parallel waterfronts, and removing them reconnects the waterfronts to the city, again opening the way for parks, development, and higher property values.

The report also includes case studies from cities such as Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Milwaukee.

The orgs responsible for the report, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and EMBARQ, advocacy orgs that both appear to be very much of the Jane Jacobs, pro-public transit school -- just something to keep in mind while reading through the report so grains of salt. It's interesting reading, and it's easy to see how many of the issues brought up could apply to the Capital Region.

The thing to keep in mind about 787 is that there's no "do nothing" option over the long run. If it stays, it has to be maintained -- and that's not cheap. If it goes... that's not cheap, either. So, the question really is: if we (the region/state) are going to spend (tens, hundreds of) millions on this key piece of infrastructure, what do we ultimately want to end up with? And is it worth it to us to spend more upfront to have something possibly better (though not necessarily guaranteed) in the future?

[via @SeanPCollins via Grist]

+ The removal of 787 in downtown Albany was on Martin's urban wish list
+ The Albany 2030 plan included a goal of evaluating possible alternative designs for 787
+ The Stakeholders org released a report last year that imagines the Albany waterfront with a boulevard (it's also embedded after the jump)
+ Syracuse has been considering the removal of the elevated portion of I-81 that runs right through the heart of the city [Streetsblog]

Life and Death of Urban Highways

Stakeholders 787 report 2011


All for 787 being removed but again I will ask: Where will all that traffic go? It will cost millions to remove but millions more will be needed to build up the other highways and roads north/south/west of Albany to handle the excess traffic.

What about the railroad tracks that cut off the city to the water?Will they be moved as well?

Is a toxic waste-filled river really what everyone wants to live on anyway? It's much cleaner than it used to be but still...

Agreed, Brendan. Also, there are A LOT of people who live in Albany and commute to the Troy/Ren Co. area and vice versa. If Albany decided to actually do this, I think there would be a lot of uproar from the commuters. It would be nice to have a waterfront but a complete pain in the a$$ to get to work. It's just not going to happen.

Why the gratuitous swipe at Jane Jacobs?

I need to search my soul to figure out why the "Get rid of 787" cry irritates me so, even more than the "We Want Trader Joe's" cry. Partly, it's the failure to recognize that Albany has been disconnected from the river for a long, long time before interstates were even conceived. There was a working waterfront, the canal entrance, the railroad tracks, the lumber district, heavy industry. There was access to the steamship landing at Maiden Lane, otherwise it wasn't a place where people went strolling. And yes, the river was a cesspool, and remains not swimmable because of the contributions of the local sewage treatment plants, which are often evident in the air as well, and something has to be done.

Then the other part is what Brendan said: where are those cars gonna go? Is access to the waterfront suddenly going to stop people from making a senseless commute from Saratoga County? Instead of being backed up on the interstate, will they be vastly more backed up on Route 9? Or would the strategy just be to make the commute so horrible that people have to find another way (I'm not against that, by the way).

I manage to get to that riverfront that I'm cut off from nearly every day.I'd love to see some investment in upgrading the facilities we have (and wish there were some way that it didn't all fall on the City of Albany, which has plenty of issues to deal with). But if it's not happening now, I don't think it's going to magically happen because we push to tear down a highway.

PS: can't make that ITDP link work. I'd love to see what has happened in cities of 100,000 or less, like Albany, rather than cities of millions.

Because Jane Jacobs was wrong? A grain of salt? That woman was a hero, and the only reason that there's not a highway through (much beloved of this blog) Washington Park is her legacy.

Grain of salt my tits and my ass.

Carl - what does a "long, long time" constitute for you? 40, 50, 60 years? A couple of generations I guess? Surely you and I don't remember a time when the waterfront was an important part of Albany life, but historically speaking, the Hudson's defined downtown much longer than 787 has. We wouldn't even be here without it (as a city I mean). Forgeting that so we can pretend it's not there and that it doesn't matter is kind of like ignoring your parents during your 20's cuz you think you don't need them anymore.

Anyway...it is absolutely a significant concern what will happen to all those moving vehicles if 787 gets chopped up, but that really raises a larger question: Do we really forsee ourselves being an endlessly auto-driven society?

Disclosure: I read Kunstler and I agree with him.

Typical, half thought out yuppie: Loves downtown and brownstones, but can't let go of their car. You should be glad Jane Jacobs said what she did, her theories are the fundament of modern cities.

Frankly, I can't believe somewhere so pro-city would ever approach the subject "with a grain of salt." Go back to your minivans, all-white public schools, and crushing depression.

"Partly, it's the failure to recognize that Albany has been disconnected from the river for a long, long time before interstates were even conceived."

Yes! Take a look at that photo at the top of this article. Notice all those buildings in front of 787... THAT's what cuts off the city from the waterfront, not the highway.

There are roads parallel to 787. It is my understanding that cars get diverted to other parallel roads if urban highways are removed. We appear to have those roads in the Capital Region. Those roads may not be 55mph (or 80 mph as many drive on 787) but there are roads.

It may also encourage people who would otherwise be in their car alone to take other means of transportation - like express buses that run from Troy to Albany during peak times or bicycle on the Corning trail. I know those may not be options for many people.

However, gas prices are likely to keep going up and it is better, in my eyes at least, to increase investment in pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure giving commuters more viable options than the highway.

The issue of where all the traffic will go can be solved by transportation engineers, planners and the community.

I think the improvement for the quality of life in Albany and the region will outweigh the personal inconvenience of adding a few extra minutes to our commute.

RealityCheck, those buildings are part of the city? What is going on here?

Widdly scuds?

I remember when I lived in SF how relieved everyone was that the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down. The city was finally reconnected to that part of the waterfront in a way it hadn't been for years. There's no reason the same couldn't happen in Albany - the Hudson might be polluted, but a viable waterfront district brings nightlife, tourists, and potential job creation.

I understand that there are people who commute from Albany up to those outer cities, and vice-versa, but isn't that part of the problem? We should be encouraging a vibrant downtown Albany where people live, work, and shop, not more crappy fast-food outlets and malls way the hell out on Wolf Road. A decent light-rail system and improved bus service would do much to help people get into downtown, where they really should be working. Sacramento's a great comparison - it's only a city of 455,000, but it's managed to encourage live-work lofts, great restaurants, and decent shopping in its urban core.

If people really want to get in cars, burning Middle Eastern oil and spewing emissions in the process, they need to pay a price for that. Tax their gas and apply it to the development of better mass transit. And in the process, we should tear down the monstrosity that is I-787 and give ourselves back a waterfront. It may have always been a working waterfront in the past, as Carl points out, but so was SF's - think Italian fishermen, Harry Bridges, and the longshoremen's strike of 1934. What is most bothersome about Albany, for me, is the perpetual lack of ambition - a convention center never seems to come to fruition, there isn't a decent department store left in the downtown core, and people seem to exult every time a second-rate chain restaurant comes to some outpost like Latham. A major public-works project like this could give impetus to a new civic spirit of pride and lead to other improvements that create jobs and give people more real reasons to want to visit and live here.

I didn't see the author taking a swipe at Jane Jacobs, just an acknowledgment that the authors of the report have very definite opinion (along the lines of Jacobs) and to factor that in while reading.

Wait minute... You were considering banning the term Troylette from the blog, but you let analpalace's tits and ass slip by? This takes my trolling to a whole new level!

It’s not buildings that I see in this photo but tons of concrete. Imagine if 85% of the highways in the above picture were gone, removed. The South Mall Arterial gone, the Dunn Memorial Bridge gone, all those ribbons and ribbons of ramps (remember the one that partially collapsed), all those concrete piers supporting the ramps gone, many of those on and off ramps to I 787 gone. Acres of space opened up on both sides of the river. Leave the six lanes of I 787. Leave the railroad.

Now replace the South Mall Arterial with a ground level (from the west side of the TU Center to Broadway) grand boulevard and call it the Empire State Boulevard. Reconnect the street grid. Design simplified on and off ramps to I 787, perhaps sending traffic north and south to on ramps in those directions. If a convention center is built, re-orient it to the south and west, facing the new boulevard and a great view of the Empire State Plaza. Replace the Dunn Bridge with two bridges. One to the south, as was suggested in one of the reports, which would go from Renssalear St to 2nd Ave across the river. The other bridge would be just north of the Dunn connecting Broadway in Albany to Broadway in Renssalear. These should be low, pedestrian friendly, bridges on the order of the Green Island Bridge. Albany and Rennsalear would be connected in a friendly street level way.

Take a look at Google satellite view. With all that concrete gone, imagine what could be done with the green space. Add a pedestrian walkway across 787 where the new boulevard and Broadway meet. Consider lowering the north bound or river side lanes of 787 into a tunnel. With the wall alongside the tracks this would limit the highway noise. Also, consider what this all does for Renssalear, and the waterfront there. The waterfront park would transform from a depressing area under the Dunn Bridge and ramps to an open space with some of the best views of the river and Albany, including the Empire State Plaza, the new convention center and the new Boulevard. It’s the South Mall Arterial that divides the fabric of the city much more than 787.

I lived in San Francisco before and after the Embarcadero Freeway was removed. That too was built around a working waterfront. Once the sunlight broke in, planners, businesses and citizens found ways to interact with the buildings that "cut off" the city from the water and make them an essential part of the city's culture--from the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market to new businesses and restaurants built within the old pier warehouses.

@To everyone upset about the grain of salt line: I plead guilty to using clumsy shorthand. All I meant to say was these are advocacy organizations with a very clear viewpoint, one that a reader should probably keep in mind when going through the report. That's it. I wasn't trying to impugn Jacobs in any way. I've updated to make this clearer.

@Brendan, Penny: You're right the traffic will have to go somewhere. But these other cities that have taken out their highways have found ways to the address to the problem, so it seems like a solvable situation.

@Carl: Then the removal of 787 is a chance for something new! How often does that happen in a centuries-old city?

@Marla Stanfield: It's perfectly reasonable to criticize what I wrote for being imprecise, sloppy, or just plain wrong. To criticize it for something you suspect about my (or anyone else's) identity is not.

@Dan: That's a good point about all the concrete. All that stuff -- roads, ramps, interchanges -- takes up a lot of space. We just accept it because it's such a fixture.

@Terrence -- I'd say that at no time from about 1850 on was there unfettered access to the riverfront, based on the development of rail, the backing of industry and the lumber district up against the water, and the highly developed working waterfront that used to exist. To me, that's a long time. And my point is simply that it wasn't the highway that cut it off, it was cut off before.

@Carl - Just because something hasn't existed historically, or at least in a very long time, doesn't mean it isn't a good idea. Uniting this city with its waterfront would only be a positive thing. And while we're at it, why not bring the railroad station back to downtown Albany? It's ridiculous that you have to go all the way out to Rensselaer, a long cab ride or a trip involving a car, when you want to get a train. A new intermodal transit terminal downtown combining bus and train functions would be a great new feature in the region.

I'll give Dan a little credit for looking at the bigger picture. It's not so simple as ripping the thing down and putting a street in its place. There would be many additional massive infrastructure projects required to replace 787. Too many people seem of the mindset "tear it down, put in a street, and everything will work itself out."

@Reality Check, the notion that removing 787 will do nothing because you have all those evil buildings blocking you from the water front is a joke to anyone who has actually spent anytime downtown. There are plenty of options to walk around those buildings and get to the waterfront…oh, wait, there is that 787 foiling my attempts to get to the waterfront once again. I think the most sensible solution would be creating a three mile boulevard through Albany, starting from the I-87 Exit 23 to the Patroon Island Bridge, which would transition back to the present day 787 once you passed the bridge. I think the idea of a boulevard shouldn’t be as scary as it sounds, for there are a few cities who were able to actually enhance traffic flow by utilizing a boulevard over the current bridge and ramp solution, which tends to waste space and create bottlenecks; once the ramps were remove, new arterials were designed to allow for quicker transfer from side streets to the boulevard and still allow for additional space for new building growth. Here are a few facts that should help frame the discussion, per the current 5 year statewide transportation improvement plan (STIP) for the Capital Region (FY2011-FY2015), which highlights the anticipated investments logged for parts of I-787. The bridge and ramps of the current 787 model are the most costly to repair and replace, making a simple boulevard much more cost effective to manage, making me think that before we sink too much into repair, we seriously discuss all our options and what we want out of our downtown Albany in the next 30 to 40 years.

Bridge Repair (Grand Total = $40.1 ml or 69% of infrastructure projects to 787): Clinton Viaduct = $25.2 ml; Dunn Memorial Bridge = $11.6 ml; Exit 6 Ramps = $3.3 ml

Pavement Repair (Grand Total = $18.2 ml or 31% of infrastructure projects to 787): Broadway to 378 (Menands) = $320k; I-87 to I-787 Overlap = $516k; I-87 Exit 23 to SME Complex = $17.4ml

Here is the link, to keep me honest: https://www.dot.ny.gov/programs/stip/files/R1.pdf

@Darren -- I'm not saying it's a bad idea, but I don't seem to be able to clarify that it wasn't I-787 that separated Albany from the riverfront without being misunderstood.

As far as having to go all the way to Rensselaer for a train: unfortunately the bridge that made that an Albany station possible, the Maiden Lane Bridge, was demolished almost immediately upon the closure of Union Station, and the associated tracks torn up (except for the one set of through-tracks) to make way for I-787. The Rensselaer rail station is closer to downtown Albany than most of the rest of Albany is. It's under 2 miles. I take a CDTA bus to the rail station from Albany all the time -- in fact it's ironically easier for me to get there from Albany than from where I live in Rensselaer County. I do see people walk to the train station, and that distance would be much more pleasant if the walkway over the Livingston Avenue Bridge were to be reopened, if only because it would be a crossing closer to the river level, compared to the circuitous climbing route we have to take over the Dunn.

Maybe I am missing something.. There is nothing separating riverfront from the city on the other side of Hudson; and I don't see flourishing riverfront over there. Why would Albany be too much different?

@Darren: Interestingly, the railstation was moved to Rensselaer as part of the "deal" to build 787 in Albany, rather than Rensselaer, where it was originally designed for. In a trade for all of the federal money etc. for constructing 787, Rensselaer would receive a RR station to produce revenue on a long term basis. Now, as a result we have a retro-fitted interstate which was haphassardly placed (i.e. all of the boarded up windows on the subsidised housing off exit 2 of 787. Trying to fit 787 between the port and the projects resulted in the projects being too close the highway to allow residents to actually live in them) Also, note the road to nowhere on the Dunn MB. Here there a misguided plan to have a"skyway" land in the middle of Rennsselaer. Fortunately, the absurdity was recognized before the project ran out of money, the Governor ran out of will power and Rensselaer was completely fed up with the whole idea.

Now...where do we stand? An engineering marvel that was poorly designed, poorly built, controversial from infancy, and celebrated for it's achievement. Which is...displacing Albany residents, restricting development of one of Albany's greatest resources and sullied Albany'r rep with it's closest neighbor (Rens.)

As a student of local geography, planning, development, history, architecture, politics and science, my opinion is that there is nothing impeding the uplifting of Albany greater than I-787. Many social issues which may seem more important could be impacted by it's removal.

That said, it will NEVER happen.

Before we put a lot of faith in the Corning path as a bicycle commute route, let's put in a few more access points on the north end of the path. Right now, once you leave the preserve, there are really only two practical access points: the Troy-Menands bridge (new!) and the Watervliet access just north of Schuyler Flats. N.B. any new access will have to cope with, you guessed it, 787.

There have been a lot of great points about this topic, so I'm just going to bullet point a few thoughts

- As time passes, the annual upkeep and maintenance cost of the 787 interchange will increase
- Congress can't / won't raise the gas tax to support the bridge and road repairs we desperately need in this country, making additional funds incredibly difficult to obtain
- While everyone pays to use 787 though gas taxes and state taxes, City of Albany residents are disproportionately affected by the highway. Consider how much taxable land is taken up by the structure.
- While 787's primary function is to cater to commuters, the state has somehow ditched the responsibility of ramp maintenance and plowing unto the city of Albany - all the while county and state roads outside the city are fully funded bu county and the state. Not a single lane of pavement in the city of Albany is maintained by the County or State. How is this fair?
- Has the river been historically cut off? Yes. But to the extent of 787? And does that make it OK to continue to be cut off? By that logic we'd still be using lead paint.
- We're talking about more than being cut off from the waterfront - for example, the plaza ramp has literally divided the city in half, and the "greenspace" around it - useless.

I fully expect more trolls to jump in the conversation and bash this idea saying "Albany is crappy, and blah blah blah" So, with great irony, not only was interstate development the single greatest cause of blight and urban downfall, but now that people are speaking out about a way to address these issues, it's somehow a "stupid idea."

Martin, you've hit on one of the mandate relief items that I have never been able to believe isn't at the absolute top of mayors' lists -- the ridiculous inequity in how state highways are maintained. I've seen letter after letter (or post after post) complaining how this or that state route is well-paved until it hits a city line. That's not an accident, it's because your (or my) suburban town isn't paying for that maintenance, but an incorporated city is.

In thinking through all this, I've hit upon a solution that I'm sure will infuriate some of my near-neighbors, but which would resolve the problems of giving Albany an accessible waterfront, increasing its percentage of taxable property, and returning the rail station to the city. Albany should just annex Rensselaer. Some of it was formerly known as East Albany anyway.

I'm not kidding.

@I Love Albany -- "here are plenty of options to walk around those buildings and get to the waterfront…oh, wait, there is that 787 foiling my attempts to get to the waterfront once again."

Okay, so we do all this and all we get is a few more pedestrian access points? That's at least realistic, as opposed to those who think there will be spontaneous massive economic development. There are better ways of accomplishing more access than removing 787. How about replacing the elevated sections with below ground sections? This would require changes to the Dunn Bridge and Plaza ramps (as others have discussed), but it seems much less damaging than replacing the highway with a street.

my opinion is that there is nothing impeding the uplifting of Albany greater than I-787. Many social issues which may seem more important could be impacted by it's removal.That said, it will NEVER happen.... said Chris on Mar 14, 2012 at 12:46 PM | link

You suggest to solve some social issues by... tearing down a highway?

@daleyplanit said "We're talking about more than being cut off from the waterfront - for example, the plaza ramp has literally divided the city in half, and the "greenspace" around it - useless."

Well said - that S. Mall Arterial with its massive ramp filled intersection including the Dunn Memorial Bridge is doing much more harm to both cities than 787!

@Carl - if annexing Rennsalear makes everyone look at both sides of the river, and what would work for both riverfronts then I'm all for it.

“Motorways and bypasses generate traffic, that is, produce extra traffic, partly by inducing people to travel who would not otherwise have done so by making the new route more convenient than the old, partly by people who go out of their direct route to enjoy the greater convenience of the new road, and partly by people who use the towns bypassed because they are more convenient for shopping and visits when through traffic has been removed”(Lemming, 1969).

I love this quote. I live in Albany and could care less if tearing down 787 inconveniences people in other towns/cities that are trying to drive by Albany. I would rather have a downtown worth visiting. I don't care if they ever build anything, just plant some grass and I'll be happy. If people in Delmar have a hard time getting to Troy...Oh well.

"I live in Albany and could care less if tearing down 787 inconveniences people in other towns/cities that are trying to drive by Albany." -- albanymary

Except I-787 does not bypass Albany. It cannot bypass Albany because it physically ends in the city. It is used to enter or leave the city, but bypassing Albany requires leaving 787 for another highway.

That, friends, is one of the things that bugs me the most about the whole debate. The people who are the loudest about wanting to get rid of it are, invariably, the people who use it the least and are completely oblivious as to the vital purpose it serves.

Carl makes some good points. Has Albany ever been truly connected to the riverfront in the manner that many people here are imagining? Will removing the highway even accomplish this dreamed-about revival? But hey, no need to worry about that. It worked in San Francisco, so it's bound to work here, right?

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the connection between the ongoing 787 debate and the recent worries about traffic on the Northway. Both situations highlight the need to start working on a light rail/commuter rail system NOW, not 15 years from now when it's too late.

I live in Albany and could care less if tearing down 787 inconveniences people in other towns/cities that are trying to drive by Albany. I would rather have a downtown worth visiting. I don't care if they ever build anything, just plant some grass and I'll be happy. If people in Delmar have a hard time getting to Troy...Oh well. .. said albanymary on Mar 14, 2012 at 8:34 PM

787 around Albany is not a "drive by" route by any means, it mainly serves downtown and Empire plaza.
If you close 787 all that traffic "from Delmar to Troy" will go via route 9W, a.k.a. Lark street. Is it the downtown you dream of?

albanymary- Yeahhh... I also live in Albany. I too could care less-- much less in fact (as opposed to "couldn't" care less which I assume you meant).

As others have pointed out, the comparisons to other cities, like San Francisco may not really be valid. I-787 may not really meet the definition of "urban highway", at least not strictly. It doesn't just run through a city-- it's a connection between the Thruway, Albany and Troy (with other cities and towns in between).

@Lu - Yes. The landscape, possibly more than anything, influences peoples (read societies/ communities) behaviors. In particular, the urban landscape shapes individual and communal attitudes toward place(s). This is a function of "the sense of place". Subconsciously we assign meaning to large (and small) urban structures (the motivation behind building ESP, SUNY A, Harriman Campus and I787 was to establish a "sense" of "grandeur" in Albany). There are large portions of historical neighborhoods under 787, they might be able to re-establish a "community" that is not in the shadow of the "Empire". Psychology aside, it would certainly allow for a healthy redevelopment in Albany inspiring investment in new spaces and places (not more bars hopefully) and could significantly increase property values downtown and beyond.

Q: How many state workers does it take to crush an innovative urban renewal highway reenvisioning plan?

A: Are you trying to take my parking away or make my commuter longer?!

The plan (as I understand it) is to tear down the current structure along the Albany riverfront which we currently know as 787 and replace it with a boulevard built at grade. In other words, there will still be a roadway where the current 787 is, just not nearly as obstructive to human life downtown. 787 can go on continuing to be what it is from Menands onwards, so how badly that would affect all you dear commuters is beyond me.

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