Residents of Indiana’s urban areas will tell you that one of the more annoying features of Hoosier life is a state government in thrall to rural interests.
Indiana has a significant urban/rural cultural divide. Our legislature–which for years has been gerrymandered in ways that significantly favor rural Republican areas–resents the fact that Indianapolis is the state’s economic driver, and routinely screws us over.
State agencies, for their part, vary in their approach to the needs of urban Hoosiers.
Nowhere is the disconnect between state and city more striking than the incomprehension of urban realities displayed by Indiana’s Department of Transportation. I’ve posted previously about the conflict between the city and the state over the latter’s planned repair of the aging interstates that cut through and deface residential and historic districts in the central city.
When I read this recent article from Forbes, I thought about the reluctance of Indiana’s DOT to actually engage with the group of planners, architects and residents who came together to try to explain why elevated highways, interchanges and walls designed for country interstates create huge problems in cities.
The interstate highway system is over 50 years old and many portions of the system need repairs or upgrades. As we debate the future of the interstate highway system in light of advances in smart infrastructure and autonomous and electric vehicles, it’s worth considering whether some portions of the system should be removed, especially urban portions that are underused or harmful to the vitality of cities.
The article recognizes and recounts the many benefits of the Interstate system. Interstates have played an important part in the nation’s economic growth. But as the article notes,
The highway system is great for facilitating travel between metro areas and states and faster travel times are what make the system so valuable. But the system doesn’t need to be in its current form to serve this purpose. Several stretches of highway within cities’ boundaries do little to facilitate inter-state travel and come with a host of negative impacts on the cities that contain them….
Economist Nathaniel Baum-Snow estimates that on average the construction of one interstate highway through a central city caused an 18% drop in that city’s population between 1950 and 1990. The economic explanation is that the highway decreased commuting times, which allowed people to live farther from the city. Furthermore, the decrease in the price of commuting freed up money that could be used on other things, including more space. And since people really value space—think about how the average home size changes with income—this increased the demand for space and led to more suburbanization and a decline in population density as people consumed more land and built bigger homes.
Population loss wasn’t the only result of highways running through the cores of cities. Entire neighborhoods were razed to make room for highways, destroying homes, businesses, and urban amenities….Highways also became barriers between neighborhoods, cutting people off from job opportunities and retail options. There’s also evidence that air pollution from highways negatively impacts student outcomes in nearby schools.
Highways that bisect cities create barriers that hinder interactions between people on either side. They also take up valuable real estate that could be used for more housing, businesses, or amenities, such as parks, that make cities more appealing places to live and work.
The article’s conclusion, ironically, echos the approach preferred by Indianapolis and rejected by the state’s DOT. (In fairness, DOT did retreat from its original plan to add lanes and huge buttressing walls…)
Several highways running through cities could be removed without adversely affecting the overall system, and removal would clear the way for a new period of urban revitalization. A system of smaller, lower-speed boulevards would still enable travel through city centers without the noise, pollution, and unsightliness of today’s high-speed highways. It’s time to try something new.
And I’m sure some states will actually work with their cities to do that. Indiana, not so much.