Time to Bury the Inner Loop, Not Praise It

I have a romantic attachment to Rochester, New York’s Inner Loop freeway. Literally.

It was a mere stone’s throw from that highway that my wife and I had our first date, at a wonderful but now defunct jazz club called Shep’s Paradise. I’m not too sad, however, about the news that a large chunk of the highway, which forms a barrier separating downtown Rochester from the rest of the city, is about to be filled in and converted to an urban boulevard.  (h/t Streetsblog.)

The Inner Loop was one of many poorly conceived urban freeways built during the 1950s and 1960s that demolished long-standing neighborhoods while walling others off from nourishing connections with downtown business districts, other neighborhoods, or natural assets such as waterfronts or parkland. (Boston’s own version of this phenomenon, the romantically named Central Artery, was buried under downtown a decade ago at a cost of more than $10 billion during the Big Dig. Thanks again, Uncle Sam!)

Rochester’s current mayor, Tom Richards, describes the shift in thinking from then and now as follows: "When the Inner Loop was put in, the whole idea was to make it easy to get in and out of downtown in an automobile. I don’t want to make it easy. I want this to be the kind of place that you appreciate living in.” Richards doesn’t have to worry too much about inconveniencing motorists, however. The removal of part of the Inner Loop is expected to add 2.2 seconds (yes, seconds) to the evening commute.

As it prepares to breathe its last, the section of the Inner Loop that is about to be filled doesn’t have many defenders. But, as recent battles over the expansion of bike lanes in New York City and measures to slow down traffic to improve safety for pedestrians in a variety of communities have shown, actions that make life slightly more challenging for motorists – regardless of the benefits to others – rarely go by without a serious challenge.

It always makes me chuckle a bit to hear our work on issues such as transportation finance and changing transportation infrastructure needs described as “anti-car.” There’s nothing wrong with cars, per se. What is wrong is when mobility by car is elevated to be the number one societal priority – overriding concerns about mobility for non-drivers, public health and safety, environmental sustainability, the prudent expenditure of public resources, and the development of communities that are pleasant and vibrant places to live.

Highways such as Rochester’s Inner Loop stand as monuments to exactly how much was sacrificed to our half century-long quest to slice a few seconds off the commutes of motorists. Hopefully, Rochester’s efforts to reclaim the highway will serve as an example of how we can heal the damage.