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Atlanta's I-85 highway should have been torn down instead

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Highway removals are proven to revitalize cities—and they’re happening all over the country

On Monday, Atlanta will reopen its collapsed I-85 highway, which was damaged by a fire in late March. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared “a day of celebration” for repair crews, which fixed the highway in about five weeks to the cost of almost $17 million. But is helping a city get back to its car-clogged ways really a reason to celebrate? Atlanta would be a healthier, cleaner, greener place with one less highway.

There’s no question I-85 is a major artery for the city; about 250,000 vehicles use it on a daily basis. But it’s important to note that the traffic apocalypse predicted after the collapse never happened. That’s because when major freeways are removed, drivers simply find new routes to their destinations. This is what’s happened in other cities, and it could absolutely happen in Atlanta.

The best example of freeway removal is in San Francisco, where the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged two major freeways in the city’s urban core. The double-decker Embarcadero Freeway that ran along the San Francisco Bay was replaced with a wide boulevard that opened up acres of downtown waterfront and led to the renovation of the iconic Ferry Building. The Central Expressway was replaced with parks and another wide boulevard.

The Embarcadero Freeway before a 1989 earthquake. You can see how the double-decker freeway travels in front of the Ferry Building at the photo’s center.
After the freeway was removed, a neighborhood was reborn, including the renovation of the Ferry Building, seen here.

Employment rates went up and tourism boomed in both areas after the freeways came down, but traffic was largely unaffected. In fact, about half the number of cars used the areas on a daily basis after the freeways came out. Transportation planners have a whole of range of theories for why this happens, but the best known is the concept of “induced demand”: basically, if you build bigger, wider freeways, you get more cars—and therefore, more traffic.

Other U.S. cities have followed San Francisco’s lead. Seattle, Portland, and Milwaukee all removed highways by choice, and many other cities are considering it. By reclaiming land dedicated to cars, cities can open up green space, boost local economies, decrease pollution, and encourage other forms of transportation.

Atlanta is a fast-growing city that was recently ranked as having the ninth worst vehicular congestion in the world. The fact that a 2014 blizzard completely incapacitated the city can be largely blamed on its car-dependence—everyone tried to drive home at the same time because no one had other ways to get there.

But that’s just the thing. Atlanta’s now doing a great job building out those alternatives to personal vehicles. When I-85 collapsed, ridership on the city’s public transit system, MARTA, went up by 20 percent, proving that trains and buses are a viable way to get around. More people want to live by that transit, meaning they won’t have to use highways to commute to work. And the city’s also investing heavily in walking and biking infrastructure: Last November, voters approved one measure to improve walkability to all its public schools and rail stations and another $2.6 billion to expand and upgrade MARTA service.

In fact, Atlanta is the home to the crown jewel of American transportation innovation: a 22-mile ring of walking and biking paths around the city named the Beltline. The most recent expansion of the trail, announced just this week, will feature a segment that travels under an I-85 overpass.

The newest segment of the Beltline will travel under I-85.
Atlanta Beltline

Imagine if, instead of fixing the damaged I-85, the city used the highway’s massive footprint to expand the capacity of the nearby Beltline. Imagine if, instead of spending almost $17 million to repair a highway, the city poured all that money into developing another Beltline.

Cities should not be widening highways, but instead thinking about the kind of infrastructure that encourages more walking, biking, and public transit. Atlanta is well on its way towards a progressive transportation future, but scrambling to repair an antiquated relic like an urban highway is going in the wrong direction. The city—like all U.S. cities—would have been better off without it.

Additional reporting by Hiatt Woods