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A ‘Freeway-Free’ Future for World Cities?

Neal Peirce / Aug 17 2012

For Release Sunday, August 19, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceBELLAGIO, Italy – Imagine cities built for billions of people without a single freeway. No “flyovers.” No elevated roads or canyon-like depressed super-roads.

Advanced by American architect-planner Peter Calthorpe and Colombia’s former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, the idea caught the imagination of an international forum of city experts and advisers meeting at the Rockefeller Foundation’s conference center in early August.

And why?

First, numbers. World cities (especially those of Asia, Africa and Latin America) will grow a stunning 72 percent by 2050, from today’s 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion people, more than the total world population in 2002. The task of creating livable environments for the newcomers will be made even tougher by freeways that consume big chunks of cityscape, cut through and often isolate poor neighborhoods, and pollute prodigiously. Sold as congestion relief, urban freeways encourage more auto use and end up triggering some of the most massive traffic snarls known to humanity.

Second, and sadly, limited-access superroads, with extraordinarily high construction costs, soak up public revenue that could go into schools, housing, libraries and public health to improve the lives of millions of families scraping by at subsistence levels.

Instead, those in the developing world who gain from the superroads are most often the affluent, using them to commute between city centers and gated communities miles away. The superroads produce waves of sprawl and chiefly benefit the international consultants and construction firms that push them.

The Bellagio conference heard bright counterpoints.

A first is that cars – and significantly high numbers of them – can be accommodated on regular city streets. Broad boulevards around the world do this. Paris’ famed Champs Elysees, for example, isn’t thought of first as a roadway, but in fact has eight lanes of traffic.

“There’s nothing wrong with cars,” says Peñalosa, “it’s how they’re used.” In crowded developing world cities with staggering millions of residents, a European- or U.S.-style “every-man-owns-his-own” auto culture just can’t be imagined.

Rapidly growing 21st-century cities, providing they make smart, early expansion plans, can materially improve their prospects of achieving workable street networks.

Calthorpe, for example, suggests that freeway-free cities could be planned with a broad network of car-less avenues, each offering generous space for walking, biking and exclusive bus lanes, an environment perfect for apartments and shops. Each such avenue would be separated a few hundred yards in each direction from parallel one-way streets that accommodate cars and trucks.

If the central avenues of those neighborhoods can really be kept auto-free, notes cities expert Nicholas You, the absent roar of motors and tires might let architects design buildings for natural ventilation, which could mean savings on energy use for air-conditioning.

So what’s the secret to creating such a freeway-free, democratic vision of the future city for all? It’s clearly to get ahead of the private sector land-grab that so frequently accompanies rapid-growth cities.

That’s the rub. The only way to insure against land speculation and bad use, says Peñalosa, “is government control of expanding land use to prevent crazy sprawl.”

Or as U.N.-Habitat Director Joan Clos said in closed-circuit remarks to the Bellagio conference, steps should be taken to prevent inefficient development along corridors, to create and protect public spaces, to put legal limits on what’s buildable and to create a logical street layout that may stay in place for 200 or 300 years.

Without such controls, Peñalosa warns, land gets bought and developed in sprawl-like fashion and “the richest people – car owners, banks, big construction firms – get together to put freeways through a city.” The result, he contends, is “class warfare” against the city and its common people – especially the masses of poor pouring into cities with high hopes for jobs but zero political power.

Several world cities – from Milwaukee to San Francisco to Seoul – have torn out freeways, and not for class reasons. Neither were the Bellagio conferees looking for such conflicts. A co-sponsor of the session was the Urban Land Institute, with many distinguished developers and financiers among its members. (The co-sponsor of the session was the Citistates Group of journalists and others focused on successful metropolitan strategies, which this writer chairs).

It was fascinating to see the U.S. and European financiers, planners, corporate officials and academics exchanging ideas on an array of concepts with city officials and experts from such countries as India, Mexico, Pakistan, Ethiopia, China, Singapore and South Africa.

And I heard few words in defense of freeways as the strangers walked away from the week as friends and allies, anxious to stay connected and help open new and humane pathways to this century’s burgeoning world cities.

Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s, and not necessarily those of the Rockefeller Foundation staff or trustees.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Darrell Marcy
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    The vision is beautiful, and the points you make clearly reveal the advantages. But resistance is real and comes from more than just companies that make a buck on the work. In Syracuse, NY we have the question squarely in front of us, whether to get rid of an aging viaduct bisecting the city or to rebuild it or something like it. Public sentiment is about 50-50. People just can’t imagine life without an automobile at the center of it, and not without reason. Infrastructure is not set up to provide efficient, convenient transportation without a car.

  2. Jeff
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Within the cities, life is much better without the controlled access highways. It seems as though walkable, livable cities are on the opposite end of a sliding scale with freeway cities on the other. I’m absolutely for creating cities that foster happy and connected citizens, but I guess I’m not sure how to get people into the cities from the countryside.

  3. Gino Carlucci
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I look forward to hearing a major world leader (preferably a U.S. president) declare: “The era of big freeways is over.”

  4. Posted August 18, 2012 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    As much as i enjoyed the read of better land use, i always wonder why planners don’t put some effort into NOT growing the population by another 3 billion, or US population going to 400, 500 million. And our pop. growth is nearly all caused by legal/illegal immigration.

  5. Posted August 18, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Human behaviour easily changes when you aim to their wallet. If all subsidies benefiting the use of cars are eliminated, and the cost of use is internalized and payed for directly by the user, including a gas tax big enough to pay for the maintenance of the existing road infrastructure, it’s addiction to driving will cost him dearly an thus his usage reduced. At the same time, all the revenue generated by these charges should be invested in modernizing and increasing public transit in the city and metropolitan areas.

  6. Posted August 20, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Freeways aren’t going anywhere. The removals that have happened are the end result of contexts which we’re no longer creating, which means that as time goes on, freeway removal will slow, not accelerate. Click my name for more.

  7. MC
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    A friend and fellow city planning enthusiast once told me something about freeways that perfectly distilled, in stunning simplicity, both the problem and its solution:

    The grid IS the freeway.

    What he was getting at, of course, is that we’ve been fools all along, and possibly tools of the auto and oil industries, for believing in a transportation scheme that turns logic upside down by taking massive numbers of vehicles off the grid of surface streets, funneling them in to a narrow band of freeways, and expecting that this will ease traffic congestion.

    The freeways CREATE congestion! The solution, as this article points out, is to return motorists back to the grid, spread out and more easily manageable. Neighborhoods will knit back together, community bonds will be restored, economic vitality will return and public money will be used more wisely and efficiently.

    Brilliant article! Spread the word!

  8. Mark Abraham
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    This sketch shows the extent to which American neighborhoods can be reconnected, and waterfronts re-opened, if we were smart enough to take the advice in your article to heed:

  9. Posted August 23, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Great to see that these ideas are being discussed far and wide. Right now in Canada a large proportion of our elevated freeway infrastructure is crumbling, and decisions need to be made about what to replace them with. The Turcot Interchange in Montreal is just one example, and one where the provincial government wants to rebuild an old mistake. is just one of the grassroots organizations working towards freeway free cities in Canada. See

  10. Blair
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    While a great vision it ignore the needs of the modern city including delivery trucks to supply the supplies that keep a city fed and clothed and the service vehicles that allow tradespeople to get about to complete their tasks and move their tools/supplies. Take a look at the freeway on any workday and a significant percentage of the traffic is supply vehicles, not cars. Cars are there in the morning and evening but trucks and vans are out there all day keeping the cities running.

  11. Posted August 25, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    For Blair: So we keep building freeways for trucks? Not sustainable. We need to consume less, to produce more locally and to look for other less energy intensive ways to transport goods: e.g., rail, barge (for the lower mainland). More generally cities (where most people live) need to become more compact, a series of eco-villages with permacultural gardens of various scales. We need to produce much more, as much as possible, of what we consume within cities and their local bioregions. Right now NO CARS OR TRUCKS ARE PRODUCED IN THIS BIOREGION and yet we have huge numbers of motored vehicles here. this is not sustainable. We need to always look at the big picture.

  12. Posted August 25, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    For Blair: So we keep building freeways for trucks? Not sustainable. We need to consume less, to produce more locally and to look for other less energy intensive ways to transport goods: e.g., rail, barge (for the lower mainland). More generally cities (where most people live) need to become more compact, a series of eco-villages with permacultural gardens of various scales. We need to produce much more, as much as possible, of what we consume within cities and their local bioregions. Right now NO CARS OR TRUCKS ARE PRODUCED IN THIS BIOREGION and yet we have huge numbers of motored vehicles here. this is not sustainable. We need to always look at the big picture.

  13. Posted August 26, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    i must say for all the education & experience i am confident possessed by the writers on this string, that no one thinks a few generations forward & realizes that the USA going to half billion or so Shall equal a fairly lousy existence compared to today’s 300 Million or the 200 million from 1974. That no one speaks of reducing population increase besides me is astounding.

    This reminds me of learning how much water a balloon can hold till it breaks…and then getting nicely wet on a hot summer day, when i was 10…when this population balloon breaks, billions will suffer from death and disease…oh well, no worries i will be long dead.

  14. Blair
    Posted August 27, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Dr Carr,

    To limit yourself to bioregions is to commit to slow-motion ecological suicide. Obtaining foods from areas where they can be produced more efficiently has been demonstrated to have a much lower ecological and greenhouse gas footprint. In a region like the lower mainland with a limited growing season we simply cannot produce the variety of foods needed to feed ourselves without making huge sacrifices of our ecology. Happily other parts of the world can do a good job and we can use our energies to produce goods they want in order to exchange for the food they produce. The funny thing about locovores is they are trying to go back to an existence that generations of humans worked hard to escape. Small, inefficient farms were the norm in the middle ages, they took an inordinate amount of time to produce minimal returns, that is why we as a species have moved away from that model. Farming where you can optimize the calories per acre allows us to reduce the number of acres being farmed. This allows us to preserve wildlands that would otherwise be needed for agriculture and is a positive ecological choice.

    As for your suggestion that we can change our mode of transport to minimize the use of trucks. When a plumber can carry all the tools and equipment needed to fix a leaking toilet on a barge and do so in an efficient manner I will get on board. Until then I will acknowledge that we need roads and trucks. Similarly, how are you going to get the supplies from the barges and railways to the numerous small city stores? Once again delivery trucks are the only reasonable alternative. To my understanding the internal combustion engine (or its electric counterpart) attached to a large chasis is the only currently available technology availalble to serve this role, unless you have a better idea?

  15. amy richardson
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this article. I am the chairman of a small wonderful neighhorhood of about 750 homes in the central part of Bakersfield, CA and we are engaged in a fight to save our neighborhood from destruction due to a proposed freeway. This freeway will remove at least 310 homes through the very center of the neighborhood. If anyone can help us we will be deeply grateful. The EIR will be out in April. We are trying to mount a legal defense because a social and political defense has failed. Our city has abandoned us to Caltrans because they could not pass up the millions of federal dollars earmarked from a former Congressman for road projects and we are at their mercy, of which they have none. We need proven advice and direction. Any resources would be apprecciated. Thank you