Denver Can Have Great Neighborhood Streets If CDOT Tears Down I-70

Unite North Metro Denver has an idea about what to do with I-70. Instead of widening the highway and pumping more traffic into the city like Colorado DOT wants, tear it down and replace it with an urban boulevard, reconnecting the urban fabric of Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea.

CDOT is pushing its billion-dollar-plus plan to reconstruct and widen I-70 and insists a boulevard solution would somehow cost more than a new, grade-separated highway structure.

Now UNMD has a visualization to counter the pretty renderings and videos that CDOT’s been putting out for more than a decade. This video envisions walkable, bikeable neighborhoods along the I-70 corridor without the pollution, noise, and physical barriers created by the highway.

Tearing down highways and restoring the city street grid sounds counterintuitive — it’s natural to wonder what happens to all that traffic. But plenty of precedents have proven that cities can thrive by removing heavily traveled urban highways.

When San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, New York’s West Side Highway, Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway, and Seoul’s Cheonggye Freeway came down, the much-feared traffic nightmare never materialized. In each case, people chose other routes, consolidated trips, shifted to off-peak times, or traveled by other modes. The street grid — where a lot of highway traffic ends up even when the structure is still standing — was more than up to the task of distributing the traffic that remained.

S Korea Highway Removal
The Cheonggye Freeway before and after. Photos: CNU

The Cheonggye Freeway is probably the most dramatic illustration of a city removing a highly-trafficked elevated road. As Seoul urbanized, the city’s expressways became more congested than ever. Instead of making more room for single-occupancy vehicles to handle that growth, the government tore done the highway, replaced it with surface streets and a park, and invested in transit. Today the downtown is booming, thanks to Mayor Lee Myung-bak’s vision. He led the charge to tear down 15 more expressways and rode his success all the way to South Korea’s presidency in 2008.

After San Francisco’s Embarcadero highway was damaged in a 1989 earthquake, city leaders had the foresight to replace it with a surface street instead of rebuilding a hulking concrete barrier to the water. It cost $20 million less than the rebuild and sparked a renaissance on the waterfront. Neighborhoods that had withered next to the highway began to attract new housing and jobs, and formerly wasted space by the water was reinvented as tourist destinations.

The grandaddy of them all might be New York’s West Side Highway. When a portion of highway started to collapse in 1973, rendering it unusable, transportation planners were surprised to observe that a significant chunk of traffic simply disappeared as drivers chose different ways to get around. Eventually, the highway was replaced by a surface road, known as West Street, and Hudson River Park. The waterfront greenway that runs through the park is now the most heavily biked route in the United States, with several thousand cyclists using it each day.

The point is, tearing down highways can have a dramatically positive effect on a city’s economy, health, and wellbeing. Just because Colorado DOT has worked to widen I-70 for 13 years doesn’t make it a good idea. Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado DOT Director Shailen Bhatt can either sit back and open the floodgates to more traffic, or they can lead on this issue and change the direction of Denver’s future.

Hat tips to Dean Foreman, Constanze Arenz-Kulkarni, and Keith Billick.

  • Chris

    I had all the feels watching the reimagined boulevard. It is amazing. I know the organization I volunteer with is getting involved with other patterns on litigation with this. I hope we when out. Two huge pieces was the large green space and the gateway arch right before Globeville. We need something more architecturally appealing. Building highways for the sake of 4 hours a day of traffic loads is ridiculous.

  • Netia Ingram

    I live blocks from I-70 in this neighborhood, and I would be absolutely irate if they replaced the highway with an “urban boulevard”. Being so close to I-70 and the easy east-west city access it provides was one of the major selling points of this neighborhood for me, despite the horrendous traffic. I would hate to see this road replaced by something akin to Colorado Boulevard, which makes it so hard to travel in a north-south trajectory through the east side of the city. This is NOT a proposal that would be supported by me or many of my neighbors living in that neighborhood.

    • neroden

      For east-west travel, there’s always I-76 and I-270, which are *really really close* to I-70.

      • Netia Ingram

        I-76 and I-270 actually both run in more of a diagonal SW-NE or SE-NW route. And living next to Purina, I am nowhere’s near either highway. Also, neither gives me express access to I-25, the mountains, or I-225. In short, these are not acceptable alternatives to I-70 for those of us living in the Elyria Swansea neighborhood.

        • neroden

          Oh, so you basically want a highway to your front doorstep.

          That’s not actually reasonable. Expressways are for long-distance travel, not for speeding you the last 20 blocks to your front door. From Purina, I see a straight shot of about 2 miles on Vasquez Boulevard to I-270. If I-25 is replaced with a boulevard, it would be a straight shot of 1.4 miles to I-25. And it’s about 4.24 miles to I-76 (via Pecos Street).

          You can deal with driving at 30 mph for 2 miles. I know you can. People do it every day.

          Someone living at the junction of Colfax and Colorado Boulevards — featuring both a busy commercial area and a rich residential neighborhood — already has to drive further than that to get to the nearest expressway, and they certainly aren’t complaining.

          I live in a city where the nearest expressway is 60 miles away. That’s pretty extreme, but we do fine. You don’t need to be coddled by having a freeway to your front door; you can drive 2 miles on surface roads just like everyone else in the country.

          If you’re completely obsessed with living on a superhighway, buy an RV. Most people do not consider the superhighway-generated pollution and noise to be acceptable, and have no problem driving a couple of miles.

          I feel absolutely confident in stating that I-76 and I-225 are acceptable alternatives to most people living in the Elyria Swansea neighborhood, though perhaps not to freeway-obsessed lunatics.

          • Netia Ingram

            Would I survive without I-70 – of course. Would I be happy about I-70 moving – no. Would I have invested in a house in this neighborhood if I-70 wasn’t so close – definitly not. Ive heard my neighbors complain about the attempt to get rid of I-70 as well, which goes to show, a lot of the people that live here want to keep our highway. Interesting to note that youre complaining about our highway but don’t live here?

  • spr8364

    I like everything except for the large traffic circles. Bad for peds, bad for bikes, and bad for drivers who struggle with 3D visualization – including me apparently. I am dyslexic about which lane I need to be in to make a left turn.

    • brodie7838

      > bad for drivers who struggle with 3D visualization – including me

      Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but considering this is a pretty basic and critical required ability to navigate a vehicle of any kind safely, it seems that the responsibility lies on you here. You can’t expect a whole city to cease modern road development because you say you’re “dyslexic” about driving, just as one would not expect a city to not build roads at all because a few citizens are blind – no, the logical answer is blind people don’t drive because it wouldn’t be safe for them to do so. By acknowledging you can’t drive properly and continuing to do so puts the rest of us in needless danger.

      • spr8364

        Actually I do know how to exit a traffic circle if I am in the wrong lane. That’s really not the issue I was trying to emphasize. Somehow, I don’t think I pose the same danger as a blind person in that I have not been responsible for an accident in over 35 years of heavy driving. Also, my problem is that there is only one traffic circle near me that I have to navigate and even there only once in a great while. It still doesn’t mean that traffic circles are any good for alternate modes of transit like bikes and peds and perhaps even other drivers who struggle with them. I don’t have any stats, but I suspect they are far more dangerous for bikes and peds because the drivers in them have to keep track of a lot more stuff that a simple stop/go scenario. They are designed for cars and only cars. They really have no place in a modern traffic solution designed for multiple modes of transit. Besides, traffic circles are hardly modern. They’ve been around for a very long time.

  • DRSte

    Looks like an idea that’s actually for the city residents, rather than for people who’s main goal is to get in and get out as fast as possible.
    So in other words, it will happen when the residents of the city are richer and more influential than the residents of the suburbs.

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