ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
For those of you listening in your cars right now, stuck in three, four, maybe five lanes of traffic, consider this. Our next story is about a world with fewer freeways. Half a century after cities put them up, many big roads are now in need of expensive repair. But instead of fixing or replacing them, a growing number of cities are thinking it makes more sense to simply tear them down.
Dan Bobkoff of the reporting project Changing Gears explains why.
DAN BOBKOFF (Reporter, Changing Gears): To Clevelanders like Judie Vegh, the whole idea of tearing down a freeway just sounds crazy.
Ms. JUDIE VEGH: I think it's a pretty bad idea for commuters because I commute every morning downtown.
BOBKOFF: Vegh takes the West Shoreway each day from her home in the nearby suburb of Lakewood. When she learned that the city plans to convert this freeway into a slower, tree-lined boulevard, she was not amused.
Ms. VEGH: If it was 35 miles per hour, I just would be later than usual.
BOBKOFF: Bob Brown is Cleveland's city planner.
Mr. BOB BROWN (Director, Cleveland City Planning Commission): This is not the traditional highway project. The traditional highway project is obviously speeding things up, adding more capacity, but often ignoring the character of neighborhoods.
BOBKOFF: How did this happen? After all, this is the country that always saw roads as a sign of progress.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man: This is the American dream of freedom on wheels.
BOBKOFF: Now, taking down freeways has gone mainstream. Cities as diverse as New Haven, New Orleans and Seattle are either doing it or talking about it. The chief motivation seems to be money. Milwaukee removed a freeway spur for $30 million. Officials estimated it would have cost between 50 and 80 million to fix that roadway. That inspired Akron, Ohio officials to study what to do with an aging six-lane freeway that few motorists use.
Jim Weber is Akron's construction manager.
Mr. JIM WEBER (Manager, Akron City Construction Division): Perhaps we can remove sections of it and have it fit in better with the Akron grid system, and offer an economic benefit by making land available.
BOBKOFF: This is the city planner's dream: Take out an underused freeway, open up land for new businesses or parks, and magically, more workers will move back to the city and property values will soar. So far, though, the results have been mixed.
Milwaukee hasn't seen as much development as proponents hoped after that city took down a spur of the Park East Freeway. But San Francisco revitalized an entire neighborhood by taking down the Embarcadero Freeway in the early '90s.
Mr. TOM VANDERBILT (Author, "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us"): Yeah. So we're standing at the corner of Broome and West Broadway in SoHo, New York.
BOBKOFF: Tom Vanderbilt is the author of a book about traffic. And we're in SoHo because for many cities, this is the ideal: dense and wealthy. There's a fine jewelry store and high-end realtor behind us. But in the mid-20th century, SoHo resembled a neighborhood you'd more likely see in some Midwestern cities. It was a fading industrial area after much of its population fled to the suburbs. The uber-planner Robert Moses, famous for the freeways he did build in New York, wanted to stick a 10-lane freeway here.
Mr. VANDERBILT: This would have created essentially a sort of giant Berlin Wall, cutting off what became SoHo from what became TriBeCa. And these two are now sort of essentially connected in what's become a huge swath of really desirable real estate.
BOBKOFF: But Moses' plan never got built. And today, urban planners have come full circle. Now that most cities are far less industrial, planners like Cleveland's Bob Brown talk about sustainability, about being able to walk places.
Mr. BROWN: When you talk about improving the quality of life in neighborhoods and a city, that translates directly into increases in population and jobs.
BOBKOFF: To be clear, few are talking about removing the most heavily traveled roads. But even the U.S. Department of Transportation, which spent decades promoting highways, recently stunned planners when it backed some freeway removal plans.
In Cleveland, many are warming to the West Shoreway becoming a boulevard. Walking around a neighborhood near the Shoreway, Don Burrows says he thinks the neighborhood would benefit.
Mr. DON BURROWS: I like the idea, because I think it will make the lake much more accessible to the population. I think it will make the neighborhoods more livable.
BOBKOFF: And for all the talk about making cities more livable or sustainable, planners are trying to sell a skeptical public on the idea that a slightly longer commute is far outweighed by a better quality of life.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Bobkoff in Cleveland.