Day #084: The case for highways

Finally, a case for highways.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Encourage substitution toward highway use and hide highways.
  • Difficulty: 3 — Adopting the mindset is easy, overcoming the challenge of dealing with the city, RMA, and VDOT is much tougher.

The subsidization of sprawl and automobiles has exacerbated changes in the landscapes of America. Care should be taken moving forward to limit these subsidies in order to realize a more efficient system, but some things are here to stay.

Continuing with last week’s sub-theme of improving necessary evils (building a better parking spot, part 1 and part 2), it’s time to focus on interstates and highways.

Force cars to use them

The construction of highways was caused by and created some serious issues, but existing highways can also be powerful tool for keeping commuters off of neighborhood roads.

The Downtown Expressway is the biggest and best example of this in Richmond. Care should be taken to make substitutable roads like Cary Street and Main Street less attractive for automobiles. This can be accomplished through two-way reversions (Day #037), safer intersection design (Day #027), and reducing lane widths. These all reduce speeds which raise costs (time) and encourages drivers to substitute towards 195.

The second way this can happen is through tolls: user fees on the Downtown Expressway should be eliminated in favor of a higher gas tax on all automobiles. Of course, this is highly impractical because of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority who owns the Downtown Expressway and VDOT who doles out transportation funds that favor moving lanes for cars instead of multi-modal systems. But this would increase the total cost of driving but not increase the relative cost of driving on 195 vs. other roads. Volume would increase, but travel times would decrease without the toll booths.

Hide the highways

The construction of Virginia State Route 195 resulted in the removal of 3,709,515 cubic yards of dirt and 191,612 cubic yard of rock, and the removal of 1,200 parcels of land owned by 900 different families. Phil Riggan wrote an interesting piece on this back in 2012. Individuals were compensated for those changes, but something bigger happened. The construction created a wall straight through the middle of Byrd Park, Randolph, and Oregon Hill.

Many of the north-south streets that connected neighborhoods are now dead ends that leave former neighbors worlds apart.

Effort should be made to reconnect even more of these streets across the Downtown Expressway with pedestrian and cyclists bridges. But this can go one step further. On Urban Richmond in 2007, Matthew Freeman suggested hiding highways. Covering up the entire Downtown Expressway is not practical or cost effective, but it would be interesting to start building bridges with infrastructure that hides the ugly and obtrusive road. This could enhance the aesthetics of infrastructure (Day #023) by covering it up, and it could be an opportunity to build bridges with elements of parks (Day #063).

Two precedents for this are the Kanawha Plaza and the RMA Parking Garage. Unfortunately, the garage is a scar on a scar caused by the automobile. The plaza has potential, but it’s in a very poor state at the moment. As space becomes scarcer around these fractured neighborhoods, this could be a powerful way to reconnect while hiding one of Richmond’s least attractive spaces.

— ∮∮∮ —

Transportation choice, free from subsidies, is essential for a better future in Richmond. Cars will always be a part of commuters’ lives, but steps can be taken to improve the system for commuters and other modes of transportation alike. Encouraging drivers to get off of neighborhood roads and covering up the scars of highways like the Downtown Expressway would make Richmond a better city for all.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: taberandrew

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. I think using the space above the expressway for a mix of parking decks and higher density buildings makes perfect sense, if it can serve as a release valve for development and tear down pressure in the surrounding neighborhoods. Reconnecting as many of the streets as possible as part of the process would be an added bonus, and all those garages could have ground floor retail/commercial or residential on top. Plus, what if these garages also had direct connections to the expressway? Maybe that’s a little too crazy, but it would keep congestion off of city streets

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