Here’s to trying one more time to discuss the 8664.org proposal to re-envision the City of Louisville as an even greater place than it is today. Several new items have cropped up since our last post (don’t forget to check out all of our coverage over here), and I want to address a couple topics I haven’t written about before. I’ll try to keep it pithy.
First of all, we need keep it clear that the 8664.org proposal isn’t exactly a highway removal as much as a highway relocation. A lot of people still don’t know this. Interstate 64 isn’t going anywhere except off the banks of the Ohio River and out of the heart of Downtown. It will instead be re-routed over the new East End Bridge.
But why is it that the notion of highway removal is so easily dismissed in Louisville in the first place? It’s happening all over the world, gaining popularity, and it actually works. The June issue of the Urban Land Institute’s journal covers many of the projects going on today. As interest in the city and urban living continues to build, the prospects for quality of life increases, development opportunity, all while maintaining a functioning transportation system are catching the eye of innovative leaders and cities. One featured project is Oklahoma City’s relocation of I-40 away from its downtown. It also points out proposals in Baltimore, Toronto, New Haven, Trenton (NJ), and Syracuse that are on the table, being discussed, and not shunned for being unrealistic.
Many have argued that examples of successful highway removal could not work in Louisville for one reason or another. WFPL’s The Edit blog took issue with an Infrastructurist article we cited describing four successful highway removals. The blog noted one line in the Infrastructurist article stating that each example of highway removal was in dense urban area with other highways nearby and public transit available and suggests Louisville’s Downtown (where the portion of highway would be removed) is not dense enough, near other highways or routes, nor has an effective transit system. Let’s look at the numbers using Portland (OR) as an example, a city a little bigger than Louisville.
Portland is often held up as one of those model cities; perhaps it’s because they don’t shy away from innovative ideas. As far as density goes, Wikipedia tells us Portland’s density is 4,288.38 people per square mile. Louisville’s density is a little misleading as merger has watered it down by including low-density outer suburbs. If you look at the old City of Louisville numbers from Metro Louisville, our urban density is 4,270.52 people per square mile. Pretty dense, right?
There are certainly other highway’s nearby; just look around. And the street grid is an efficient distributor of traffic, too. Ever been stuck in traffic on a highway a mile or more from an exit? On the street grid, you can easily choose another route through the grid at significantly more frequent intervals. Lastly, while our public transit can’t be compared to Portland’s, we have a functioning system that has been gaining a lot of popularity over the last couple years. The argument stating “We can’t do it here because we’re not as good…” is going to keep us stuck in just that predicament of not being as good as our competitor cities.
One of the great things about the 8664.org plan is that it doesn’t just solve a transportation problem in a more fiscally responsible manner, but also drastically raises Louisville’s urban standard of living and provides for huge potential gains in community and real-estate development. Those external benefits don’t fit easily onto a traffic modeling program and are often overlooked.
It’s often quipped in frustration that Louisville waits until something is done elsewhere before we can accept it here. If that’s indeed the case, highway removal should be fully legitimate. Plenty have already removed urban highways and plenty are seriously considering it. We could be in good company and we could also be in a position of leadership in urban rejuvenation.
Moving on. I don’t know how often I have heard the argument that we’ve already spent so much on the project, we may as well finish it under the original plan. Figures on what’s been spent cluster around $120 million. That’s on a project that’s estimated over $4.1 billion. Anyone with a business background, and I would hope a public administrator who is dealing with these large project costs too, understands what has already been spent is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if we’ve spent $120, $120 million, or $1.2 billion.
What we’ve already spent is termed a sunk cost. In a rational decision-making process, these sunk costs should have no bearing on future decisions. The only thing important now is how much more we have to spend. Do we want to pay over $4 Billion, partially with mysterious tolls, or around $2 Billion for a better product. It’s irrational for anyone to say we’ve reached a magic “point of no return” financially, and downright dangerous if it’s a politician making the claim.
To finish up, let’s touch on the TTI congestion study from Texas A&M that made such large ripples in the major news media in town. I referenced it in the last article because its creator flat-out said that Louisville’s statistics should be viewed as a success. No twisting of the facts. Â I now want to point out a few details about the study that make it a little suspect as a reliable gauge of congestion in Louisville.
(For full disclosure, I commuted from outside the Watterson to Downtown on I-64 every day for the last three years and, personally, have no idea what this deadening congestion everyone talks about really is. Sure, traffic can occasionally be slow in bad weather or in a wreck or as we transition into a school year. But really, folks. It may seem like 20 minutes to sit stopped in a car on an Interstate for 30 seconds, but be realistic. It’s not that bad.)
Back to the TTI study. The traffic data it reports on stops in 2007. That’s well before the economic slowdown and barely into the days of expensive gas that peaked nationally in the summer of 2008. The study’s results still show a constant congestion level, slightly decreasing over the last ten years for Louisville. If you look at the congestion numbers for 2008 from the Inrix National Traffic Scorecard, congestion dropped 38.8 percent from 2007–2008. Inrix ranks us 42nd in population (1.23 million) with 46th worst congestion. That seems to be pretty good.
The C-J has written a lot about the study to boost its notion that Louisville is some kind of congestion nightmare. One recent editorial mischaracterizes information such as Louisville’s size ranking (see below), time spent in congestion (see below), and even chuckles at Barry Barker’s comment from a previous C-J article saying we can’t build out way out of congestion. Another editorial, dropping the 8664 name in favor as the “east-end-bridge-only crowd” (aka “those who don’t want to see this project built”) is filled with much more vicious fallacy that I don’t care to spend rehashing here. What’s amazing, though, is that the C-J goes on name-calling in such a manner some of the most concerned and visionary citizens in Louisville.
Just a few other details about the TTI study. The baseline speed limit to determine congestion as reported by TTI was 60MPH. On Louisville’s urban highways, the posted speed limit is 55MPH. Right out of the gate, the study’s numbers overinflate Louisville’s congestion level. The C-J jumped on the misleading city-size classifications in the TTI study that listed Louisville’s population as approximately 950,000, just shy of the 1 million cut off to make it into the very large cities category. As a result, they like to point out that Louisville’s congestion is one of the worst for a city our size. That’s arbitrarily twisting facts to get a dramatic yet largely unuseful statistic. It’s more useful to look at Louisville compared to similarly sized cities. Finally, according to the TTI study, an average time spent in congestion in Louisville in 2007 was 38 hours a year. That’s down one hour from 1997 and on a continuously downward march from the 2004 high of 44 hours.
Sorry that didn’t end up as pithy as I’d hoped. But it’s important. It’s not too late to see the 8664.org proposal come to fruition and its not some out-of-touch, idealistic idea from a few dreamers. This is the course the country and the world is moving in to solve complicated transportation problems while simultaneously fixing cities. I can’t encourage you enough to please get in touch with your elected officials. They may not appear to listen, they may send annoying form letters in return, but your voice is important in this matter. There isn’t a bigger issue that will change Louisville quite as much as this.
- Plenty of information is covered over at 8664.org.
- New Orleans is another city considering highway removal. Congress for the New Urbanism president John Norquist comments on that proposal over here.
- Congressman Jim Oberstar, Chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, interviewed on Living on Earth about the future of American transportation.
- According to a U.S. Public Interest Research Group study, the Southeast has the highest air pollution per capita from cars. Louisville ranks in at 6th worst.
- And air pollution has just been shown to affect the IQ and birthweight of newborns (NRDC Switchboard)
- There’s been some discourse about the generally unhealthy lives that are more common in the South. While everything is getting blamed (poverty… culture… climate…), many are drawing links to the way Southern cities are built and the auto-dominant lifestyles they encourage.
- Learn more about innovative traffic congestion abatement by removing capacity in an article from Scientific American.
- StreetsBlog wraps up a great Guardian article about one of the most dramatic highway teardowns in Seoul, South Korea. The New York Times has also written about the same project.
- Not quite a highway, but here’s an interesting short film from StreetFilms about how removing a street in Manhattan hasn’t created congestion. Vancouver is experimenting with auto-capacity reduction on urban streets and finding congestion isn’t coming either.
- Also interesting, Forbes reported on a new study finds that with a sustained $1 increase per gallon of gas, the national obesity rate drops 10 percent.
- Lastly, John Norquist (again) talking about highway removal in Buffalo, but he could just as easily be talking about Louisville:
“Buffalo needs to make up its mind. Does it want to be a city that can grow wealthy again like it was before the freeways were built or does it want to continue its steady evolution toward becoming not much more than a truck stop set in the remains of a once great city? If its leaders would open their eyes and embrace a new vision and strategy, Buffalo could begin to heal itself and eventually become the crown jewel of the Great Lakes.”