Transportation Can Be Counter-Intuitive

Proposal for a reconnected waterfront (courtesy 8664.org)
Proposal for a reconnected waterfront. (courtesy 8664.org)

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.  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.

Further Reading

“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.”

Branden Klayko

Founder and Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Branden is a writer and architectural designer living in Brooklyn. After graduating from the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, Branden practiced architecture in Louisville where he worked on several large LEED Certified buildings. Branden is the senior web editor at The Architect’s Newspaper, where he covers architecture, design, and urbanism. He has also written about design for Designers & Books, sustainability for Inhabitat, and architecture for the American Institute of Architects. He founded Broken Sidewalk in 2007, an online collaborative promoting architecture and urbanism in Louisville, Kentucky and the Midwest.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for another insightful post.

    The fact that Louisville’s elected and de facto leaders fail to see the logic – much less the beauty – of the 8664 plan almost fills me with rage.

    For someone considering moving back home to the ‘Ville – if the ORBP goes forward in it’s present form – I’m going to stick with Chicago

  2. I echo corbballspieler’s sentiment. Great job in discussing the technical side of the bridges matter!

    As readers may know, I have also been writing articles and making statements regarding the Ohio River Bridges Project and 8664 for several years, more on the political side of the matter, I suppose.

    Also responding to the Courier-Journal’s editorial of last Friday, I have written a new extended article. It is entitled “The Stench of the Lingering Question — The Courier-Journal Editorial Board and Their Extreme Bias on the Bridges Matter”. Here’s the link: http://www.historyandissues.org/louisville/viewtopic.php?t=1461

  3. The evidence and logic that BS and Magruder keep presenting both excite and exasperate me. The whole New Urbanist take on Louisville’s future continues to be seen, if noticed at all, as the view of a marginalized, fringe group. There are pockets of people and groups in Louisville who agree with 8664 and are concerned with true placemaking, but I don’t see them visible to the community as a whole. Where are the public, open, publicized meetings and rallies (admittedly tough to mount without seeming, well, silly and ‘fringe’)? Where are discussions and presentations where people from all over Louisville Metro are present? Where are the TV spots? Where are the online forums (I would love to see BS have a full-blown discussion area)? Where are coordinated blog efforts? I think, ultimately, it is visibility – visibility with credibility – that is the problem here.

    I tried, by the way, to start a discussion about these issues on Louisville Hotbytes, but have been sabotaged by buffoons, and largely ignored.

  4. Ken,

    I likewise have been continuously alarmed at the apparent lack of a comprehensive, coherent political strategy not only with respect to 8664 but also with regards to dealing with the aspects of the ORBP that would be disadvantageous to the Louisville community.

    Where is the outrage? Well, I think I know the answer: It’s a combination of ignorance, apathy and fear. Ignorance, because most Louisvillians I think remain oblivious to many of the facts. Apathy, because Louisvillians generally don’t participate in the civic space as they should. And fear, as I believe Louisvillians generally are afraid of going against the prevailing “wisdom” of the local commercial establishment.

    As for a serious issues forum, I can’t say that Louisville History & Issues is a rip-roaring success at this point, but my goal is indeed to provided an environment where citizens in the area can come to discuss community issues without having to deal with so much riff-raff and nonsense. I hope you can join us.

  5. I was born and raised in Louisville, moved away in 1988, and have returned to visit a couple of times every year since then.

    In more recent years I’ve observed the attempts to green up and otherwise revitalize the riverfront. In light of that, the proposal to significantly expand I-64 downtown seems like a schizophrenic effort. Louisville has spent the past 10+ years improving the waterfront only to now bury it under $4billion worth of concrete?

    In terms of its effect on the urban fabric, I-64 at downtown Louisville is one of the worst examples in the nation of the thoughtlessness of 60s and 70s-era interstate highway construction. It’s a shameful mistake it was ever built in the first place, and it should be demolished and relocated.

    To expand I-64 to the proposed degree is to permanently doom riverfront development as an urban revitalization strategy for Louisville. Someone once quipped that freeways are like sewers for cars and expanding I-64 would make an aboveground sewer the most prominent feature of downtown.

    Lastly, my own anecdotal observation of Louisville traffic congestion is that it does not warrant a massive expansion of highway infrastructure. I now live in a metro area with a population of close to 3,000,000, compared with Louisville’s ~1,300,000. Louisville’s highway infrastructure is much, much more developed. It has more highways with more lanes than a city with a population more than twice as large. It also has more and bigger main arterials (e.g.: Hurstbourne Lane, Shelbyville Road) which make cross-town travel much faster.

  6. Joseph… these are the kinds of observations that need to be HEARD.

    Steve… thanks for the invite. I’ll join up. My only concern, as I find myself always thinking about so many things, is that we love to preach to the converted.

  7. All,
    Aside from construction cost comparisons and obvious physical challenges offered from various commentary I have read, the decision to suggest such a “regressive” but entirely logical posture on the transporting of humans and cargo along the riverfront in Louisville is clearly an outward sign of rebellion against a systemic problem within our society….and is long overdue and heartily welcomed by this observer and student of design on the land!! How many decades have we waited for transportation solutions that build community, amplify appreciation for the natural places they transect, and marry construction to landform with graceful fluidity in a demonstration of artfully applied technical expertise…. all the while providing avenues for moving goods and citizens from one place to another?

    I spent my childhood and teen years in Louisville, where dad was employed and where many ancestors did business years ago. I recall standing with pride on the Belvedere the year it was built, marveling at the view and experience it afforded… How starved was the city even then, to connect, to overcome the massive barrier that resided just a few feet below me making such an elevated construction necessary? And as a teen, how naive was I to think the passage I-64 West made through Floyd Knobs just a few miles to the northwest of downtown was a marvel to be celebrated…instead of the grotesque gash in the landscape I see it as today.
    Call it what you like… new urbanism, old urbanism, or urbanism…there is nothing new about doing the right thing.
    I fully support the 8664 initiative…and I can think of dozens of similar transportation travesties in the nation I have

    How long will we permit speed, volume, and point a to point b thinking to sculpt an image and impact the personalty of our community? That is the question.
    Moving more cars and cargo faster is one of many attributes to be considered in the rebuilding of I-64…but may not be the most important in the end. It quite simply comes down to priorities….and leadership. What should drive the end game transportation issue for Louisville, anal or creative thinking? Anal thinking produced the current situation, nationwide….we live daily with the flaws in this approach.
    It is time for the left brains to take a back seat and navigate while the right brains sit behind the wheel….

  8. One of your arguments doesn’t exactly fly…

    You cite the fact that Louisville’s grid “is an efficient distributor of traffic” and “On the street grid, you can easily choose another route through the grid at significantly more frequent intervals.”

    While these are true statements, there’s a term that is transferred to highway traffic occasionally that originated with the grid: GRIDLOCK. Chicago is about as “griddy” as it comes… and if you’ve ever driven there on a Saturday night, you realize how, when the grid is full, noone moves. There’s no getting from point A to point B and it doesn’t matter how many cross streets there are if it takes you 15 minutes to move a block.

    I’m not saying I’m against this proposal… it seems much more logical to bipass the city than to simply expand the thru-way for much of the traffic. But you do have to account for the traffic once it gets to the grid.

  9. The existing grid won’t be asked to handle all the highway traffic from I-64 Downtown. It is operating at well under capacity now (I don’t know much about the Chicago grid, so I can’t compare the two) and it will have the help of a new east-west boulevard that can handle a substantial amount of traffic while being pleasant for a pedestrian. I bring the grid into the discussion to show that there are multiple options available rather than just sitting on a single elevated road. Much of the traffic will be rerouted on the new I-64 around the city and as evidenced from other highway-teardowns, it’s acceptable to believe that some amount of traffic will simply disappear (which happened in San Francisco and Milwaukee, etc.) as superfluous trips are rerouted or abandoned by the individual.

  10. Branden’s point about the grid providing multiple options is important. Our current interstate system and the ORBP unnecessarily concentrate autos in locations that aren’t actually convenient to their destinations. By limiting connections with the grid and forcing everyone into the same space, they create traffic and congestion that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

    Because we’re all typically headed to any number of destinations, traffic naturally wants to disperse but current and proposed ORBP designs will not allow it.

    If I want go to 3rd St. and Branden wants to go to 6th St. and someone else wants to go to Shippingport, we all end up at the 9th St . exit and the streets immediately surrounding it, waiting in line and idling our motors, even though that’s not where we want to go.

    With greatly lessened cut through traffic and more grid connectivity, those downtown pinch spots should be reduced by the 8664 plan, allowing the grid to function as it was originally designed.

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