Tearing Down Highways is Good for Traffic, Environment, and People

Cars and car infrastructure cover North America like a bad rash. Car advocates like to argue that this is necessary and that we can’t possibly get rid of this rash because all the cars will become immobile and our economy will crash. The bad news is that the economy crashes even if you love cars, on the other hand, the really good news is that if you remove highways you can improve the economy by revitalizing local neighbourhoods.

Here’s a look at how tearing down highways is a good thing.

Though our transportation planners still operate from the orthodoxy that the best way to untangle traffic is to build more roads, doing so actually proves counterproductive in some cases. There is even a mathematical theorem to explain why: “The Braess Paradox” (which sounds rather like a Robert Ludlum title) established that the addition of extra capacity to a road network often results in increased congestion and longer travel times. The reason has to do with the complex effects of individual drivers all trying to optimize their routes. The Braess paradox is not just an arcane bit of theory either – it plays frequently in real world situation.

Likewise, there is the phenomenon of induced demand – or the “if you build it, they will come” effect. In short, fancy new roads encourage people to drive more miles, as well as seeding new sprawl-style development that shifts new users onto them.

Of course, improving congestion is not the main reason why a city would want to knock down a poorly planned highway–the reasons for that are plentiful, and might include improving citizen health, restoring the local environment, and energizing the regional economy. More efficient traffic flow is just a wonderful side benefit.

Sound dubious? Here are several examples of how three cities (and their drivers) have fared better after highways that should never have been built in the first place were taken down.

Scroll To Top