Way back in the 1950s, an epic battle of philosophies took place in New York City. Robert Moses, the Master Builder, was on one side of the battle. Moses advocated on behalf of elevated, sweeping highways and was responsible for many of the access roads that were eventually built in New York.
One of Moses’s elevated freeways collapsed in 1973. The West Side Highway in Manhattan was perceived to be a vital link. Gridlock was feared but a funny thing happened. Once the road was taken out of commission, the traffic didn’t back up. It didn’t seek and find alternative routes. It simply went away, never to return. Thus was born the principal of induced demand. If you build it, they will come. If you unbuild it, they will leave.
Induced demand changed everything. For the first time, traffic engineers and urban planners were able to see clearly that building superhighways through the heart of our big cities was literally killing those places. This was true in New York, but it was also true in Detroit, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Chicago and Indianapolis. It was especially true in those places because they had something New York didn’t have: a virtually unlimited supply of land for new suburbs.
Enter Jane Jacobs, the soul of the city. Ms. Jacobs was Robert Moses’ alter ego. Whereas Moses believed that the role of roads was to move cars and trucks through the city as quickly as possible, Ms. Jacobs believed that streets and sidewalks were the city’s vital organs. They should be focused towards people, not machines. When they were narrow and speeds were slow, they encouraged life. When they were wide and fast, they cut life off.
In hindsight, it is now clear to many urban planners that cutting those highway scars created demand for even more roads and lanes that wouldn’t have existed if the original highways were never built to begin with. In other words, urban highways were a solution in search of a problem. These days, cities from San Francisco to Seattle to Dallas are now removing or considering the removal of urban freeways once deemed essential. They know that induced demand works. They know that once the road is gone, the traffic will go away.
Not far from the West Side Highway, there’s a park in the sky. The High Line is a 1.45 mile long linear park that lines an old elevated railway corridor. It opened in 2009 and cuts through the heart of lower Manhattan. Rather than divide people as the old railroad once did, it brings them together. It offers them a place to gather and mingle…to relax…to heal.
Things are getting better in New York and everywhere else. Jane Jacobs is no longer with us, but wherever she is I suspect she’s smiling. Robert Moses may have won the battle, but she won the war for the soul of the city she called home for so long. That’s good for New York. That’s good for the rest of us, too.