Expressways to Boulevards-A Bad Idea

Toronto progressives turn anti-boulevard, pro-expressway

The city of Toronto has made major efforts the past couple of decades to revive the waterfront on Lake Ontario and to link it better to the central business district. The revival is generally a success. Scores of handsome condo/apartment towers have gone up. Heavily used ferries now provide service to islands just offshore to newly created hiking trails, a nature preserve, and attractive promenades where wharves once rotted. A nicely streetscaped Lake Shore Boulevard runs the length the waterfront, and of course there’s a new trolley line.

Toronto’s laissez-faire, Houston-style approach to zoning-no historic district or plan reviews, no affordable housing requirements, no car parking requirements, very liberal floor/site ratios etc.-is probably forging the rapid developments that capitalize on lake views and downtown proximity. Freedom from stifling U.S.-style zonings has produced a vibrant mix of activities and services… The area is thriving.

What doesn’t work is the walk

One thing that doesn’t work is the pedestrian connection between the financial district-the closest part of the central business district-and the waterfront area. The walk south to the lakefront area, less than half a mile, is still circuitous and unattractive. For years it has been conventional wisdom that the problem was the Gardiner Expressway, a 6-lane 1960s elevated that runs east-west between the two, and which looks very like the now-demolished John Fitzgerald Expressway (I-93) in Boston or the Gowanus Expressway (I-278) in Brooklyn, New York. The big elevated roadway was an offputting visual barrier, a ‘great wall,’ they all said between downtown Toronto and the waterfront.

Discussion of what to do about the elevated Gardiner has tended to focus on burying it “Big Dig”-style in a tunnel, and indeed Canadian Highways (CHIC) of 407ETR fame once proposed to the city a toll franchise to do the undergrounding of the Gardiner. But it would need substantial subsidies.

Some architects and planners suggested a second boulevard-a Gardiner Boulevard. They wanted to convert the elevated expressway to a surface boulevard. But the traffic volumes on the Gardiner, over 100k/day, make a mockery of that proposal. Because of its much lower carrying capacity, a boulevard lane will need more lanes to produce a similar level of service-at least twice as many. So converting an elevated 4-lane expressway will need about a 10-lane boulevard to carry the same traffic volume. If you want to minimize “paving over America” you need to build expressways in place of surface arterials, not the other way round.

Boulevards now seen as the barrier

Now, as reported by The Bulletin, Toronto’s Downtown Newspaper, in issue 2006-04-a copy of which a reader kindly sent us-it is NOT the 1960s elevated expressway that is being seen as the barrier to a pedestrian link but the 1990s Lake Shore Boulevard. The progressivist York Quay Neighborhood Association (YQNA), the major political force in the waterfront area, says it is time to rethink: “Gradually the Gardiner is disappearing from being an ugly barrier between downtown and the waterfront. It is becoming a ribbon of traffic that runs between very tall buildings. The visual intrusion has been softened by these structures… Realizing that Toronto does not have the billions of dollars to bury the Gardiner, now or in the foreseeable future, YQNA’s Planning and Development Committee recommends that the central part of it stay in place and that a decision is made (by government) soon to that effect.”

They say pipedreams about burying the Gardiner are paralyzing practical planning.

The Downtown Newspaper’s Mike Comstock writes that the real ‘Mistake by the Lake’ is not the elevated expressway but “the physical division created by the multilane Lake Shore Blvd.” The report continues: “This east-west barricade presents a huge obstacle to meaningfully connecting the greater city to the waterfront. Imagine that there weren’t a Lake Shore Boulevard… The key thing is giving pedestrians a route that means they don’t have to cross Lake Shore Blvd traffic.”

Like most boulevards, with turning lanes it is eight or more lanes wide at intersections where pedestrians normally cross. And of course pedestrians face long waits for traffic signals, and danger from motorists turning on amber and early in the red phase.

“If the city wants the waterfront to be accessible to pedestrians, they’re going to have to bite the (Lake Shore Blvd) bullet at some point,” the report says.

York Quay Residents Association chair Ulla Colgrass is quoted also: “The city needs to assist the pedestrian flow by focusing not on (removing) the Gardiner, but on Lake Shore Boulevard. That’s the real obstacle to connecting the city core with the waterfront.”

Likewise in New York. . .

Similiarly on the lower westside of New York City the abandonment of the depressed Westway in favor of a riverfront boulevard has blocked pedestrian access to the riverbank, the precise opposite of what the self-styled progressive planners predicted. Not long before he died Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great icon of New York liberalism and a one-time boulevardist said he thought it was a mistake. Looking at the operation of the surface West Street, Westway, the subsurface expressway, would have been the better solution, Moynihan concluded.

Capacity down 60 percent, fatalities up 90 percent

Boulevards inevitably perform worse than expressways in carrying through traffic. Their capacity is about 60% lower, and they have more than double the fatality rate. Whereas an expressway lane carries up to 2500 vehicles/lane/hour, a surface arterial of which a boulevard is a variant carries only about 1,000 to 1,100 vehicles/lane/hour. That is because speeds are lower and because of time stopped at signals, or negotiating intersections, as opposed to the grade-separated nature of expressways. If you are concerned about saving lives and reducing injuries and property damage from car crashes you want expressways, not boulevards. Boulevards are less safe than expressways. At-grade intersections produce more crashes and risk the lives of pedestrians whereas expressways place cross traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular on a separate level with a bridge over or under the main lanes. Urban expressways have 6.1 fatalities per billion vehicle-miles traveled versus 11.5 for arterials (Calculated from USDOT, FHWA “Highway Statistics 2004” FHWA-PL-05-013 fatalities by functional system and annual travel by functional system, tables hm20.xls and vm2.xls) so conversion of an expressway to a boulevard can be expected to increase fatalities by about 90%.

Congress for a New Urban fad

Some planners associated with the Congress for the New Urbanism however ignore all this and urge mass conversions of expressway to boulevard. They misleadingly cite some exceptional examples where it makes sense.

Milwaukee demolished Park East Freeway, Buffalo talks taking down Skyway

In Milwaukee, an old elevated expressway called the Park East Freeway (WI-145) was demolished 2002-2004 (see and is being replaced by a surface arterial – the poster project of former Mayor John Norquist, now CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The Park East was a spur expressway about a mile long, planned to be part of a never-finished network of downtown expressways. The most important point about it, apart from its ugliness, was that it carried only 22,000 vehicles per day, about a third of the capacity of a 4-lane expressway and easily capable of being handled by a 2×2-lane surface arterial, a boulevard. In fact they are building a 2×3 lane boulevard and improving the carrying capacity of other surface streets as well. Eliminating the unneeded elevated has allowed good streetscape improvement and opened up valuable real estate for redevelopment. A new lower level bridge over the Milwaukee River has opened up the riverfront for development.

In Buffalo, Milwaukee’s Park East example is being cited in moves to replace the Buffalo Skyway (NY5) an elevated spur off I-190 near the downtown. It goes high over the Buffalo River from the days when that river carried real shipping. The high bridge is no longer needed. Nor is the expressway itself. It goes about 3 miles down the lakefront to Lackawanna-a once-great steel and automobile manufacturing center but now a rustbelt ghost town with a mere 18k population.

Buffalo, like Milwaukee, is a metro area with a chronically stagnant and slightly declining population, and no prospect for increased traffic. The Skyway’s high level bridge over the Buffalo River is no longer needed because of the disappearance of shipping. And the expressway goes nowhere.

Eliminating under-used aging elevated expressway spurs in cities like this makes sense, though there is probably less justification for throwing taxpayer money on the replacements. Much of the planner and politician talk about the revival and redevelopment that will follow the boulevard is ballyhoo. If the underlying local economy is weak then these civic improvements probably won’t stimulate much new development. If the local economy is strong then the developments could probably fund the associated streetscaping and other improvements.

The bottom line however is that in these instances the removal of an ugly and under-utilized expressway may do some good.

However these are special cases. Most urban expressways in America are heavily utilized and face increasing traffic. They can’t be replaced with boulevards. If the elevateds cause blight, then that needs to be dealt with by improving their surroundings, as they are doing with the Gardiner in Toronto. Or they can be put underground.

Heavy traffic needs to get from point A to point B by some route, and the quickest and safest is by expressway, without throwing pedestrians into the mix and sacrificing safety and speed. Converting busy expressways into boulevards usually makes no sense.

Peter Samuel is a senior fellow at Reason Foundation and editor of Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.