“Who Would Defend The Elevated Urban Motorway?”

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Will Wiles opinion column on elevated bridges

View: the elevated highways that lower by means of major cities about the world had been as soon as heralded as harbingers of modernity, but are now observed as pollution-generating, area-guzzling monsters. Will Wiles wonders if they’re actually all that negative.


Who would defend the elevated urban motorway? From San Francisco to Seoul, the removal of city-centre expressways is held up as an inarguable public great. Parks sprout and boulevards make their stately tree-shaded way the place as soon as the land was stored in perpetual night and site visitors boomed over.

A favourite pastime of the American urbanist blogs is to draw up “freeway teardown” hitlists. The American lobbying organisation Congress for the New Urbanism has a hitlist as nicely: Highways to Boulevards is one of its central campaigns. A commonplace blight is therefore transformed into a widespread windfall-in-waiting. “Beneath the overpass, the heritage paving stones!” goes the cry.

A dab of plastic explosive here and there, and cities can enjoy a mini-boom. The “space eaters”, as the wonderful urban historian Lewis Mumford known as them, are outdated now, and cannot maintain down their meal: up it comes, area all in excess of the area, where balloon-sellers may possibly freely operate and loft-style living can prosper the place once there were just lofts.

When even the climate gods are on the side of teardowns, what deviant could dissent?

Whither the choking visitors? It usually would seem to just melt away with the road that supported it, as if it never existed. So there’s a note of the circus-tent revival faith healer: throw down your concrete crutches and walk(potential)! If this is beginning to sound a little overheated, consider the truth that the 2005 restoration of the Cheonggye creek in central Seoul altered the city’s climate for the much better, lowering (frequently stifling) summertime temperatures in the spot by far more than three degrees centigrade.

When even the climate gods are on the side of teardowns, what deviant could dissent? Even opponents of teardown schemes mainly consider the line that elevated freeways are a necessary evil, unpleasant but doing a crucial job trying to keep factors moving, and that the options can be high-priced.


Related story: Palo Alto footbridge will span the 14 lanes of San Francisco’s 101 freeway


Boston’s Huge Dig project to sink the city’s Central Artery expressway into a network of tunnels was undoubtedly a long-phrase boon to the city, but in the brief term was synonymous with rampaging expense overruns and corruption – seldom an appealing political trade-off.

But broad consensus of this sort in urban policymaking can lead to really poor choices. Numerous of these elevated highways sprang from precisely that variety of dangerous one particular-size-fits-all consensus – that the personal car was the future and that all cities had been going to have to adapt, irrespective of the expense.

The relationship among the city and the personal car is about to modify entirely

The notion that the debate has now been completely settled leaves urbanists dangerously unprepared for the fact that the romantic relationship among the city and the personal car is about to alter fully. Most – not all – of the nasty elements of urban motorways are, in truth, nasty facets of the car. Pollution, noise, danger: autos, automobiles, cars.

Concerning these as difficulties with roads prospects to faulty thinking: for instance, burying elevated roadways into tunnels, at present currently being mentioned as an option for the dilapidated Hammersmith Flyover in west London, can achieve tiny more than moving pollution about. Additionally, all of these difficulties are on the brink of resolution. In many cases, the only process that remains is the implementation of existing, sensible engineering.

Get noise and pollution: each solved by the clean, quiet electric car. (Nicely, clean inasmuch as the pollution is moved to wherever you generate electrical energy, which might or could not be clean, but the critical level is that it is removed from the city centre.) Security, meanwhile, is significantly improved by so-named “driverless” technology, as trialled by firms such as Google.

The United kingdom government is pushing ahead total speed with implementation of driverless vehicles. In the face of the horrifying variety of cyclist deaths on London’s roads, I am convinced that within the next five many years there will be irresistible strain for hefty goods vehicles to be fitted with at least some the security measures inherent to this engineering as a condition for entering active city streets.

Often it falls to outsiders to locate the elegance in urban motorways

Thus rehabilitated of its most unpleasant routines, the personal auto could be on the brink of a resurgence, even if the extremely notion of “private” motoring could be undercut by the centralised, collective, not-extremely-transparent enterprise of software-driven automobiles. This is not always a recipe for urban sanity.

Driverless vehicles are often presented as a way of generating the street network a lot more productive, which is to say receiving it to carry more cars at higher speeds. In widespread with so many “wise” technologies, it is completely assumed that improved efficiency is automatically great. In reality, large numbers of silent electrical automobiles zipping close to city centre streets at optimum speeds might not in fact make for a extremely relaxed atmosphere for pedestrians and cyclists, however unimpeachable the safety measures installed in individuals cars. This conjures up the Buster Keaton picture of an OAP gradually crossing the Archway Street as a digitised torrent magically parts close to her – a miracle of technologies, but possibly not of peace of mind.

The case for removing autos from city centres is going to have to be made all in excess of again, perhaps with a lot more difficulty this time. And that might put other techniques of substantial-velocity circulation back on the table: the elevated urban motorway. So, is there anything at all that can be stated for it as an urban attribute? I have written before about the dangers of prettification and the value of the multi-degree city in reminding us that we live in a complicated net of infrastructure – anything we forget at our peril.

Typically it falls to outsiders to locate the elegance in urban motorways. For instance, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard rhapsodised about the special way that freeways suit Los Angeles: “[They] do not de-nature the city or the landscape they just pass through it and unravel it with out altering the desert character of this particular metropolis. And they are ideally suited to the only profound pleasure, that of trying to keep on the move.”

The Westway’s appeal is that it belongs to London typically

But natives can take the identical pleasure. In 2013 the filmmaker Chris Petit proposed that “if there have been any sense of cultural justice in this nation”, the Westway in west London would be renamed following the author JG Ballard. Ballard wrote about his affection for the Westway in several areas – most notably it helps make appearances in this novels Crash and Concrete Island. The latter is set on an island in the Westway.

This is an idea that merits critical consideration, but the Westway’s appeal is that it belongs to London generally, not just Ballard, and has been celebrated above and more than by writers, artists and musicians.

For me, it has been the triumphal gateway to London considering that childhood, irrespective of regardless of whether I was arriving by auto, coach or train (the railway into Paddington station passes alongside it in its final stretch). If the knives are out for the Hammersmith Flyover, it won’t be extended ahead of some brilliant spark proposes getting rid of the Westway, especially given its progress through desirable true estate in Kensington and Westminster. There is presently an odd scheme to shroud it in greenery. We must start off producing the situation for its retention now.

Meanwhile, it truly is still valuable to draw up people teardown hitlists – there are loads of misplaced, unsightly, divisive and pointless urban freeways out there. But there are also valuable ones. Not just helpful routes we can hold our noses and endure, but thrilling structures, culturally crucial landmarks, exhilarating driving experiences and scenic routes. Perhaps it is time for a couple of Freeway Keepup lists. Mine would be headed by the Westway, FDR Drive in New York and the East Coast Parkway in Singapore from Changi to downtown, a breathtaking bit of urban drama.


Will Wiles is the writer of two novels with architectural themes: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. He is contributing editor at Icon magazine and a freelance style journalist.

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