Highways Didn’t Kill Small Towns. People Did.


I came across a tweet yesterday by Richardson blogger Mark Steger that I want to address because it is both right and wrong. And because it displays a common misconception of the conventional wisdom. Here is the tweet that may or may not have been in response to one of my twitter rants:

Travel old Route 66 today and see all the towns that died when the Interstate bypassed them. Then you’ll know why cities don’t cut the cord.

I shouldn’t complain that blaming highway bypasses for the death of small towns because for a long time I believed the same thing…until I started to think about it yesterday. Mark is right that the highway bypass killed those small towns, but wrong that it is still relevant today, at least to big cities.

I would argue that the highway bypasses didn’t kill towns as much as they were probably already doomed to some extent. Our remorse is little more than nostalgia.

The old highways, before the super highways, were the single lifeline of a 20th century small town. Each turned into the “Main Street” as it passed through town. Before that towns sprung up all over the country along railroad lines linking the country from coast to coast. This dates back to antiquity where trading posts emerged at cross roads between settlements.

The difference between then and now is that the world is different. It is hyper mobile and getting moreso every day. We are no longer connected by one umbilical cord whether it be a railroad or an interstate. It is the human urge to connect and technology is making it possible to do so in a dozen ways including via (see what I did there?) the internet, they way you are reading these very words.

The internet also hasn’t proven to be the death of cities or human interaction as many once feared. In fact, the opposite has occurred where we have shaped the internet into web 2.0 or social media making human interactions and community building all the more efficient. We’ve created cities and we’ve created the web to facilitate human interaction and INTRA-city highways are a barrier to that. Unless of course this is your kind of human interaction:

I say INTRAcity highways because INTERcity highways DO serve an important function in linking regional economies, ie Dallas to Houston. But, they also should just provide an option, much like you can fly or hopefully in the future take high speed rail from downtown Dallas to downtown Houston. We like that idea because it facilitates connections from where people are and commerce happens, the cores of cities. However, highways within cities tear apart the urban fabric, are a centrifugal force of entropy, and damage local economies.

A certain segment of the population wants human interaction, wants to be near other people. Highways prevent that and only serve those that don’t. As I tweeted, they are the lifeline of the suburbs and ironically, removing them would be the best thing for brittle suburban communities dependent upon them as they leech from the core. In order to survive the next century, suburban communities will have to be able to stand alone.

Those small towns don’t compare to today’s modern megalopolitan economies. Today’s cities are highly interconnected, highly mobile places where freeways actually make it more difficult to make our daily face to face interactions that comprise cities.

The blame we lay upon the bypasses is that they killed Main Street. Main street businesses packed up shop and moved out to the interchange in the form of big box. But people had already left. Retail follows rooftops and everybody moved outside of the towns or the cities because of debt-fueled, tax incentivized policies towards consumption of new land, new houses.

Except all of that is as ephemeral as the leaves on the trees. We have 6x as much retail per capita as does the most heavily retailed European country. All of that excess retail is going to fade away and re-cluster around population centers in order to survive. All of those homes and buildings built to last twenty years and made of little more than paper mache are going to turn to dust. We won’t be replacing them with more of the same. The sun belt cities you see today, will never be seen again. We can no longer afford them and we’re seeing the effect.

Our intra-city highways are a giant land bank that broke states and broke cities are sitting upon. Irony = that which bankrupted us is the biggest asset we have in restoring our wealth and prosperity.

This won’t happen all at once. It would be too traumatic. Humans adapt, but we can only do so at our pace, which is why it is necessary to slowly, but incrementally implement change for the betterment of cities and the facilitation of human interaction and human need. The same much of Copenhagen didn’t go car-free overnight, we will start with easy wins, narrowing highways and their interchanges. Replacing cloverleaves with development opportunities.

People will likely be fearful of the idea. In Copenhagen, local businesses yelped when change began. Businesses, as well as people, are conditioned by their context. They generally hate change. Status quo is comfortable. We’re used to it.

But we need real mobility, a choice of mobility. Highways dominate our life. You can’t get anywhere without them, which is precisely why losing them seems frightening. We need to replace our highway commute to work with a train ride where we CAN text or email without endangering lives. Our drive to the store with walk down a peaceful, tree-lined street; the school bus system that bankrupts our schools with an empowering bike ride.

Cities are built upon connections and the great ones have the quickest, the most expedient, the most efficient, and the most nourishing, the healthiest. Intra-city highways are the opposite of all of those.

Don’t be scared. In fact, be a leader.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.