Karrie Jacobs


November 11, 2009

The Interstate Thing

The Buffalo Skyway

A piece I submitted to the New York Times op-ed section back in January just ran in today’s paper. It’s been updated somewhat, tied to the current unemployment situation, and condensed …a lot. Looking at the Interstate system and other roadways as a vast repository of land and infrastructure is something I’ve been doing for a while. An earlier and more nuanced take on the subject ran in Metropolis back in January.

The original, unedited version of the piece I wrote for the Times concluded like this:

The most significant thing about the Interstate system, however, is that it represents a huge quantity of land, about 40 acres per mile or 1.87 million acres. And untold quantities surrounding land have been scarred by proximity to the Interstate. Anyone who drives knows that the areas around interchanges, designed for maximum expedience, are among the least appealing landscapes in America. Instead of continuing to write-off the land adjacent to the highways, and the median strips, as an eternal no-man’s land, we should look at this acreage as a resource. And instead of decrying the development that gloms on to the interstate as sprawl, we should figure out a way to transform those land use patterns into something efficient, livable, and sustainable.

We no longer have a frontier, we’ve learned that open space is finite and can’t afford to throw away or squander land. If, in our cities, we are redeveloping what’s known as brownfield sites, disused industrial property, perhaps it’s time to reclaim land blighted by the highway system. If our interstate system is transformed so that it’s no longer just a ghetto for the internal combustion engine, and if enough of the people still driving are driving cars that pollute less – and, yes, trucks will have to evolve, too — and make less noise, the interchanges, sprawling mazes of Byzantine traffic patterns and massive parking lots can be transformed into urban hubs, where people might actually want to live or work, change trains or even go for a stroll. Instead of devoting tens of billions of dollars to repaving Eisenhower’s vision of the future, we should use that money and our ingenuity to establish a vision of our own.