defining #deckthehighways

At last year’s Transportation Camp in NYC, I had the privilege of leading a session on decking NYC’s highways for environmental justice – #deckthehighways! Now, what does #deckthehighways entail? Simply put, #deckthehighways is a movement to achieve transportation and environmental justice by leveraging freeway infrastructure. How can we do this? Why should we do this?

First, I’ll address the why? Why deck the highways?

Consider the following:

[Fig. 1] Left: Percentage of residents who rated their residential structures fair or poor; Right: Asthma hospitalizations per 1,000 children. [Source]

NYC residents who gave substandard ratings for their residences are also in areas with high concentrations of asthma. What role might freeways play in this dynamic? Let’s superimpose NYC’s freeways on the right side of the figure (forgive my rough sketching):

[Fig. 2] A copy of Fig. 1 with NYC’s freeways superimposed.

Note that both substandard residence ratings and asthma concentrations are higher in areas proximate to freeways, especially in The Bronx. Speaking of The Bronx, let’s take a closer look:

[Fig. 3] Childhood asthma and poverty rates in The Bronx. [Source]

What does this look like with the freeways superimposed? (Again, forgive my rough sketching!)

[Fig. 4] A copy of Fig. 3 with freeways superimposed.

As Fig. 4 shows, childhood asthma and poverty afflict large swaths of The Bronx – particularly the swaths penned in by freeways. (Yours truly also had childhood asthma, though never again!)

While freeways alone aren’t the sole contributors to such malady, the fact remains that they contribute – as further evidence, again using The Bronx as an example, I offer this:

[Fig. 5] 2015 average annual daily traffic (AADT) counts for select freeways and streets in The Bronx. [Source]

To the shock of no one, freeways (other than the lightly trafficked Sheridan Expressway) have the heaviest traffic loads – and with all that traffic comes air and noise pollution. Also shocking to no one is the absurdly high AADT of the infamous Cross-Bronx Expressway – it reaches 223,380 over the stretch west of the Bronx River Parkway! I’ll remind you that said stretch is heavily residential; ’tis no wonder some consider freeways “asthma alleys” – especially in The Bronx!

Having introduced some of the whys behind #deckthehighways, let’s now address the how. How can we leverage freeway infrastructure for the greater good? I could use Boston’s Big Dig (controversial as such was) as a starting point, but there are proposals for decking freeways right here in NYC (BQ Green for the BQE, and support for a similar concept for the Cross-Bronx). That said, what can we build if we deck the highways? These are just some of the possibilities, presented in no particular order:

  • Linear parks
  • Housing
  • Greenways (imagine if NYC’s bikeway network were as robust as its road network!)
  • Busways (in other words, real Bus Rapid Transit – not the watered-down Select Bus Service)
  • Light rail and/or subways
  • Any or all of these, plus
  • New and improved connections between freeways and the local road network (including elimination of dangerous “local street” interchanges between intersecting freeways).

Now, given that not all of NYC’s freeway infrastructure is amenable to decking (that is, parts of these freeways are either at-grade or elevated), one must consider:

  • Feasibility (can NYC’s freeways – in whole or in part – be decked? If they are at-grade or elevated, can they be replaced with tunnels like the elevated subways of old?)
  • Cost (How much will freeway decking projects cost? Who will pay for them?)
  • Politics (Will politicians, lawmakers, and other key stakeholders support freeway decking? What would they want built over the freeways? If they oppose, how can we get them to support?)
  • Public input (it’s their neighborhood – what are their thoughts and ideas on freeway decking and the traffic changes such could bring?)

In my view, the solution to many of our transportation and environmental issues is right under our collective noses – it’s time to…

[Fig. 6] An idea whose time has come. Imagine life without the Cross-Bronx Expressway (or at the very least, life with a decked Cross-Bronx Expressway)?

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