As car commuting demand changes, highways and parking lots give way to development

By Michael Brenneis

Urban highways and plentiful surface parking lots, once considered essential, have outlived their promise in many large U.S. cities. Observers see growing interest in dense urban living, with some mobile segments of the population opting out of car-dependent suburbs. Bold cities have been redeveloping the areas opened up by highway removal, and developers are poised to profit from the development of surface parking lots within revitalizing urban cores.

Mid-century planners and engineers envisioned a world with workers driving to jobs in urban centers from their pastoral suburbs swiftly and with ease. The forces that drove this vision are a topic too deep to be addressed here, but the consequences of this mode of development have become increasingly visible to many. Urban highways removed vast swaths of cities—often occupied by their most vulnerable residents. They isolated sections of cities and degraded the environment of residents. They allowed the number of cars in cities to surge.

David Harrison, writing in The Wall Street Journal, notes a reversal in progress. Cities are removing urban highways, and seeing massive reinvestment in urban cores. Rochester, NY, has seen “$229 million in new investment, including 519 homes and 45,000 square feet of commercial space” after burying a six-lane highway that looped its urban core. Milwaukee, WI, opened about 30 downtown acres to an estimated $1 billion of investment by removing freeway in 2002 and 2003. Portland, OR, and Chattanooga, TN, have also removed highways, and other large cities such as Detroit, MI, Tampa, FL, and Baltimore, MD, are considering following suit. Maintenance costs for these aging highways are mounting, and they no longer fit the urban vision of pedestrian-friendly spaces. Neighborhoods and communities are increasingly calling for their removal. Cities are finding that the best option may be to dismantle them.

Surface parking is also increasingly being seen as poor urban design. Increasing the urban parking supply was thought to be beneficial to growth and development, but served to encourage more driving, and also degraded city dwellers’ environment by pushing destinations farther apart and leaving gaps in the fabric of the community. Tom Acitelli writes in The New York Times that as demand for urban living increases, the value of undeveloped land, such as surface parking lots, is ascending. More than 200 lots changed hands in 2016, doubling the annual number from 2006 to 2014. Owners are reaping a good profit, while developers are snatching up parcels in prime locations, analysts say. Parking lots are attractive for development because the risk of contamination is lower, as are demolition costs. And if development hits a snag, developers can still generate income from parking in these high demand areas.

It must be noted that development doesn’t guarantee a net removal of parking. Wide profit margins allow builders to shift to costly above- or below-ground structured parking. The parking business has been growing steadily over the past few years, but a report by IBISWorld cited in this article paints a more turbulent future for parking as alternatives to commuting by car increase.

As with much urban redevelopment, gentrification is a concern. Ideally cities would work to include current residents in redevelopment plans to reduce the risk of displacement. Continuing to develop alternative forms of transportation is also important. While studies cited in the Journal article indicate that highway removal doesn’t invariably lead to increased congestion, bolstering transit and active modes can help cities continue to break from car commuting.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.