Roads, Cars, and Cities


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

There was a time in the early 1960s when Connecticut transportation planners decided they had to destroy cities in order to save them. Nowhere in Connecticut is this approach to urban design more visible than in our capital city.

Downtown Hartford remains, in many ways, a strikingly beautiful place. Bushnell Park is one of the most charming urban parks in the country, carefully framed by the Capitol, the theater, and the downtown skyline. Main Street is lined with many wonderful Art Deco and Beaux-Arts buildings, as well as the Old State House. The Connecticut River lies in the background; Asylum Hill, with its large historical mansions, looks over from the west. However, these parks, landmarks, and monuments are not just largely cut off from the city but even from each other. The massive bridges, walls, culverts, and structures of Interstate 84 are in the way.

The best way to understand the impact that I-84 had on the city of Hartford is on foot, walking around downtown. The streets become duller, emptier as you get closer to the highway. The air becomes heavy with noise and that dull, penetrating smell of rubber and gasoline that defines much of our urban areas. Right by the trench or the viaduct, road traffic is dominated by cars rushing in or out of the interstate. Then you have the main road, a wide ribbon of asphalt and roaring metal where no one on foot shall dwell. Going under or over it on foot is mighty unpleasant, standing around it even more so. Unsurprisingly, there are no stores, restaurants, or places to stay. The highway creates wide, vacant corridors just for cars, not for people.

In Hartford, the builders of I-84 plowed across neighborhoods, not just splitting them in two but leaving a deep, open scar across them. Downtown is physically close to the North End, but walking up Main Street feels akin to crossing a desert. Walking up to Asylum Hill is even worse, with many of the streets completely cut off and acres of parking lots lining the streets. You can see the same kind of barriers and divided neighborhoods in many cities and towns across the state, with New Britain, Bridgeport, and Waterbury being the most egregious examples.

The good news is that decades after demolishing whole neighborhoods to plow speeding cars across them, many of these urban highways are reaching the end of their functional lifespan. The viaduct that carries I-84 across Hartford needs replacement, and luckily, we have the chance to look for a better alternative.

The starting point should be no highways across dense urban areas. Or at least, as little highway traffic crossing downtowns as possible, with a focus on reconnecting neighborhoods and downtown.

In the past few years, we have seen a constant stream of proposals, studies, crayons, and ideas about how to address these issues in Hartford; the most recent, the Hartford Mobility Study, provides some good insights. Some of them have been incredibly ambitious, others much less so. The important part of these debates, however, is that this is a project with a very high return on investment, and, if done well, could really make a difference in our cities, both now and in the long run.

Let’s start with the returns: I-84 (or route 9 in New Britain, 8 in Bridgeport, 91 in New Haven…) sits on land close to jobs, amenities, and public transportation hubs. Connecticut has an acute housing shortage, and these corridors can support the dense, walkable housing we need to close the gap, while reknitting neighborhoods at the same time.

Having people live close to where they work is also a great way to reduce transportation emissions and costs – and if they need to go somewhere else, density pairs nicely with mass transit. Most of our urban highways are near rail lines; we won’t even need to build much new infrastructure. Reducing car dependency also has a net positive effect on low-income workers, who spend a much higher percentage of their income on transportation than other groups (cars are expensive!), an added benefit of highway removal.

All these years of car-centric infrastructure have taught us that urban planning mistakes are costly – but the benefits of getting it right are equally substantial. The health, social, and economic impacts of urban highways have been enormous, spread over decades and generations. The costs of hollowing out our cities have been a net loss to our state. Fixing these planning mistakes and revitalizing our urban areas will benefit not just current residents, but also future generations.

A political scientist by trade, Roger Senserrich has worked on issues relating to education, housing, healthcare, land use, housing, and social justice. He also wants Connecticut trains and the public transportation system in general to run on time.  A resident of East Haven, he currently works as Communications Director at the CT Working Families Party.