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Rapidly increasing automobile ownership throughout the early to mid 20th Century in the United States facilitated escalating emphasis on planning for increased road capacity to meet projected demand.  Congestion in urbanized areas was rising rapidly and it was clearly evident that the structure of cities was incapable of accommodating the influx of vehicles.  The most liberal estimates of expected urban automobile-related travel demand proved to be well-short of reality as new and expanded roadway projects escalated in these areas in the 1950's.  A more measured approach was taken in Great Britain which did not have any urban expressways in 1960 despite similar escalating automobile ownership and related travel demand.  The 1963 report Traffic in Towns to Britain's Ministry of Transport stated:   ". . . the study shows the very formidable potential build-up of traffic as vehicular ownership and usage increase to the maximum. The accommodation of the full potential is almost certainly beyond any practical possibility of being realized. There is thus no escaping the need to consider to what extent and by what means the full potential is to be curtailed."  Thus the approach in great Britain was much different to the U.S. and focused on reducing automobile reliance.  [1]


The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established funding for a 41,000 mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways in the United States.  Other than locational decisions for rural portions of Interstate highway development, there was relatively little controversy about merits of the program in non-urbanized areas.  Expressways provided tremendous long-distance mobility improvements for rural communities and between urban areas.  Negative impacts were predominantly ecological and may not have been addressed as they would today since the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was not yet in existence.  There was much more disagreement about how or if expressways could be integrated into the delicate urban fabric of cities without significantly impacting livability.  


Development of the Interstate highway system in the U.S. lacked comprehensive and thorough benefit-cost analysis, particularly in urbanized areas.  Benefits consisted predominantly of reductions in travel time, gasoline costs, and vehicle wear and tear.  Costs primarily consisted of right-of-way (ROW) acquisition, design, and construction.  Consequently, the methodology always made an urban expressway appear to be a sound economic investment.  Analysis used proxy short-term land values changes in place of diffuse impacts on the surrounding city.  Particular areas were compared before and after construction.  But for the most part no analysis was done of alternative projects such as public transportation improvements, pricing programs, or other travel demand techniques.


This “scientific” engineering methodology used by expressway decision-makers excluded or gave minor weight to “soft” variables such as environmental, aesthetics, social cohesion, energy efficiency and other elusive quality of life factors.  Highway engineer Howard Bevis argued that “social or non-user benefits should be excluded from consideration until such time as the technology is sufficiently advanced to provide precise measures for both these types of benefits and for social costs.”  Therefore, identification of true impacts on cities were postponed which served to minimize political opposition.  Meanwhile, urban expressway construction moved forward and the results came back to haunt the highway community by the early 1960s.[1]  Before true impacts were known, incomplete analytical conclusions such as this were typical:  “…Research in Chicago disclosed that the accident rate on drives parallel to the Congress Street Expressway dropped 40 percent between 1955 and 1958, while both traffic and accidents increased 14 percent in a control area with no freeways, suggesting a savings of $700,000 in the first year alone.”[2]


It became increasingly evident throughout the 1960s that the Interstate highway program was having significant unintended consequences in urban areas.  U.S. Senate hearings were conducted on urban highways location and design in 1967.  William Slayton, Executive Vice President, Urban America, stated:  “The cost accounting applied to urban highways until now has been deficient in that the ledger shows the costs of the program only in terms of land acquisition, design and construction.  It does not show such real and tangible costs as the additional street and storage capacity required at the point of egress; the taking of land from the tax rolls; the dislocation of the people in the highway’s path; the reduction in value of adjacent property; the division and disruption of neighborhoods stemming from insensitive location; and the visual blight resulting from insensitive design.”[3]


Anthony Downs of the Real Estate Research Corporation testified in these hearings that radial freeways resulted in benefits primarily for the suburbs and CBD while causing decline in inner-city neighborhoods, increasing racial segregation, and disproportionate displacements of low income blacks.  He also made the case that these minorities took the brunt of the externalities from urban expressway construction namely:  blighting effects, noise, pollution, visual intrusion and community disruption.[4]  Downs also submitted a paper, “Uncompensated Non-Construction Costs Which Urban Highways and Urban Renewal Impose Upon Residential Households.”  His analysis in this document identified more than 20 types of losses to these disadvantaged populations and/or society as a whole.  He concluded that these minority households were forced to bear about 14-21 percent of the real costs of acquiring land for the roads without compensation.[5]


Expressways constructed pursuant and subsequent to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 began reaching the end of their useful lives by the beginning of the 21st century.  By 2014, the U.S. roadway state of good repair backlog is reportedly approaching $1 trillion dollars.  It is critical that prudent and fiscally responsible planning is conducted to re-examine transportation assumptions in terms of true infrastructure needs as opposed to the conventional method of attempting to meet predicted travel demand.  Rigorous comprehensive benefit-cost analysis can play an important role in demonstrating whether project costs are worth the benefits to overall society.  This should include consideration of alternative scenarios such as the removal or capacity reduction of expressways supplemented with increased travel options, including public transportation due to the inherent cost efficiencies.


As an example, how important is it to retain expressways in the densest parts of Chicago?  Is society better off with them, without them, or perhaps with them at a reduced scale?  In particular, the proposed Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) project from downtown Chicago to the near west suburbs would rehabilitate the eight-lane road and add a lane in each direction in an attempt to reduce congestion, travel times and expand commute sheds.  Rehabilitation of the Chicago Transit Authority Forest Park Branch of the Blue Line within the middle of I-290 might be integrated into the project.  We know from empirical research that significant portions of road traffic is due to induced demand by the existence of the expressways themselves.  A viable alternative could be outright removal of I-290 east of I-294 or lane reductions with two additional Blue Line tracks for express service and extensions to major trip generators such as Hines VA Hospital, Markham Courthouse, Oakbrook and Yorktown Malls, etc.  With improved quantitative benefit-cost analysis available to us today, and the level of funding shortfalls, it is imperative that we explore all prudent options.


A benefit-cost analysis has been conducted of the initial 280-mile Chicago urbanized area expressway system that was built from about 1950 to 1967.  Monetized values are included for metrics that were not available to planners when the decision was made to build the highway network.  Results are compared against the likely outcome using early conventional methods.  Analysis is also conducted of an alternate scenario building only about one-half the system, focusing on exurban areas, and assuming pricing to fully account for all costs of area roadways.  The benefit/cost ratios at a mid-range 5 percent discount rate are as follows:  All Values 1.5; Conventional 2.8; 1/2 System w/Pricing 7.3.  The Chicago Expressway initial 280-system appears to have been worth the investment, albeit not likely at the level planners originally envisioned.  The alternate scenario would have been much more advantageous.  Complete details are available in:  Chicago Expressway System Benefit-Cost Analysis.      



[1] Ministry of Transport, Report of the Steering Committee (1960). Quoted in Colin D. Buchanan et al., Traffic in Towns: The Specially Shortened Edition of the Buchanan Report (Harmondsworth, England, 1964), 140.  Referenced in Peter Norton, Fighting Traffic:  U.S. Transportation Policy and Urban Congestion 1955-1970, University of Virginia, 


[2] Louis Ward Kemp, Aesthetes and Engineers:  The Occupational Ideology of Highway Design,” Technology and Culture 27 (October 1986): 766-767.  Also Howard Bevis, “The Application of Benefit-Cost ratios to an Expressway System,” Proceedings of the Highway Research Board 35 (1956).


[3] Frederick Frye, Effect of an Expressway on Distribution of Traffic and Accidents,” HRB Record 21 (1963): 104-5. Cf. Matthew C. Sielski, “Effect of Northwest Expressway on Alternate Arterial Streets,” HRB Record 21 (1963): 106-26.


[4] U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Public Works, Subcommittee on Roads, Urban Highways , Hearings on Urban Highway Planning, Location and Design, Part 1. 90th Cong., 1st sess., November 1967: 11.


[5] Ibid. 302-308.


[6] Downs, Anthony.  Uncompensated Non-Construction Costs Which Urban Highways and Urban Renewal Impose Upon Residential Households.  Real Estate Research Corporation, 1967.

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