Confessions of a recovering freeway nerd


I’ll admit it. In my younger days, I was a certified freeway nerd. Growing up in Indianapolis, I was in awe of the Interstate Highway System. Lucky for me, Indy had plenty of them, including my teenage and twenty-something travel buddy, I-465.

I couldn’t wait for it to be completed around the city with the final segments being in my neck of the woods on the Northside. In fact, I even convinced my Mom to valet me around it a couple of times before I had a license of my own. This included one notable early summer trip that has us scanning the sky in a panic as we were alerted over the car radio that a tornado had just been sighted right at the very exit we were passing. Needless to say, that was NOT one of my favorite freeway moments.

Segment of I-465 in NW Indianapolis Source:

My fondness for I-465 included regular loops (or laps) of the city on this concrete ribbon so I could observe any changes along the entire route as well as any new developments aside its path. In fact, I circled its 52 +/- mile circumference enough times in the 1970s to complete (and win) my own Indy 500…albeit at an oil-embargo limited snail’s pace of roughly 55-60 miles per hour. Either way – take that Unser Brothers and Mario Andretti!

Eventually, as I-65 and I-70 was completed through the heart of the city, I would traverse them, as well. What I didn’t fully comprehend at the time was the unacceptable number of people who had been uprooted and dislocated by those two Interstates. Unlike I-465 which largely gobbled up farmland, I-65 and I-70 tore through inner city neighborhoods disrupting the lives of many families and small businesses. The fact that those affected were overwhelming poor and minorities is even more disturbing.

I-65/70 split bulldozing through Indianapolis – Source:

To a certain extent, Indianapolis was fortunate, as the heart of the city was not as brutally obliterated as happened in cities like St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. Still, that does not excuse the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on those whose lives were disrupted, neighborhoods wiped-out, and homes demolished. The freeway-building era was one of our nation’s low points in terms of race relations or sympathy for the less fortunate.

Today, I look back on my teenage and twenty-something love for freeways with some remorse. While they did help guide me towards a career in urban planning, I can’t help but feel disappointed in myself for not then having a better understanding of the plight of those being evicted for what was deemed “progress” by the politicos and power-brokers of the time.

While I tend to retain a soft-spot for impressive freeway panoramas, tunnels, bridge spans, and complex interchanges, I’m more likely to appreciate a scenic byway, a well-designed bike trail, a sleek commuter rail line, or a handsome light-rail network. In fact, in our regular transits back-and-forth between the Southwest and Midwest, we tend to drive more non-freeways than freeways anymore. The reason is largely due to the more relaxed nature of traversing these roadways, but also relates to them carrying fewer trucks, overaggressive drivers, and chaotic lane-changers, as well as they allow us more time to appreciate our visual surroundings. If this makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, so be it.

Freeways had and will continue to have an important role in the United States, particularly as conveyors of people and goods. But, this recovering freeway nerd knows there are a number of locations where they NEVER should have been built and should be removed as soon as possible. Most of these places are in inner cities and their presence has left an enduring scar on the community. Unfortunately, my childhood hometown of Indianapolis is and continues to be one of those places despite recently having the opportunity to at least partially rectify the wrong. It isn’t alone.

Even today, some states (particularly Texas and North Carolina) remain hellbent on constructing new freeways or continuing to widen old ones through the heart of their cities. Apparently, wearing blinders helps them avoid the insurmountable research findings about “induced demand” that advise against taking such Orwellian actions. Sad…

Examples of micromobility – Source:

Perhaps, as newer forms of individual and mass transportation grow in popularity, the need/desire for maintaining inner-city freeways will abate. Low-speed vehicles (LSVs), electric vehicles (EVs), electric bikes, mopeds, scooters, and other micromobility options could dissuade more people from being or becoming freeway nerds. The addition/expansion of modern mass transit systems could do the same, particularly for those who reside further from the city core. If so, perhaps future generations will realize that inner-city freeways are dinosaurs that need to be replaced with safer, people/nature-friendly, and energy-efficient street level transportation options. Meanwhile freeways can be left for the perimeter of the city and as speedy connectors between metropolitan areas. Only time will tell, but this recovering freeway nerd hopes that such improvements come sooner versus later. Peace!

This entry was posted in Active transportation, Advocacy, Alternative transportation, bicycling, bike sharing, Biking, bridges, Bus transportation, Cars, cities, civics, climate change, commerce, culture, density, distribution, downtown, economic development, electric vehicles, energy, engineering, environment, EVs and hybrids, fun, futurism, geography, health, Highway displacement, highways, historic preservation, history, humanity, infrastructure, land use, nature, new urbanism, Passenger rail, pictures, placemaking, planning, politics, pollution, poverty, product design, racism, rail, Railroads, recreation, Renewable Energy, revitalization, scenic byways, social equity, spatial design, sprawl, sustainability, technology, topography, tourism, Trade, traffic, trails, transit, transportation, Travel, trucking, tunnels, urban design, urban planning, visual pollution, walking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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