To Remove a Freeway in Long Beach (Part 2): By the Numbers

The Terminal Island Freeway as seen from behind Cabrillo High School on the city's west side. With traffic along this stretch of freeway set to decrease when trucks from the port begin using the Alameda Corridor, the freeway is a prime candidate for potential removal.
6:01pm | A few months ago, I wrote a post describing the potential benefits of removing a couple lengths of freeways in Long Beach. In the article, I focused on the possibility of reconfiguring the I-710 Freeway into a boulevard south of Seventh Street (after it crosses the Los Angeles River into downtown Long Beach) and removing the last mile of the Terminal Island Freeway (between Pacific Coast Highway and Willow Street) on the Westside. 

The resulting reader commentary was rather heated, ranging from taunting sports utility vehicle drivers to complaints about streetcars. Some commentators feared that altering the two freeways in the manner suggested would increase traffic congestion. Given these understandable concerns, I decided it would make sense to follow that up with a quantitative analysis of the proposal. 

Many communities nationwide are now debating removing or reconfiguring their regional infrastructure so that it better serves local needs. From Portland, Oregon, to Milwaukee, Wisc., we find examples of communities removing concrete culverts or steel viaducts to replace them with beautiful tree-lined boulevards. In some cases there is a qualitative motivation to improve a community’s surroundings; in other cases what predominates is a quantitative analysis regarding the costs of maintaining, removing or replacing aging infrastructure. 

For instance, the Park East Freeway was a mile-long spur of Interstate 794 running through the city of Milwaukee. The original plan called for this freeway to reach the downtown waterfront, but community backlash against the destruction of neighborhoods prevented the plan from being completely realized. In 2003, city officials eventually decided to remove the mile of the freeway that had been built (and was carrying 54,000 vehicles daily). What motivated this decision was the realization that demolishing the aging freeway would cost $25 million, but rebuilding it would have cost four times as much. Concerns over congestion were misplaced: the reestablished street grid largely absorbed the traffic, while additionally creating nearly 40 acres of land for private development.

While the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco is one of the more familiar examples of freeway removal, the parallel demise of that city’s Central Freeway is less widely known. Both freeways were products of the national mid-20th-century urban renewal trend, and both were abruptly halted as the negative impact on the city fabric became apparent. The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake had caused heavy damage to the Central and Embarcadero freeways, necessitating their closures. Instead of rebuilding the elevated freeways, city officials decided to replace them with multimodal boulevards integrated into the surrounding street network. The 150,000 vehicles that travelled on those freeways daily have since found alternative routes, while the communities formerly in their shadows have enjoyed new investment, not to mention public amenities on the land formerly occupied by the freeways.

Perhaps the most compelling example of urban rejuvenation through freeway removal involves the Chenoggye Freeway in Seoul, Korea. This three-mile-long multilevel freeway was built in the late 1960s as part of a move to modernize the city’s road and sewer system. Because the freeway was actually built over the main tributary of the Chenoggye River, its removal thirty years later uncovered the river and led to the creation of the Chenoggye River greenbelt, now the most popular urban space in Seoul. Traffic management policies and improved transit service have largely mitigated the impact of the 170,000 vehicles that had formerly used the freeway, and over 90,000 people now enjoy the river park every day.

These examples from Milwaukee to Seoul hold lessons for Long Beach. According to the most recent traffic flow data (from 2001), Shoreline Drive carries a daily average of about 15,000 vehicles. In comparison, Fourth Street in the Retro Row area (between Cherry and Junipero Avenue) carries approximately 16,000 vehicles a day. We could place Fourth Street on one half of Shoreline Drive (one side of the street divided by the median) and in some places still have enough excess land to add bike lanes. 

Before any readers hit “submit” to protest this idea with reference to “the future of the Grand Prix,” I would emphasize that 1.5 miles of Shoreline are not part of the racecourse. While I would contend our waterfront is currently poorly designed as a racecourse first and foremost, one that the public is in effect allowed to borrow the remaining 50 weeks of the year, there is little reason racing cannot coexist with a Shoreline Drive better designed for a downtown environment. A Shoreline Drive reconfigured as a beautiful, multimodal thoroughfare like the Embarcadero in San Francisco — one friendly to pedestrians, bicycles, public transit and cars — could become a premium address like “Pine Avenue and Ocean Boulevard,” not to mention spurring construction on more than a dozen acres of developable land in the area.

Another potential example: the last mile of the Terminal Island Freeway north of Pacific Coast Highway carries even less traffic than Shoreline Drive. The traffic flow for this city-owned right-of-way is projected to further decrease, given the Union Pacific Railroad’s proposal to expand the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility. This is because between 1/4  and 1/3 of the traffic on this freeway consists of diesel-spewing tractor trailer trucks serving the ICTF at its northern terminus, and this expansion is slated to shift all trucks serving the ICTF to the Alameda Corridor less than a mile to the west. Based on this projected reduction, traffic on the last mile of the Terminal Island Freeway would dip below 10,000 vehicles a day. 

In comparison, Third Street in Alamitos Beach, which carries a similar amount of traffic, recently had its third travel lane removed by city planners in order to add bike lanes. Such a low volume of traffic north of Pacific Coast Highway could readily be accommodated by a neighborhood-type street. The remaining 30 acres of public property could then be transformed into badly-needed open space on the Westside, buffering residents and schools from port infrastructure to the West. 

We now have a burgeoning number of successful examples demonstrating the economic, social and environmental benefit from removing unneeded elements of a regional freeway network. At first glance removing parts of a freeway might seem drastic, but in comparison to the successful interventions described above in Milwaukee, San Francisco and Seoul, the two examples I have suggested with regard to Long Beach are relatively mundane. With careful investigation and thoughtful discussion, we could discover magnificent opportunities for the denizens of Long Beach to benefit from our reimagining the city’s over-built public rights-of-way. 

The Preservation Institute and Congress for New Urbanism both have a wealth of information related to the history of urban freeway development, as well as the revolution against them and, in some cases, their eventual removal. Seattle’s Department of Transportation also has a thorough analysis of freeway removal case studies as part of determining the future of the Alaskan Way Viaduct along their downtown waterfront.

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