Hey Hey, Ho Ho, I-95 Has Got to Go

Goodbye, ugly elevated highway. Hello, pedestrian-friendly boulevard?

If there’s one thing that everyone in the Philadelphia area can agree on (along with the fact that Andy Reid still can’t play-call his way out of a paper bag), it’s that the stretch of I-95 that runs through the city really, really blows.

If you live and work in Philly, it’s the enduring urban-planning screw-up that’s cut the city off from one of its two source rivers and that has thwarted development on Penn’s Landing—the great white whale of Philadelphia politics—since not long after Penn landed. And if you’re unlucky enough to commute to or from the ’burbs in the elevated perpetual traffic jam, it’s the kick in the teeth that starts your workday and/or kick in the ’nads that ends it.

There’s no way (yet!) to go back in time and right this cosmic wrong. But is it just crazy to imagine a future without the monolithic, immovable, angry-making behemoth?

There’s at least one woman in Philly who’s not only undaunted by the prospect, she’s rounding up a posse. Her vision: to end Philly’s I-95 misery once and for all—even if ending that misery takes decades.

That woman is Diana Lind, editor at large for Next American City, a Philadelphia-based magazine devoted to covering urban policy issues in cities around the country. I had the opportunity to be the dumbest guy in the room earlier this year at a meeting Lind had called of urban design/planning/architecture geeks. The purpose of the meeting was to send up a trial balloon for her BHAG (that’s visionary-speak for “big, hairy, audacious goal”) of doing away with the problem roadway for good. For Lind, and many in attendance at that preliminary meeting, the I-95 problem is more than an issue of bad societal feng shui; it’s a development issue, an economic issue, a social justice issue and—as we stare down a necessarily less car-reliant future—a sustainability issue.

At the TEDxPhilly talks on Nov. 8, Lind went public with her idea, and it was well received (admittedly by the types of people who typically get on board for these sorts of things).

The crux of her argument: The entirety of I-95 in Pennsylvania (51 miles, 3 of which are between the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges) is “in phases of structural obsolescence.” If it’s all eventually going to be redesigned and rebuilt anyway (like the Girard Avenue interchange is now), why not really redesign it?

Lind cites San Francisco’s Embarcadero, New York’s West Side Highway and Providence, R.I.’s Iway project, which moved I-195 off its waterfront, as transformative highway right-sizing and removal projects that corrected the mistakes of earlier planners, improved urban life and spurred economic development.

Her vision is not so much to make I-95 just go away, but rather to turn the elevated monstrosity into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard complete with a light-rail line. As to the million-dollar question—“Where will all that goddamn traffic will go?”—Lind explained on the phone yesterday: “A lot of the car traffic can still function on a boulevard. And we’ve learned that just as building more space for cars doesn’t always alleviate traffic, eliminating a highway isn’t necessarily going to cause a traffic problem. I-676, which runs through New Jersey, is very underused—it has way more capacity than it’s actually filling right now. A lot of people who are using I-95 for long-distance trips don’t use the section in Center City. I think that for people going from Bucks County to the airport, there’ll be options for public transportation, or they can use the boulevard [where] they might not be able to drive 60 mph, but they can go 35 mph.”

“We forget,” she adds, “that people will acclimatize to changes.”

Unlike popular notions to just bury the highway, a la Boston’s clusterfuck the Big Dig, the boulevard/light rail proposal acknowledges both that cities of the future need to think differently about transportation—and that maybe it wasn’t such a brilliant idea to so readily facilitate the daily flight to and from the suburbs (and the subsequent drain on the city’s tax base).

On this last point, Lind emphasizes that the city has gone to great lengths to tear down public housing projects on the basis that they were an unjust way to house low-income people; it ought also dismantle these concrete eyesores which cost the city and its residents so much in lost taxes and prime real estate.

Of course, given the city’s current financial straits, this is not a project that will be undertaken this year, nor next (nor by this mayor, nor, realistically, the next). It’s a project that requires someone in power to really get behind it and push. In her best-case scenario, Lind imagines this as a 2026 kind of thing—right around the occasion of the country’s 250th birthday.

“It could be a real opportunity to position Philadelphia as exemplifying the best of American cities,” says Lind, a little wistfully. “It would be really great if we said in 2026, ‘Tear down this highway and replace it with something else as a gesture to a new, better future.’”

According to Lind, the city has told her I-95 is not remotely on its agenda. It makes sense, given that the road is some 15 years away from scheduled redesign and that the city budget has become a perpetual high-wire act. We admire her patience and civility. But given the general mood of defiance loitering around City Hall these days, we say, why not start making noise about it now anyway?

Occupy I-95!

(Not literally. Please.)