Highways for Habitats #30: Claiborne Expressway, New Orleans

Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

The Claiborne Expressway was constructed in the 1960s through New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood, America’s oldest black neighborhood, and the historically predominantly Afro-Creole community the Seventh Ward.  These were vibrant and diverse commercial districts, and Claiborne Avenue was one of the NOLA African-American community’s most important streetsMany credit the Claiborne Expressway’s construction with damaging the area’s integrity, and leading to overall decline of the neighborhoods.

The elevated Claiborne Expressway runs directly above Claiborne Avenue for 2.2 miles, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the redevelopment of the area has been a hot topic; the city of New Orleans is currently exploring its options.

The city, with the help of a Federal TIGER grant, recently completed a nearly year-long Livable Claiborne Communities study.  The study focused on community revitalization and economic development, and was created with the help of extensive community and stakeholder outreach.  It explored the role of Claiborne Avenue as a regional connector, and the opportunities it provides to catalyze revitalization of the area.  Through traffic modeling, economic development potential analysis, and considerations for planned projects like the Rampart Streetcar line, scheduled to open in 2015, the study determined the possibilities for the area.

Just this month, the city’s planners unveiled to the public options for the future of Claiborne Expressway and Avenue.  The study identified four scenarios, which include keeping or removing the elevated portion, and eliminating some or all of the exit ramps to re-link neighborhoods divided by the overpass.  The study also claims that a teardown would free up 50 acres of land for development.

The next step will be submitting the scenarios to the U.S. Department of Transportation for analysis.  If all goes as planned, this would be followed by a National Environmental Policy Act study, obtaining funding, and final designs.

Many people have come out in support of removal of the Claiborne Expressway.  Like we’ve seen with other elevated expressways, it is viewed by some as an eyesore in the neighborhood, an obstruction.  Some say it keeps home and property values in the area low, and hurts small business.  The Livable Claiborne Communities study found that 40% of the area’s housing is blighted and vacant, and that the area as a whole would benefit greatly from a redevelopment strategy; many believe revitalization will not be possible while the freeway remains.

A report to the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition and the Congress for the New Urbanism, prepared by Smart Mobility Inc. and Waggonner & Ball Architects, “concludes that removal of the freeway would bring important benefits for surrounding neighborhoods and New Orleans as a whole.”  They maintain that the removal would reconnect city streets, and improve travel routes and times for New Orleans residents.

On the other side of the fence – or highway – some fear a frequent outcome of development: discplacement.  As land opens up, gets developed, and property values rise, residents and business owners worry they will be priced out of their homes and livelihoods.  Others express concerns regarding truck traffic: increased travel times and costs, and increased congestion on remaining routes.

Naturally, the removal of a highway means travelers would need to find alternate routes.  Some in New Orleans say that the teardown of Claiborne Expressway would weaken access of some neighborhoods – like for residents of New Orleans East – to downtown, where many work; they maintain that the expressway is vital to many peoples’ livelihoods.

But is it?  This dependence on the expressway raises the question: aren’t there (better) alternatives?  Are cars and clogged arterials the best mobility we get?  What about bus rapid transit, a comprehensive rail system, or the opportunities to live where you work?  Would the recovery of all that land and space, coupled with the expressways removal, spark a shifts towards more multi-modal transportation options, and bring about bicycle routes, public transit infrastructure and public spaces for residents, strengthening quality of life for New Orleanians?

The debate over the Claiborne Expressway reminds us why we started this Highways for Habitats Series. In the middle of the 20th Century the car was king, but times have changed, and the singular focus on our car-culture and highways has left us with divided neighborhoods, and many would have you believe there are no other options.  Let’s Save Michigan would like you to remember that with strategic planning and context sensitivity, more sustainable transportation options are the right choice.  And maybe – just maybe – our lives will be better off without a highway running through our neighborhoods.


Photo from Congress for the New Urbanism report Restoring Claiborne Avenue: Alternatives for the Future of Claiborne Avenue.