quote of the week: elevated rail vs elevated freeway

John A. Miller was one of the few Americans who was puzzled by the construction of elevated highways. “Elevated railways with a capacity of 40,000 persons per hour in one direction are [being] torn down,” he wrote in amazement in 1935, “while elevated highways with a capacity of 6,000 persons per hour are being erected.”

Robert Fogelson, Downtown, via Market Urbanism

For more on how beautiful transit viaducts can be, see here.

11 Responses to quote of the week: elevated rail vs elevated freeway

  1. Zoltán January 5, 2011 at 6:32 am #

    The thinking behind this is echoed by Le Corbusier, who was writing at about the same time as the els were being torn down in the 1920s. Le Corbusier speaks much of building a city of man’s logic, reason and rationality, and he goes on to detail what such a city should look like, but it’s clear from early on in The city of to-morrow and its planning that he maintains one static conceptual foothold that he never questions – that this is “an age of motor-cars”, and that “the circulation of traffic” is, as such, the foremost aim in planning a city. Cars are inevitable, and that assertion is never questioned.
    It is that same assertion that is behind tearing down the els for the elevated highways. Yet, main becomes reasonable and rational only by questioning, and there is everything to question about motor cars. They take up more space, and use more resources, per person than more or less any other mode of transport imaginable. Little could be more out of place in the rational city of Le Corbusier.
    Both Le Corbusier and the visionaries of America at the time were planning really lovely roads for all these inevitable cars, and then after that, cities that could feed the roads, where they could fit and wouldn’t be in the way of the roads. In both cases, the vision wasn’t of transport being a means to an end, but of the free movement of cars being an end in itself. The challenge now it so envision transport instead as a means to allow cities to function properly, not the other way around. And ensuring maximum capacity in a minimum amount of space is the way to go about that.

  2. Theo January 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    Is this is John A Miller the roller coaster designer?

  3. CroMagnon January 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    In most cases, IIRC, the elevated railways were much closer to residential property than were the elevated roadways. The capacity point is one I’ve been making for years, but the context matters, too. I’m not sure the two actions directly related to one another, however.
    Sometimes, elevated is good, sometimes not, whether rail or road.

  4. Alex B. January 5, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    CroMagnon makes a key point – design (and context) matters a great deal.
    Very few of the elevated freeways I’m familiar with match the same kind of profile that a classic elevated train does, either. Most of the freeways are just too wide, they require far more than a street right of way, thus they had to take land via eminent domain and tear down a great deal of urban fabric. This has a somewhat perverse effect of creating a buffer zone around the new freeway structure and avoiding some of those conflicts between residents, retail, and transit Els.

  5. anonymouse January 5, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    Also, almost all of the elevated railways were built with private money, while pretty much all of the elevated highways were built by the government.

  6. Dexter Wong January 5, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    I’m just annoyed by those who automatically claim, “elevated freeway good, elevated rail bad.”

  7. CroMagnon January 6, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    I would rather have a depressed highway than an elevated highway. But what’s actually worse are roads that were intended to be highways, but got scaled down due to money or opposition and became very wide, non-arterial roads at the terminal ends or spurs of expressways–after the needed land was acquired and demolition already commenced. These roads have poor neighborhood orientations and have terrible congestion and are just evil to cross. At least with an elevated or depressed highway pedestrian access is better.
    There only redeeming quality is that once is done there is more above ground ROW for transit and better distance buffer from residential properties.

  8. Alex B. January 6, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    I agree – if forced to choose one, I’d take an open cut instead of an elevated freeway.
    Depressed freeways also preserve the opportunity for air rights developments later on. In Washington, DC, there is a plan to do this with one open-cut segment of Interstate 395.
    Those almost-freeways are also problematic. I can think of one potentially beneficial outcome, however. In Baltimore, there’s a partial freeway that was never finished through the west side of town (US 40). The roadway is grade-separated, in an open cut, but it doesn’t really connect to anything and only serves as an express arterial street. Soon, that cut will be used as a grade separated ROW for the Red Line light rail project.

  9. CroMagnon January 6, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    ^or hopefully heavy rail if they come to their senses.

  10. Alon Levy January 6, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    The open-cut Cross Bronx Expressway destroyed the South Bronx as effectively as any elevated freeway.

  11. CroMagnon January 6, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    Right, but that’s not what I was arguing. Destruction is still destruction and that fact overwhelms the significance of the particular grade. More agreeable alignments are where the distinction valuable. Many urban highways were routed along stream valleys,industrial areas, and old warehouse districts to avoid residential and vibrant neighborhoods. Naturally, those that obliterated blocks of houses have not been judged kindly by history.