Highway-to-Boulevard Conversion Examples

A Growing Movement

Cities across the country and world are removing their freeways and replacing them with multi-modal boulevards to repair harms and better serve the needs of people and the planet. “Rethinking I-94” is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reimagine the freeway corridor and build the Twin Cities Boulevard in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco, 1991

The Embarcadero Freeway once carried over 100,000 vehicles per day. After it was damaged in an earthquake in 1989, momentum picked to permanently demolish the freeway that divided downtown from the waterfront and polluted adjacent neighborhoods. Ultimately the freeway was removed and replaced with a tree lined multi-modal boulevard, featuring lanes for streetcars, pedestrians and bicycles in addition to general traffic. Concerns about traffic congestion were short-lived and today it is difficult to imagine that the former freeway, now referred to as “a monstrous mistake”, once towered over this neighborhood.

I-470 Inner Loop, Rochester (NY), 2017

The Inner Loop East Transformation Project converted a section of the I-470 freeway trench in Downtown Rochester to an at-grade complete street that includes bicycle and walking paths. The construction of the initial 2/3 mile stretch was completed in December of 2017 at a cost of $21 million. This project proved to be extremely cost effective, as maintenance cost of I-470 would have exceeded the cost of filling in the trench and creating the new at-grade street. while providing none of the benefits, including improved air pollution, improved transportation access and approximately six acres of reclaimed land for mixed-use development. The project has been such a success that the City is now evaluating converting the remainder of the 2.68 mile Inner Loop to a surface level boulevard, with the Governor recently including $100 million for the effort in her 2022-2023 budget.

Cheonggye Expressway, Seoul, 2005

First constructed in 1968, the Cheonggye Expressway was an elevated highway that replaced the Cheonggye Creek. As Seoul’s population boomed, traffic congestion on the expressway and its resulting noise and air pollution choked the surrounding Cheonggye area. As a result, residents began to organize to remove the freeway and restore the historic creek.

The idea gained momentum in 2001 when Lee Myung-bak was elected mayor of Seoul. His platform included cutting automobile use in half by improving the city’s public transit system and replacing the Cheonggye Expressway with a new reconstructed waterway. Nearly 80% of Seoul residents supported the plan and the project was completed in 2005. The project was a huge success. Traffic congestion improved after the expressway’s removal. The urban heat island effect was reduced by nearly 5%. Pedestrian activity, bus and subway ridership all spiked. The project dramatically improved air quality and was such a success that since the Cheonggye Expressway was removed, Seoul has demolished 15 additional freeways in the city.

I-81, Syracuse, 2022

The City of Syracuse and the New York Department of Transportation announced plans in 2019 to remove a portion of I-81, which runs through the city’s downtown. The freeway will be replaced with a reconstructed street grid and multi-modal boulevard, which will reconnect neighborhoods and improve the health and mobility of adjacent residents, 40% of whom live below the poverty line. New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently confirmed that the project will begin construction soon.

I-375, Detroit, Approved

Map of the study areas for the I-375 conversion project

I-375 in Detroit is the latest highway-to-boulevard conversion to move forward, having received formal approval from the Federal Highways Administration as well as a $105M federal grant to begin construction. Like many urban freeways across the country, the history of I-375 is intertwined with institutional racism and displacement. I-375 was constructed through the heart of two thriving predominantly Black neighborhoods, Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. These communities were among the few places where Black residents were allowed to live and were decimated by the freeway’s construction and the resulting displacement. In December of 2017, the Michigan Department of Transportation formally committed to the removal of I-375 through downtown Detroit, replacing it with a multi-modal boulevard, a reconnected street grid and new development. This project provides an opportunity to prioritize the residents and businesses who have been most impacted by the highway and ensure that they primarily benefit.

I-35, Duluth, under consideration

A community effort is underway to reimagine I-35 in Duluth. The highway divides downtown from the Lake Superior waterfront and takes up 20% of the city’s downtown land area. As a replacement for the highway, Duluth residents envision a new parkway that reconnects the city and provides improved transportation options. While details and timeline are still being determined, this would include a new parkway with tree-lined sidewalks, bike trails and dedicated space for existing and future transit lines. The new parkway would also allow the community to reclaim 20 acres that the freeway demolished for new housing, businesses and greenspace. The Duluth City Council passed a unanimous resolution supporting the concept in August 2021 and in February 2022, MnDOT announced that they will be evaluating the concept in an upcoming corridor study.