I can see the Jones Falls Expressway from my living room. As I write this, tail lights streak through the trees, accompanied by the whine of motorcycles ripping up the road. During rush hour, the noise kind of blurs together into an approximation of flowing water. The sound of the actual river running between building and road is drowned out by the traffic. In between the river and the road runs the Light Rail, zipping back and forth rather indifferently.
Each morning I take the JFX out of the city to my suburban office. On the other side, heading into the city, traffic backs up all the way to the Beltway. The road, originally designed for 200,000 cars a day, can barely handle 120,000, due to various design flaws and spikes in usage. Largely elevated, the highway cuts a twisted path, making for tight turns, narrow shoulders, and complex exits. This, in turn, slows down traffic, lowers visibility, and increases accidents. For much of its ten-mile route, the JFX buries or shades the river it's named for, making for a grim, post-apocalyptic corridor that I've described before.
So why was it built? And why might it be taken out?
The Jones Falls valley was long a natural north-south corridor between downtown Baltimore and outlying districts. In 1804, the first turnpike opened, funded by tolls. By 1915, part of the river downtown was channelized, buried, and literally turned into a street, Fallsway. Superhero urbanist Jane Jacob's old nemesis, Robert Moses, got involved in 1943, collaborating with local officials to bring an elevated highway from the nascent Beltway right into the heart of the city. The first portion opened in 1961. The idea was to connect growing suburbs with downtown jobs.
THe JFX was fully completed in 1993, dead-ending inelegantly into Fayette Street downtown. Originally, it was meant to bulldoze through Fells Point and swoop over the harbor to connect with I-95 in the south. However, in a fight that made now-Senator Barbara Mikulski famous, the historic waterfront neighborhood was saved. A similar spat also ended a third leg of the highway meant to bring in I-70 from the west. The result would've looked almost like a peace sign from the air, with three branches of highway trisecting the city into isolated zones. The JFX succeeded largely because it avoided the kind of wholesale eminent domain-ing and demolition necessary for the other two plans by following the naturally undeveloped river valley.
Along the way, as costs ballooned and local opposition slowly solidified, aspects of the original design were dropped, including a parkway shadowing the road and dedicated bus rapid transit lanes. Baltimoreans were left with a bit of a Berlin wall -- reinforcing the natural barrier of the river itself with a huge highway and a tangles of interchanges. While convenient for the suburban commuter and ballgame traffic, it upsets the metabolism of the city by injecting and then withdrawing over a hundred thousand people each day in two bursts of congestion. Its effect on traffic is analogous to the river it shadows: by draining the wetlands (street grid) and channelizing the flow (the JFX), the city becomes vulnerable to floods and storm surges (rush hour and ball games).
Baltimore has many well-documented urban woes: de-facto and outright segregation, the flight of heavy industry, a lack of decent public transportation, and mass abandonment of real estate. In a way, the JFX is a concrete illustration of them all, representing a straight shot out, an escape route to sunny, green suburbs. In an effort to right some of these flaws, some folks have proposed tearing down the highway. Led by prominent local light Walter Sondheim, who passed away in 2007, a small but growing cohort of voices have called for the road to be torn down. It will need serious repairs by 2020, which has led to the suggestion that it ought to be left to wither on the vine. Tearing it down would inject some jobs into the economy, reconnect the street grid, cure some traffic woes, and restore the health of the Jones Falls.
But what would replace it?
Several folks have floated proposals for a new Jones Falls corridor. Megan Griffith has written a long and well-researched piece on the idea over at Tree Hugging Urbanist, highlighting two projects by landscape architecture students. One, by Sarah Shelton and Aja Bulla-Richards, proposes leaving parts of the JFX in place and converting them to an elevated park like the High Line. Below, the river would be restored to a natural, meandering, wetland-lined route. The other, by Marc Szarkowski, imagines a multi-form transportation corridor that incorporates the Light Rail with an extension of the Jones Falls Trail to bring bikes downtown. The river would become a canal, lined with shops and promenades.
In the past few years, the long-neglected Falls Road corridor has seen a lot of development -- Meadow Mill, Union Mill, and Mill Number 1, as well as new restaurants like Birrotecca and Artifact Coffee. The same developer who put together Mill Number 1 has purchased the last remaining mill complex, with several hundred thousand square feet awaiting reinvention. This economic injection provides a strong case for eliminating the JFX that didn't exist just a few years ago -- residents.
If the sad, incomplete Jones Falls Trail was actually a well-lit, robust path that extended north and linked all the mills and beyond, the retail and office business would follow. If the Light Rail functioned have as well as it could, there would be an efficient mechanism for absorbing all those car-obsessed commuters. If the river had some restored wetlands, and was broken out of its channelization in places, periodic flash floods could be avoided. If a new network of bridges had to be built to re-link all the streets currently interrupted by the JFX, a generation of infrastructure jobs could be created. If the street grid could be reunited, physical, political, and racial barriers could be broken down.
And the traffic? Evgeny Morozov, a fierce critic of technology, has argued that sometimes, inefficiency is the price we pay for equity. Buses are slow, but they put transportation within reach of the poorest among us. Highways are expensive, spatially divisive, and favor only those rich enough to own a car. Taking the JFX out would be a radical step towards a saner, safer, more sustainable city with a smarter mix of transportation alternatives that allowed everyone to get where they need to go.