The golden days -- when the traffic hadn't caught up with the lanes. (Photo by coltera.)

We can say this for our Great Urban Freeway Experiment: It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The time was the 1950s and ’60s, specifically, and U.S. cities were watching their residents flee to the suburbs in alarming numbers. Their solution: Build giant freeways connecting city centers to the ’burbs, thereby allowing citizens to live the good life on the outskirts and commute to work in the urban core. It was an attempt to hang on to urban industrial might even as the city’s population bled (or drove) out.

When all was said and done, these freeways did salvage some downtown commerce, but they only accelerated the flight from the inner city. At the same time, they carved up historic urban neighborhoods, turned whole sections of cities into slums, and cut off many downtowns from their waterfronts. Legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs was among the first to fight the scourge of the urban highway, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had become all but impossible to gain approval for new highways through urban areas.

It’s one thing to stop building urban freeways, however, and another thing entirely to tear down existing ones. For many city centers, those highways still look a lot like lifelines.

But over the past few decades, urban freeways have begun to come down — from the West Side Highway in New York to the Embarcadero in San Francisco — and if a growing urban transportation reform movement has its way, many more will fall in the coming years.

This is the thrust of a report just released by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and EMBARQ, two organizations that promote equitable and sustainable transportation projects around the world. The report, called “The Death and Life of Urban Highways” — a tribute to Jacobs’ groundbreaking 1961 urbanist manifesto, The Death and Life of Great American Cities — declares that “the urban highway is a failed experiment,” and describes cities that have traded in highways for parks, mixed-use developments, and all manner of urbanist bliss.

At last! City leaders have seen the light! Power to the people! Critical mass!

Well, not really.

“Cities are not removing all highways because of a sudden awakening of environmental consciousness or realization that car culture is bad,” the report says. Instead, they’re doing it because they can’t afford to keep aging freeways from crumbling, and they’re realizing that the space these roads take up is a hell of a lot more valuable, both socially and economically, when it’s used for houses, businesses, and parks. And then there’s the raft of studies showing that freeways don’t relieve traffic congestion — they actually make it worse.

Death and Life documents all this, and then provides five case studies of cities that have removed freeways, starting with Portland, Ore., which in the 1970s tore out Harbor Drive, a freeway that walled off the downtown area from the Willamette River, and replaced it with a waterfront park that to this day is a central attraction in Stump Town. San Francisco tore out a raised freeway that was critically damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, replacing it with Embarcadero Boulevard, replete with palm-tree-lined pedestrian promenade. Most recently, in the early 2000s, under longtime Mayor John Norquist, Milwaukee dynamited the unfinished Park East Freeway, making room for three new neighborhoods, a boulevard, and a street grid that reconnects the city to its downtown.

In all three cases, land values around the demolished highways have skyrocketed, the areas have served as hubs for economic redevelopment, and, according to the report, the impacts on traffic congestion have been minimal — thanks in some places (Portland) to the construction of parallel roads, and others (San Francisco) to an increase in mass transit ridership. And just as remarkably, all three cities saved money over what they would have spent widening, rebuilding, or completing their existing freeways.

The report finishes out with a look at Seoul, South Korea, which in 2003 demolished the Cheonggyecheon freeway, “daylighting” the river buried beneath and turning the whole thing into a miles-long urban park; and Bogotá, Colombia, which chose not to build a planned Inner Ring Expressway, opting instead to invest its money in mass transit, bicycle paths, pedestrian walkways, and promenades. Too cool.

It’s pretty inspiring, especially when you compare it to what we would have been left with if the highway engineers had their way. In a recent interview with Next American City, John Norquist, the former Milwaukee mayor who is now CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, described where that dream would have taken us:

The Detroit metropolitan area is covered with freeways … More than any other place in the country, the Michigan DOT pretty much got its way. And they have solved the problem that they identified, which was congestion … So by creating a transportation system that encouraged people to leave town — the population of the city is about a third of what it was since 1950.

[Detroit] had 300 miles of streetcars at the end of the war. That’s all gone … The street grid has been cut up, so it’s hard to move around on the surface streets. [But] the stated goal was to battle congestion, and in Detroit, they did it. And there are side effects.

Side effects. Sure — if you consider your city turning into a wasteland a “side effect.” (Sounds like a potentially terminal illness to us.) But if there’s a silver lining here, it is this: Highway construction ground to a halt much earlier in most burgs than it did in the Motor City, and now those freeways that were built are coming of age. It’s a perfect time to reconsider our approach to urban transportation.

In fact, we really have no choice. Being broke has a way of narrowing your options. Besides, with huge latent interest in urban living, it’s time to get serious about making cities work for city residents again, not just the folks who drive in from the ‘burbs.