A World Without Walls
Freeways create concrete walls that divide the city. Their expansion is unneeded.
Walls have been in the news a lot recently. Donald Trump leads the pack of Republican presidential hopefuls with a proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border: “It’s gonna be a great wall.” Wisconsin’s own Governor Scott Walker recently described the construction of a wall along the U.S.’s five-thousand-mile border with Canada as “a legitimate issue for us to look at.” Senator Rand Paul has described this frenzied race among Republican candidates to out-do each other on wall policy as an escalation of “a lot of dumb ideas.” The GOP Wall Debate has, not surprisingly, quickly become fodder for political humorists. The Onion’s latest headline on the matter read: “Ted Cruz Worried All the Good Countries to Wall Off Taken by Other Candidates.”
Walls to protect cities and nations from foreign invaders have been around for thousands of years. And to try to prop up a decaying Communist regime, the Soviet Union rammed a monstrous wall through the center of Berlin. But in the United States, building city walls has always been unnecessary. Strangely, after the Second World War, massive concrete walls resembling the monstrosity in Berlin began to cut through the middle of American cities. The reason: the massive expansion of freeways.
The freeway walls that America built during the last 60 years—often with concrete barricades twenty, thirty, or forty feet high—cut through the heart of every major American city. Like the walls that the Soviet Union rammed through the center of Berlin, the walled freeways built in the United States separated cities from themselves.
The high priest of this new religion was Robert Moses. Moses served in various urban planning and transportation capacities in New York State and New York City. He built miles and miles of freeways throughout the greater New York City area, often demolishing entire neighborhoods. Moses saw no limit to the expansion of freeways. He even wanted to build one through Central Park.
Milwaukee pursued this urban planning creed throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. In the mid-70s, John Norquist was elected to the State Assembly on an anti-freeway platform. During his tenure in the Legislature, Norquist and others worked with former Governor Patrick Lucey to prevent the expansion of Milwaukee’s freeway system, sparing neighborhoods I currently represent from demolition. In spite of a ten-year moratorium on new freeway construction from 1977-87, the call to widen and build freeways in Milwaukee has remained constant.
Like the wall the Communists rammed through the center of Berlin, the effect of freeway walls on cities throughout America has been devastating, scarring the landscape and splitting neighborhoods apart. The walls in Milwaukee run for miles at a time along stretches of I-43, I-94, and I-894. They loom over backyards and front porches. Originally envisioned as a way to reduce sound, their primary impact is to reinforce the divisions in Milwaukee neighborhoods.
Whatever the intent of urban planners, the freeways in Milwaukee also split neighborhood from neighborhood, often along racial lines. It is impossible to look at the original map of Milwaukee’s freeways without being reminded of redlining—the practice (now formally discontinued) of refusing to provide home loans to individuals because of their race or the racial makeup of their neighborhoods.
Transportation policy in America has worsened our wall problem. For decades after the War, Wisconsin expanded freeways as Americans proceeded to drive more miles. It is hard to determine whether increased driving led to more freeways, or the other way round. Either way, for roughly half a century freeway expansion and more driving were concurrent phenomena.
For the past decade, however, the number of miles that Americans drive is flattening, even decreasing. The well-documented measure of “Vehicle Miles Traveled” (VMT) as recorded by the U.S. Department of Transportation demonstrates the new trend. The plateauing or decline of driving holds true for Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), since 2004 Wisconsinites have driven fewer total miles in every year up to the last recorded year, 2013. The decline in driving is even more pronounced in the Milwaukee area. A recent study by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group study found that Milwaukee driving decreased by 20% between 2006 and 2011. This decline is happening in cities all across America.
Yet transportation policy refuses to face up to—and adjust to—the new reality. Even though people are driving less in Wisconsin, the Department of Transportation continues to push for expanding freeways. Take for example the I-94 East-West project, which would encompass a 3.5-mile stretch of freeway between 70th Street and 16th Street in Milwaukee. The State Assembly district that I represent includes a portion of the proposed project and the neighborhoods adjacent to it. The DOT initially designed a plan, in excess of $1.2 billion, to expand the freeway by double-decking it.
That $1.2 billion number is almost half of the total $3 billion that Wisconsin plans to spend on all transportation related projects in Wisconsin in fiscal year 2015-2016 for tens of thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of bridges, and numerous other services. DOT’s “double deck” scheme would have meant less money in the future for maintaining and repairing the roads we already have. Under pressure from opponents, DOT scrapped the plan in favor of an almost equally damaging and unnecessary $850 million proposal. Yet by the DOT’s own admission, the repair and reconstruction of the I-94 East-West project could cost significantly less—$379 million.
But there is hope. The state legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance deleted the I-94 East-West Freeway project from the 2015-2017 budget. My Republican legislative colleagues were receptive to the arguments that I and fellow Democratic State Representative Evan Goyke made in a letter to the committee that asked them not to waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. We let them know that the project, as currently designed by DOT, is unpopular, unnecessary, and prohibitively expensive. It is, I wrote, an example of “big government out of control.”
Our strategy worked this time. But going forward, transportation policy in the State of Wisconsin still remains out of control. Driving will probably remain the dominant form of travel throughout my lifetime, but people young and old are looking for new ways to walk, bike, and bus their way to work, to shop, and to get around all over our great city.
The new way of thinking about urban space is not just about getting from A to B. It is about the way we shape the relationship between A and B by making it convenient for people and places to be close together in the first place. Summerfest was always a testament to Milwaukeeans’ desire to walk and inhabit shared space with others. County Park beer gardens, Newaukee Night Market, and countless other exciting venues and events that are happening in our city have affirmed and expanded on that fundamental fact that a growing number of Milwaukeeans—young and old, white and black—like proximity and enjoy density.
Our government needs to pay closer attention to what more and more Milwaukeeans (and other Wisconsinites) actually want. It should recognize that the time has come to stop foisting expensive, unpopular, and unneeded transportation policy on us. It should stop building concrete walls between us, and instead pursue policies that bring people and businesses closer together in dense, shared, urban space.
Walls divide. Whatever purpose they once served, expanding or constructing enormous concrete walls through the heart of Milwaukee (or any city) no longer serves any purpose. A sensible 21st Century transportation policy does not require them.
As fun as it has been to watch the Republican presidential field scramble to the right on wall policy, I prefer the demand of a Republican President with a different take: “Tear down this wall!” It is time to start saying no to walls right here in Milwaukee. Let’s be one city again.