A Birds-Eye View of How Auto-Addiction Mutilated Urban Neighborhoods

Lately there’s been a flurry of bike/ped/urbanist social media comparing old aerial photos of cities against those same vantage points today. The difference is alarming. Where once compact, connected neighborhoods comprised most of the city space now reside deep freeway scars, endless seas of parking lots, and barren blocks. Be glad the ‘now‘ shots are taken from space – you’re spared the sight of smog.

This didn’t happen overnight. If it had, there would have been mass rioting in the streets to protect peoples’ homes (a few did). Eminent domain was only supposed to be used if it served the public good. Today you’d be hard pressed to find a planner who’d vouch for urban freeways as a ‘good’ at all.

Over the decades of so-called ‘prosperity’ following WWII, auto-centric infrastructure was prized above all other considerations. Hundreds of thousands of homes were wrecking-balled, deep grooves were dug into the Earth. Likely millions of Americans were eventually displaced. The end result honestly makes one want to weep for what we threw away for the sake of the car.

Today, children can’t cross the street, the elderly can’t walk to their doctors, and local shops have been replaced by big-box monoliths. All because 50 years ago the people in power saw to it that America would be a slave to the automobile. This abusive relationship is effecting our physical well-being and our collective social capacity while the burning fossil fuels emits billions of tons of carbon each year.

Looking down at these ravaged urban landscapes, it’s hard not to draw parallels to those ‘Faces of Meth‘ ads that show how rapidly a person suffering severe chemical dependency may see their health and physical appearance degrade.

Living in a drug-induced haze, it’s probably hard to notice the change until it’s too late. For those observing objectively at two ends of a timeline, the effect is a bit more striking.


Advanced stages of deterioration.

Streestblog.org writer  assembled an incredible series of aerials of downtown Detroit. What we’re often told about that metropolis’s blight usually has to do with arson, white-flight, and economic despotism. Some of this may ring true, but you don’t have to look very hard to see how much damage was done by deliberately leveling entire neighborhoods to make room for the car.

For the sake of brevity, below are the first and last images in the series. Gratiot Avenue cuts diagonally through the middle of each photo. Deterioration indeed.




C. 2012

The below GIF showing each image adjusted for precise location was created by a Streetsblog commenter. Today, over 40% of downtown Detroit is devoted to parking spaces for cars.


Here’s another example from Atlanta. Again we see a solid grid neighborhood leveled for parking, freeways, and professional sports. With such perverse mutilation of good urbanism for the sake of the automobile, it’s a wonder more people don’t literally fuck their cars.


Thankfully, most rational people have realized car addiction is just that. Widening lanes and building more highways doesn’t solve congestion, it incentivizes it. Like any other addiction, the more you consume, the harder it is to quit. Breaking such auto-addictions can involve a spectrum of methods, but first and foremost, an intervention is required.

We don’t have to coax every last person out of their car. What we do need is the persistence of vision and political will to make vastly increased investments in public transit, walkable neighborhoods, and streets safe & fun for commuting by bike – for all classes of city and suburban dwellers, not just the affluent and middle classes. ‘Livability’ is a meaningless marketing term if we don’t ensure working class people thrive in a metropolitan life.

Already, though, we’re seeing progress.

Screen shot 2014-03-01 at 4.46.27 AM

Portland, OR began the trend in the 70’s by replacing a highway with a park. They also slayed a boondoggle called the Mt. Hood Freeway. Jane Jacobs stopped Robert Moses from slicing Manhattan in half. Freeways have been toppled in other American cities like San Francisco and New York. Even Detroit is considering tearing out I-375. And the above parking crater of doom outside Atlanta’s Turner Field may well return to something far less painful on the eyes.

While most of these projects unfortunately lead to spikes in real estate value, tearing out parking lots and tearing down freeways ultimately provides a net benefit so long as the surrounding residents have a majority say in the direction of repair.

Enjoy the video below detailing Seoul, Korea’s own transformative freeway-to-public place conversion, narrated by the one and only Brad Pitt.

e2 – Seoul- The Stream of Consciousness

This is “e2 – Seoul- The Stream of Consciousness” by kontentreal on Vimeo, the home for high quality videos and the people who love them.


Thumbnail image: Portland, OR’s I-5 freeway construction and demolition of lower Albina.


  1. nice video at the end!

    It’s always to see inspiring ways we can free up space for places. That our environment is modifiable.

    It’s so crazy that we have devoted so much land to the automobile. Our massive road networks don’t pay taxes. It’s so nuts to see all that productive land to be swept up in this grandiose useless infrastructure.

    I love that Portland, Seoul have started on freeway removal. I think it’s about time we started having a paradigm shift on how we fund this infrastructure.

    It’s somewhat payed for in an indirect scheme (the gas tax), and massive influx of federal dollars provided by taxpayers and debt. We know that all this road space is incredibly expensive. We have the technology to effectively collect tolls to manage demand. We should start thinking about charging automobiles for the space that they use. We can use tolls, parking fees, etc. These sort of funding schemes are great in that they will also manage demand for these places.

    1. Good thoughts on funding, though it would seem as we transition away from cars that relying on them as a funding source is a catch-22. Why the Fed will fund capital investments but not operational costs for public transit is very telling about where our priorities are, (at least here in the US).

      With so many states legalizing marijuana here, maybe it’s time to start using ‘pot cash to fill potholes’ as it were.

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