Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why highway tunnels suck

Since some people didn't quite get my brilliant idea, I was marveling at the number of people who otherwise agree with me about most transit and livable streets issues, but don't see any problem with putting highways in tunnels. And this is not the first time: I've seen otherwise reasonable people support the Gowanus tunnel, and even lament that Westway never happened.

I started writing an explanation of why highway tunnels are problematic. Then Streetsblog highlighted the fact that I'm not alone in this. Over on the other side of the country, Dan Bertolet is having very similar discussions with fellow Seattleites who don't see any problem with putting the Alaskan Way in a tunnel.

So here is your answer: highway tunnels suck for many reasons. As discussed in the comments on Ben's blog post, they are expensive, draining money from other worthy uses. They require ventilation structures that spew carbon monoxide into the air, in much larger quantities than subway vents. As Dan Bertolet observes, if they free up road capacity it's only temporary. And here are three more from me:

The cars still come from somewhere. Ben recently had a post about the never-completed Nostrand and Utica Avenue subway lines. A number of commenters observed that the area is now very car-dependent and full of transit NIMBYism. I'll go further and point out that the people here regularly vote for anti-transit politicians like Lew Fidler, Alan Meisel and Carl Kruger. Their car-oriented lifestyle is not just encouraged by the lack of subways, but facilitated by highways like Linden Boulevard, the Belt Parkway and even the BQE.

The cars are going somewhere. If you look at the congestion on Sixth avenue in the middle of the day, or Bleecker Street on a Friday night, how do the cars get there? Many of them come on the BQE, on the FDR or on the West Side Highway.

The cars are probably not spending their entire time in the tunnel. If they could get from origin to destination without using any streets, that might not be so bad. But the tunnel (or parkway, or elevated highway) doesn't go everywhere, so the drivers are going to have to use local streets at both ends. When they do, it's a bad scene.

I still remember one time I rented a car and drove down the West Side Highway. Coming off onto 79th Street, I was bewildered and annoyed. What were all these pedestrians doing? And I was supposed to stop for them? I'd just been driving nonstop for a long time! A lot of our most dangerous intersections are highway exits, where drivers are still coming out of highway mode.

So that's why the BQE tunnel proposal sucks, why the Gowanus tunnel proposal sucks, why Westway sucked, why the Big Dig sucks, and why the Alaskan Way tunnel proposal sucks. Car tunnels suck, for at least six reasons. Don't support them, and don't accept that car capacity is sacred.


ant6n said...

Are there good arguments to be made for taking an existing downtown highway tunnel with 3-4 lanes in every direction and turning one of the lanes into a LRT or subway to connect gaps in the transit network?

Christopher1974 said...

What to do about trucks though? When expressways first started opening in the 1920s, many times it was out of a desire to keep trucks out of neighborhoods (as well as to speed up deliver times). Cars were an unintended consequence.

We ship an awful lot by truck (we are not alone of course, many countries do). Getting cars off the road of course helps delivery times too. But trucks and their diesel fumes are even worse for neighborhoods than automobile traffic.

Would tunnels help this? Keep trucks off the streets, improve throughput? Increase our shipping abilities? Lower costs for industry (and help protect shipping, warehouse and industrial jobs in the region?) Those are important questions too.

nathan_h said...

Freeing up capacity for trucks is the same issue above ground and under. Personal vehicles will eventually consume whatever free roadway is available to them, making shipping slow and wasteful. But if a roadway is tolled, going out "for a drive" or choosing to drive rather than taking the subway makes a lot less sense, leaving room for efficient operation trucks operated by people being paid hourly.

In a backhanded way tunnels can do this as they are new, expensive, and more likely to be tolled. But you can also just toll surface streets for the same benefits without billion dollar digging, using either congestion pricing for an area or tolls on specific through streets that trucks should be using. We passed the point where this became technologically feasible years ago, we just haven't taken advantage.

Given our diminished economic circumstances, it's silly to talk about huge digging projects when we can solve traffic problems in a revenue-positive, carbon-negative way and spend the money on something good for the public, or use it to cut payroll taxes.

BruceMcF said...

Invest in long haul electrified Rapid Freight Rail, increase the benefit of using local freight rail therefore the financial incentive to invest in local freight rail, and reduce the number of trucks on the road.

As compared to my experience in driving in underground highways in Sydney, Australia and the headaches from breathing what passes for air in underground highways, getting some of the existing trucks off the existing roads is a far more appealing strategic for coping with truck traffic.

Cap'n Transit said...

Ant6n, sure there are good arguments to be made for that. At this point the only tunnel in New York I can think of like that is the Lincoln Tunnel; the BQE is three lanes each way, but is not exactly a tunnel.

DC1974, what to do about trucks? As Bruce says, and as I said in my previous post, rail freight. Specifically the Cross-Harbor tunnel.

ant6n said...

I was thinking more about the Villa-Marie Express way in Montreal, a tunnel right through downtown. At its one end sits the terminus of a commuter rail line (Lucien L'Allier). At it's other a large freight ROW. Together with the tunnel the freight ROW forms a 20 mile loop through the city, connecting to all metro lines and commuter trains, while going through downtown. This would mean that the two commuter train stations would finally be connected again (they are 2000 feet from one another).

Cap'n Transit said...

Sounds like a great idea to me, Ant6n!

Alon Levy said...

Ant6n, it depends on whether the tunnel is built to specs that allow trains to run. Trains can't climb grades as much as cars. They'd also need to hook to some existing connection at each end, which may be expensive if the only connections are away from the tunnel.

However, when those problems do not exist, running trains over existing bridges or tunnels is a very easy way to build low-cost rapid transit. The GWB could support trains on the lower level, the Brooklyn Bridge could see a return of trains, etc.

Dave 'Paco' Abraham said...

Cap'n... I fully agree with your points. The price & the ventilation buildings needed are huge burdens. However... you said 'the drivers are going to have to use local streets at both ends.' As far as I've seen it, the BQE tunnel idea (and yep, it's still just an idea) wasn't going to merge local traffic with the existing highway traffic. It would simply sink an existing lane of the BQE so cars heading north (not to the bridges, or battery tunnel) would move more directly. So, as far as I could tell the cars don't need local streets at each end of the tunnel, just the local streets from where they originated which is already the case. Overall, I don't know if the tunnel ideas will be feasible because the cost is indeed astronomical but I do wonder if it'd be a worthy tradeoff for achieving other vital goals.... like East River Tolls and/or re-instating the two way toll on the Verrazano. Part of the appeal I see in a tunnel is that making it a north brooklyn bound bypass could reduce traffic volume on the existing BQE cantilever so that they could rehab it rather than replace it. Imagine a lane in each direction as a tunnel, and the existing BQE width converted from three lanes down to two that has functioning shoulders, a bike/ped path overlooking BK bridge park, AND tolls on the bridge crossing exits? Is that too crazy an idea? Some stakeholders might think just 'add more lanes' or 'move it away from my property' is a solution, but others do see the opportunity to achieve reduced traffic volume/capacity, add BRT, add open space, and ideally get some sensible road pricing. Next meeting is 9/29... I'll keep you posted what happens and hope to have your continued input.

neroden@gmail said...

Oh. You don't mean highway tunnels through mountains and under rivers, do you?

OK then, I agree with you. Why would anyone build a highway tunnel except to cross a natural obstacle?

As for "trucks", volume shipments should go by rail, so if you have more than a few trucks, you're Doing It Wrong. If a single location is geting more than one tractor-trailer delivery per day, there's a problem.

Anonymous said...

I have irrational fears that I'm going to get stuck in traffic in a tunnel mid-apocalypse. As a result, I bridge it whenever possible.