It's Time to Take Down Our Urban Expressways

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd alter/ condos over Gardiner

There is more and more evidence that they are killing us.

Every year, when I do the Ride for the Heart on Toronto's expressways, I marvel at all the new condos that have been built and am shocked at how close they are to the highways. I wonder what the air quality must be like in there, or on all those balconies with a view of the cars and trucks idling in the never-ending rush hour.

It turns out that living near highways is even worse than anyone thought. Alissa Walker writes in Curbed that living close to highways sentences residents to "a long list of debilitating diseases, chronic health problems, and shorter life expectancy." She points to an LA Times report and work by Suzanne Paulson of UCLA and concludes:

When choosing a home, school or daycare, aim for locations as far from the freeway as possible. Avoid sites within 500 feet — where California air quality regulators warn against the building — or even 1,000 feet. That’s where traffic pollution is generally highest, along with rates of asthma, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, reduced lung function, pre-term births and a growing list of other health problems.
condos toronto

Lloyd alter/ condos over Gardiner/CC BY 2.0

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the sites for condos are often zero feet, almost hanging out over the highway, which is full of diesel-powered trucks, what the Times calls the "diesel death zone."

It’s especially unhealthful to live near freeways and roads frequented by diesel trucks, which spew many times more harmful gases and particles than cars. Diesel particulate matter, carcinogen-laden soot that deposits deep in the lungs, is responsible for the bulk of the cancer risk from air pollution and more than 1,000 early deaths a year in California.

Meanwhile, TreeHugger Katherine just reported on a new study that links air pollution to birth defects.

The scientists found that, when a mother is exposed to higher levels of PM 2.5 in the one month before and after conception, a fetus is more likely to have a birth defect, even after adjusting for other confounding factors.

The LA Times report makes many recommendations including adding trees, speed reductions, and road diets, but Walker has another suggestion that goes further:

Another idea? Dismantling LA’s most densely populated freeways entirely, as many cities have done with much success (and without any impact on traffic)...Instead of being a health risk to those who live nearby, the 101 [highway through LA] could become an asset to the community, much like the way San Francisco remade the Embarcadero from a double-decker freeway into a grand, multimodal boulevard—where people want to live, work, and visit. We shouldn’t make planning decisions that preserve freeways. Cars won’t be around forever. People will always need places to live.

In Toronto, they plan to keep freeways forever; the city is investing over a billion to save a rotting elevated highway that's going to just about run on top of the new Sidewalk Labs redevelopment. Just this past weekend they opened a wonderful linear park and skating rink -- right under the highway. But what Alissa Walker suggests for LA is what we need to do in Toronto. It's time to dismantle our elevated highway. It's killing us.