Ramps to Nowhere

My latest Slate column looks at a number of urban highway projects that were once planned but never built (or were built and then torn down). Here’s the gist:

A new exhibit at New York’s Cooper Union, Paul Rudolph: The Lower Manhattan Expressway—complete with an exhaustively recreated large-scale model of the proposed road—provides an opportunity to consider the invisible (and sometimes visible) presence of this and other phantom highways in the world’s cities. Existing merely as segments of many-tentacled schemes on faded planner’s maps, they are more than historical oddities or visions of an alternate future. They’re part of an ongoing dialogue about the meaning and possibilities of mobility in the world’s cities: Would their host cities be better off if these highways been built? How should we balance the desire for mobility with the desire to create livable, meaningful urban spaces? Is there any room for the megaprojects of Rudolph in a city that now favors pocket parks and restriped bike lanes?

There were plenty of examples I had to leave on the cutting-room floor, everything from Portland’s Mt. Hood freeway (the stub is pictured above) to the wider network proposed by Pompidou in Paris to Milwaukee’s Park East Spur, and if anyone has any images, recollections, would be curious to hear.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some Yule matters to attend to…

This entry was posted on Friday, December 24th, 2010 at 5:10 am and is filed under Roads. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “Ramps to Nowhere”

  1. tqe | Adam Says:

    On this subject, the first thing that comes to my mind is Cape Town, South Africa. I still remember how strange it looked when I came upon the two highway ramps to nowhere.

    You can see it here:,+South+Africa&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=39.047881,72.333984&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Cape+Town,+Western+Cape,+South+Africa&ll=-33.914627,18.421591&spn=0.001769,0.002207&t=h&z=19

  2. Obbie Z Says:

    In the late ’70s there was a “bridge to nowhere” in Milwaukee. I first saw it from the air – and later from below, on the Summerfest grounds – this big wide freeway arching into the sky and abruptly ending over the entrance to Milwaukee harbor.

    It was a convenient film set for a scene in “The Blues Brothers”, when the Nazi guys’ car flies off the end of the bridge.

    The highway has long since been finished (many people still claim it goes “nowhere”), but it stood for a long time as little more than a massive monument to government waste and ineptitude.

  3. Betty Barcode Says:

    One of the major ways in which unbuilt highways change cities is by inducing “planner blight,” the sudden halt in maintenance & investment in properties in the path or even near to a Big Project.

    Why replace a window or roof when you can expect your eminent domain payout and a bulldozer any day now? Even worse, if a project is canceled after mass “clearance,” we’re stuck with litter-strewn vacant lots where we used to have neighborhoods, especially in weaker cities without the population and real estate pressures of Boston or New York.

    Ten or twenty years of disinvestment and abandonment, as Big Projects are announced, refined, litigated, and canceled, leaves a path of decay that can take decades to reverse.

  4. Steve R Says:

    Milwaukee is a great example. Not only is the park east now torn down, there is a long history of plans that thankfully never went anywhere:

    throughout the north side of the city, where I grew up, there are spots to this day where freeways start and end for no particular reason, on that map. even weirder is the corridor where all the homes are significantly newer than their neighbors, where the path for the freeway had been cleared, but construction never started.

    completely turned around in my current state of residence, TX, where a freeway is always the answer. Until one sees the 22 lane wide I-10 section known as the Katy Freeway, it’s hard to believe such a thing could actually exist. maybe they’ll stop building them in TX someday, but not any day soon.

  5. Sean P. Says:

    The state of California still owns the land in Santa Rosa where a segment of freeway for SR 12 was supposed to go. Unfortunately, completion of this freeway would require a bridge over a reservoir and that isn’t popular with the locals. The state, of course, seems happy to hold out hope even though it’s been many years since any work has been done toward completing the freeway.

    It’s visible from quite a ways out:,+CA&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=37.410045,62.753906&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Santa+Rosa,+Sonoma,+California&ll=38.443573,-122.670593&spn=0.036167,0.061283&t=k&z=14

  6. Marc Says:

    Reading, PA used to have a freeway, US Route 222, that was known as the “Road to Nowhere” (this was before the big debate over that Alaskan bridge or the nearby road). It was a freeway of a few miles built in probably the late ’50’s or early ’60’s, with the intention of connecting it to other freeways closer in to Reading. But the connecting piece was never built until the late ’90’s, leaving locals with a freeway that abruptly ended at a random intersection several miles north of downtown. Even today I think some locals will call it the Road to Nowhere in casual conversation.

    Of course, while they were building this new connection piece, they completely ignored the existing freeway in downtown Reading (US 422/West Shore Bypass) which is completely crumbling and has some of the most hair-raising interchange merges and nonexistent shoulders you will ever see anywhere. And of course this freeway did wonders for opening up the suburbs to development, but only made the City, one of the most depressing small urban areas in the country, even worse off.

  7. doug Says:

    I have memories of hiking to a “Bridge to Nowhere” near Los Angeles. It was part of a road built in the 1920s (scratch that, 1930s) that was long ago destroyed by the river it followed. All that remains is a massive concrete bridge in the wilderness. It is now a popular bungee jumping spot.

  8. doug Says:

    Also, how can I forget the RH Thompson Freeway here in Seattle. Originally planned to run from I-90 in Central Seattle north to the also unbuilt Bothell Freeway. Its route would demolish thousands of homes in the Central District as well as the posh and affluent Montlake neighborhood. It would run right by the beautiful Arboretum. The Montlakians, seeing the carnage wrought by the construction of I-5 further west just a few years earlier, revolted mightily and the Thompson Expressway was finally killed for good in the 1970s.

    All that remains are a number of abandoned onramps over Union Bay and the Arboretum, which would have connected it with SR520. A fun place to visit, though it has recently been co-opted by WSDOT as a staging area for the imminent construction of a new SR520 bridge.

  9. Jan Says:

    Some examples from The Netherlands. Although I must admit that most of them are disused rather than unused.

    Vaanplein, near Rotterdam. No less than six unused or disused bridges and other stretches of tarmac:,5.509644&sspn=4.672406,14.27124&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Rotterdam,+Zuid-Holland&ll=51.865183,4.516121&spn=0.004624,0.013937&t=k&z=17

    After completion of the “Westerscheldetunnel” in 2002, the Kruiningen-Perkpolder car ferry service was discontinued. The left half of the road to the harbor is no longer in use. At least, not by cars:,4.517999&sspn=0.018498,0.055747&ie=UTF8&hq=perkpolder&hnear=&ll=51.385848,4.019388&spn=0.004674,0.013937&z=17&layer=c&cbll=51.385848,4.019388&panoid=GU2nsoDaGHVWtFqjQ5UBrQ&cbp=12,179.56,,0,9.78

    This arch bridge in the A2 highway is no longer in use:,4.517999&sspn=0.018498,0.055747&ie=UTF8&hq=perkpolder&hnear=&ll=51.996879,5.07834&spn=0.004637,0.013937&z=17&layer=c&cbll=51.996879,5.07834&panoid=fIX3vNvct5JZuKY9X6mkXw&cbp=12,15.65,,0,4.31

  10. Michiel Says:

    Don’t forget this one in NL:,4.303015&sspn=0.01249,0.033023&ie=UTF8&hq=coentunnel&hnear=&ll=52.422464,4.875355&spn=0.003098,0.008256&t=h&z=18

    As far as I know, this one will be in use after the Second Coentunnel is completed.

  11. aaron Says:

    “Would their host cities be better off if these highways been built? ”

    Most likely, a very few of us are learning what was probably common knowledge to our grandparents. Freight for rails, people for roads, keep up and stay alert.

  12. aaron Says:

    One more reason not to pay your mortgage, the locals on the main road by your neighborhood fought the planned expansion of the thoroughfare, guaranteeing flat or negative property values within.

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