What would Greater Cincinnati look like with no highways?

CINCINNATI -- Here in the Tri-State, we love our roads. We also love to hate them.

It seems there's always some sort of massive project or update happening, especially on one or all of the region's five interstate highways. The Mill Creek Expressway project, for example -- the 10-year overhaul of Interstate 75 just north of the Ohio River -- has been a much needed thorn in area drivers' sides for nearly seven years now. The Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstates 71 and 75 over the river, is the bridge everyone agrees needs replaced, but nobody wants to pay for.

What would we be, what would leaders argue over, where would a large chunk of taxpayer money go without our interstate highways?

It's a question that New York-based coder Jeff Sisson wondered about his home city. It led him to develop this map tool that visualizes what the country's landscape would look like without its nearly 50,000 miles of freeway.

Sisson admits his project was driven by the fact that he doesn't drive much. 

"Almost all web maps these days have some kind of bike/walking/transit layer," he said. "While this is an improvement from an earlier internet era... there's one remaindered thing that almost always bugs me about these non-vehicle-oriented map layers: They still show the highways!"

So what would Cincinnati's landscape look like without its freeways?

Here's with:

Source: "NYC (& the World) Without Highways"

Here's without:

Source: "NYC (& the World) Without Highways"

The most glaring absence is probably the Brent Spence Bridge. Despite the loss of it and the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge carrying Interstate 471, there would remain three auto bridges and the Purple People Bridge serving Greater Cincinnati's urban core. The Combs Hehl and Carroll Cropper bridges, which connect Kentucky to Ohio and Indiana respectively via Interstate 275, would also be gone.

Cincinnati's Queensgate neighborhood, just north of the Brent Spence, would look drastically different. While it's no "Spaghetti Junction" -- Louisville's notorious interstate exchange -- the convergence point between Interstates 71 and 75, facilitated by U.S. 50 on Fort Washington Way, cuts through the neighborhood near the riverfront.

Sisson mentions Interstate 64 in Louisville's Spaghetti Junction as one of his noteworthy places to visualize life without freeways.

Not coincidentally, Queensgate is also not the region's most pedestrian- and bike-friendly area, and the street and sidewalk network underneath the overpasses can be difficult to visualize with a standard map. 

This is the issue underlying Sisson's project.

"In New York City (where I live), a lot of the built environment is constrained by where highways allow pedestrian access via underpasses, overpasses, crossings, access roads and the like," he wrote. "With an underpass or access road, it's very difficult and sometimes impossible on a web map to understand which streets 'cross over' under a highway, let alone whether or not there are walk signals for pedestrians."

A closer look at the interchange without freeways also reveals how little pedestrian access there is connecting the neighborhood to adjacent neighborhoods and the riverfront.

Source: "NYC (& the World) Without Highways"

It also visualizes how much real estate sits underneath the concrete, with very little use other than to hold highway overpasses.

Sisson said he worries about "malicious" or "ignorant" highway construction, calling the empty spaces left "scars," when the highways are removed from the map.

"(T)o me they are big dumb objects, whose presence at times feels (intentionally or otherwise) malicious," he wrote. "But this map shows what their absence might look like, even if we didn't replace the scars left behind with anything."

Whether you share Sisson's stance, it also might not be coincidental that the city's urban core was experiencing population growth until the mid-20th century, roughly when Congress approved the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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