How tearing down I-81 will reduce traffic

The I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement put a lot of effort into explaining exactly how many minutes it would take to drive a car between different points in the County depending on what NYSDOT ultimately decides to do with the I-81 viaduct. NYSDOT estimates, for instance, that in 2056 during the morning rush it’ll take 27 minutes to get from Cicero to Lafayette if they leave the viaduct as it is, 23 minutes if they build a brand new viaduct, and 27 minutes if they build the Community Grid.

But the I-81 project’s biggest transportation impact won’t have anything to do with how long it takes to drive a car between Cicero and Lafayette. Instead, the I-81 project is going to decrease the number of car trips between such far flung locations and replace them with much shorter carless trips by changing the geography of where people can live in Onondaga County.

In general, if you were to walk from the edge of the Syracuse metropolitan area to its center at Clinton Square, each area you passed through would be more densely populated than the one you saw last. Onondaga County is more densely populated than predominantly rural Madison and Oswego Counties. Onondaga County’s inner ring suburbs are more densely populated than its newly built exurbs. The City’s neighborhoods are more densely populated than most all of its suburbs. The City’s older closer-in neighborhoods are more densely populated than the more recently developed neighborhoods at its edge.

And this makes a good deal of sense because it’s good to live near the center of things, so that’s where lots of people choose to live. It’s good to have ready access to hospitals and schools and places to work and places to socialize and lots of people to socialize with. Syracuse is the only place in all of Central New York where a person could step out their front door and be within walking distance of 50,000 jobs.

But once you reached the very center of the city, this pattern of increasing population density would all of a sudden reverse. Downtown Syracuse and the area that immediately surrounds it is significantly less densely populated than neighborhoods like the Northside and the Southside.

This is a real paradox, because the City’s center is one of the best places to live in order to enjoy the benefits that cities bring—being near stuff—and it’s obvious that people want to live in this area since the few that are pay exorbitant rents for the privilege.

But very much of the very middle of Syracuse is basically barren because of I-81. Cars promised to provide ready access to everything Syracuse had to offer—the jobs, the institutions, the community—without actually having to live near any of it. All they required was a highway and a parking spot. Syracuse’s leaders happily got to work demolishing housing, schools, businesses, and churches to make space for I-81, its arterial feeders, and the parking lots that surround and sustain them.

All that pavement creates a huge dead zone around the center of town that hurts Syracuse in two ways. First, it prevents people from living in places where people absolutely want to live. Second, it cuts City neighborhoods off from the opportunities available in the City’s center. 

People want to live near the center of town, but they can’t because the highway takes up too much space. The highway makes it so that the most desirable areas to live instead are on the exurban fringe. So people move out to the exurban fringe, but everybody’s moving to a different part of that fringe whether it’s Camillus or Lysander or Clay or Manlius. The community gets dispersed over an enormous area, and that’s how people find themselves in situations where they regularly need to get from Cicero to Lafayette for book club or work or their kid’s soccer game.

Tearing down the I-81 viaduct is a huge step towards fixing this transportation failure. The viaduct covers 18 acres of land, and tearing it down will free up a lot of space where people could find a good place to live. It will also make a lot of currently vacant land much more suitable for housing because there won’t be a big ugly polluting noisy highway right nearby anymore.

With more people living closer together, more of the places they need to go and the things they need to do will be located in a smaller area, so the post office and the pharmacy will be a 5 minute walk from home rather than a 5 minute car ride. As more people move to the center of town, there will be less need for all that parking and all those arterials, and there will be even more room for more people.

This trend is already underway. The five census tracts that surround the I-81 viaduct grew by 26% between 2010 and 2020. The people who accounted for that growth are not going to have to drive nearly as often or nearly as far as they would if they had instead moved to someplace like Fabius. When NYSDOT tears down the viaduct and replaces it with the Grid, they will make it more possible for more people to live similarly. That’s going to be the Grid’s biggest transportation impact.