Transforming the Cross Bronx Expressway

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As a new round of transportation infrastructure funding approximately $350 billion for Federal highway programs over a five-year period will be made available through the Bi-partisan Infrastructure Law of the Biden Administration, a myriad of plans and candidates are investigated to offer much needed support for America’s dilapidated infrastructure.

Here in New York, we are quickly confronted by the much maligned but relied upon legacy of Robert Moses, NYC’s network of entrenched highways, gutting their way across the boroughs. The Cross Bronx Expressway is one such error, and an obvious candidate for improvement, a horrible trench that sliced communities in half and displaced 60,000 residents  since its start of construction in 1955. The social and environmental damage that its presence and usage has caused since is extreme, yet at the same time, today it serves as a critical flow through for passengers and goods. 
The recent award of a 2-million-dollar grant has been allocated to NYC Department of City Planning, NYC Department of Transportation, New York State Department of Transportation, and NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to work with stakeholders to reimagine the Cross Bronx. The moment to get involved, and to make sure that everyone who should be involved is- is now. A new vision for the Cross Bronx means working on a palimpsest of space, where pieces of a neighborhood were erased and wrote over, creating the environmental, social and political urgencies we face today. We must be practical and better than we’ve ever been… all while acting in a tiny window of time, while the funding and support is here.

Reimagining the Cross Bronx Expressway. Credit. ORG Permanent Modernity

To that end, ORG Permanent Modernity (with their experience leading Europe’s largest capping project in Antwerp) and Felixx Landscape (with their experience naturalizing industrial hardscapes) invited every colleague and community member they could fit into a room in the AIA Center for Architecture on 6 June 2022, and opened an initial conversation over the potential for reimagining of the Cross Bronx Expressway. The conversation lasted 4 hours, with a key presentation by James Rausse on the history of the Bronx Expressway and its implications. Melissa Mcfarland and Hanif Yazdi also presented studio work on the redesign of the Prospect Expressway in Brooklyn, led by Professor Alex Sommer at Hunter College. The groups discussed best practices and case studies, and in the process, distilled what they saw as key issues to address and possibilities for improvement. Here are some of the key takeaways from the session.

Discussion on the Capping of the Bronx Expressway.  Credit: AIA NY

Think Big… and small

A layered, multi-scalar approach can provide the big picture vision to get a project of this magnitude going while an intimate and connected view on the details will make the project a worthwhile improvement. More than covering bases, or lip speak, getting into the details with the many stakeholders and community groups creates a foundation of real, on the ground information. This is what we need for a project that’s going to be meaningful and have a positive impact on people’s lives. And while the point of origin for the project is the Expressway, a strategy that would best address its many issues must look beyond the source of disturbance, across its many zones of influence, into different communities and their needs and challenges, as well as the environmental data, mobility needs and accessibility challenges, to name a few.

Public Health, Immediately

The impressive amount of health data linked with the Bronx Expressway[i], and with living near highways in general, create a clear story about the need for better designs that protect residents from pollution. High incidents of health issues such as asthma and cancer in both children and adults continues to rise while recent research found that lifelong residents near the Expressway lose on average 2 months of quality life, in comparison to a scenario where the Expressway would be capped[ii]. If the project can be done in any sequence, the priority would be to immediately create an improvement in air quality.

Transportation is Every Day

Most people living in the Bronx are commuting to three main employment centers in the Bronx supporting or directly related to health care. Commuting around the Bronx is a long, frustrating experience with the average commute at 43 minutes, the second longest commute average in the country[iii]. Buses and subway commutes to work take over an hour and are not direct, requiring multiple transfers as the infrastructure is underdeveloped. The most common method of commuting is by car or bus, both of which suffer from congestion and road blockages. A main cause is that the Bronx highway has cut off many of the streets in the area so that there are blockages for Cross-Bronx transit. Multi-modal direct transit modelling could offer strategic relief in key positions providing lower cost targeted interventions for maximum benefit.


Freight is a Big Deal

The Bronx expressway is the most important cross New York highway to move goods from the rest of the continent east of NYC. The Bronx expressway is heavily relied upon across the region and any capping solutions must address the many issues related to freight transportation, from tunnel safety to noise and air pollution.


Co-Creation from Start to Finish

The community has deep wounds from exclusionary planning methods. The building of the highway created heavy displacement and was clearly designed without the residents. Such fears are exacerbated by concerns over gentrification. New plans need to be created in the Bronx and include community groups from the beginning. Do not show up to meetings with plans already drawn to show the community preconceived notions.

The Cross Bronx Expressway plans and publication.  Credit: AIA NY

WITH The Bronx

This project is an opportunity to develop aspirations and professional capacities in and WITH the Bronx communities. Young people that would be inspired by this project should be included in any capacity possible. This is a project that needs to inspire social change as much as spatial and infrastructural change. Mobility networks are inherently connected to the well-being of residents and the culture of public space. Bronx communities have every capacity to raise the next generation of planners and experts, specialists and advocates. Any mobility planning today needs to account for the big picture, the well-being of the people of the Bronx.

With these elements in mind, it is possible to imagine improved ways to design infrastructure. It’s good to remember that an infrastructure project is the surest and most impactful means to realize a plan. It is more forceful than any more abstract planning document. For that reason, any infrastructure improvement here would constitute an opportunity to build a full suite of neighborhood benefits alongside (or on top of) it. Big decisions such as where to cap first, whom to help first, etc. should be part of an intense collaborative trajectory where deep technical skill, urban planning insight, health data, but also neighborhood knowledge ought to come together. That is definitely possible, is proven by the fact that it has been done before, and successfully, in other cities worldwide.

A special thank you to CSU, Benjamin Prosky and AIA New York Center for Architecture and the Dutch Embassy for co-hosting the event.


About the author: This article was written in collaborative contribution by ORG Permanent Modernity led by Alexander D’Hooghe with Kobi Ruthenberg, Mae Emerick, Garine Boghossian and Felixx Landscape Led by Michiel van Driessch with Nadya Nilina


References

[1] US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bipartisan-infrastructure-law/funding.cfm#:~:text=The%20Infrastructure%20Investment%20and%20Jobs,fiscal%20years%202022%20through%202026).

[2] Marat Gubaydullin, “Robert Moses and the Cross Bronx Expressway” Baruch CUNY.
https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/his3460fall2013/?p=217

[3] Department of City Planning.
https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/cross-bronx-expwy/cross-bronx-expwy-overview.page

[4] Markus Hilpert, “South Bronx Traffic Congestion Worsens”, Public Health Columbia University. https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/south-bronx-traffic-congestion-worsens-raising-health-and-safety-concerns

[5] Peter Muennig “Planting a Park on the Cross-Bronx Expressway Would Save Money and Lives”, Public Health Columbia University. https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/planting-park-cross-bronx-expressway-would-save-money-and-lives

[6] Bill Mahoney, “Bronx residents have the second Longest Commute in the Country”, Politco. https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2015/09/bronx-residents-have-countrys-second-longest-commute-000000