Highways in dense cities can create all kinds of urban planning problems, from dangerous underpasses to divided and displaced neighborhoods. It’s something Jeff Sisson, an artist and a developer for the New York Times, knows well from living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook—an area that was cut off from the rest of the borough by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway decades ago.
“I’ve lived along highways most of my time in New York,” he says. “You get used to going near places that are otherwise pedestrian-friendly, but then you encounter lines or barriers that are harder to cross.”
So Sissons began to wonder: What would the city be like without these urban highways? His answer was to create a map that removed the highways from any city with the click of a button, using the community-driven platform Open Street Map. Toggling from a regular map to a highway-free one reveals the walkable city of any pedestrian’s or cyclist’s dreams—sans spiraling ramps, dank underpasses, and dangerous crosswalks.
If it sounds unattainable and utopian, that’s because it is—and Sisson will be the first to admit that. Removing highways in real life is not practical, but removing them on an interactive map can lead to interesting discoveries in a familiar city. As Sisson writes in the project description, “Given that I’ve never lived in a city that didn’t have evil or ignorant highway construction, I’m interested in tools and strategies which help to conceptualize what ‘not having highways’ would even feel or look like.”
His curiosity was compounded by the fact that GPS tools like Google Maps show the highways even in pedestrian or biking route views. On a two-dimensional map, showing highways on the same plane as any other road means that routes that cross above or below highways will look drastically different in real life than they do on a map. There’s no indication when mapping out your route home, for example, that you might be walking through a dark tunnel at night, or along an elevated, narrow sidewalk beside a four-lane road.
Removing the highways altogether doesn’t so much solve for that functionality as it does visualize Sisson’s fantasy city. But since he used open-source data to create the map, Sisson says it would be easy for others to build on his map to make it a more useful version of Google Maps for walkers and bikers. To create his own map, Sisson worked off of a bike map created by the company Mapzen. He describes developing the map like adding layers of paint: By tweaking Mapzen’s filtering logic, he could stop the program from painting a layer of highways. He then created the tool to switch between the highway and highway-less maps to show the difference between the two views.
The coolest results of this filter are the surreal parts on the map that it renders, where you can see the absence of the highway and the “scars left behind,” as Sisson puts it. He documents these spots—the “trough left behind by the Prospect Expressway,” for example, or the “absent tangle of cloverleafs in northern Manhattan and the Bronx”—in a sidebar. Clicking on the links in his descriptions will take you to each spot on the map. Sisson is also asking people to email him parts of the map that they recognize as different or lacking because the highway has left it un-whole. Sisson’s map spans the world, not just New York city, so he is relying on others to point these spaces out in cities elsewhere, so that he can add them to the navigation.
“That stuff is fascinating because people talk all day about how the internet collapses boundaries, but there’s not a surefire way to seek out the locations that are most effected [by removing the highways],” Sisson says.
After a beat he decides that there probably is a way to do it with code, but the human connection and curatorial aspect of the project are more interesting. Rethinking the urban environment is best done on the level of local communities anyways—even if it’s only virtual.