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Washington's unbuilt highways

This is a map of the Washington that almost was.

If mid-century planners, dedicated as they were to driving and the clearance of historic neighborhoods, had their way. It is a map of the highway network proposed for Washington during initial planning of the Eisenhower Interstate System, in 1958.

click to enlarge
Map based on 1958 Basic Freeway Plan. Click to enlarge.

Each of these canceled highways, shown in red on the map, has its own story. Some were canceled due to civic activism, others because later proposals in the 70s preempted them, and others due to good old fashioned sanity.

Because they were never built, entire neighborhoods that might have been wiped out were saved, downtown was never physically cut off from its surroundings (except to the south), and millions of dollars were reallocated to construction of the Metro. Because these highways were canceled, Washington is the beautiful, walkable, vital city that we know and love today.

Most other American cities weren't so lucky. Their highways were built, their neighborhoods demolished, and their downtowns converted to parking lots.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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This probably sounds stupid, but what's the difference between "built" and "unbuilt"?

For example, the Clara Barton Parkway is shown as "unbuilt." Obviously, there's a road there, but I assume this map means that it wasn't built as a full-on interstate.

Then the George Washington Parkway is shown as completely "built." The Whitehurst is also "built."

It'd be interesting to see a more detailed map. I'd like to see, in more detail, the actual streets these would have replaced and the neighborhoods they would have run in.

by Tim on Jun 30, 2010 10:04 am • linkreport

I'd say Canal Road/the Clara Barton should be marked as "built" west of about the Foxhall/MacArthur light, and maybe a red segment from Arizona Ave to Chain Bridge to show that it's a little less freeway-ish there. But for all intents and purposes it's a freeway with a couple lights in the middle.

by David Alpert on Jun 30, 2010 10:07 am • linkreport

I'd also like to know what the definition of 'highway' is here. What kind of grade separation, interchanges, etc.?

by Alex B. on Jun 30, 2010 10:12 am • linkreport

One could debate the freeway-ness of the NY Ave segment between 395 and the BW Parkway. There are still a handful of traffic signals, but the road is certainly not a local street. I've said it before, but I think the road just needs to get the full-on freeway treatment. It'd ease up congestion in and out of the city, and wouldn't have much effect on the surrounding residents and businesses (mainly because there aren't any)

by andrew on Jun 30, 2010 10:14 am • linkreport

Wasn't K Street supposed to be a trench freeway too?

by Steve S on Jun 30, 2010 10:15 am • linkreport

Building something like the 3 sisters bridge to connect the GW parkway with canal st would still be a good idea. Would remove a lot of the left turn people on the Key Bridge going into DC.

by charlie on Jun 30, 2010 10:21 am • linkreport

Also, why no mention of I-595? It was planned to run from I-395 at the Pentagon/Pentagon City to National Airport, running along the Route 1 corridor and crossing over on the airport connector road to the airport. It's unbuilt, save for a few hundred feet from I-395 to about 20th Street South in Crystal City.

@Steve S: K Street shows up as an unbuilt freeway from the Whitehurst to about 20th Street. Maybe that's as far as it was planned to go.

by Tim on Jun 30, 2010 10:24 am • linkreport

I'm really happy there's not an interstate/whitehurst fwy there, but there is a "red" section connecting upper NE and upper NW from ~Tenley to ~midway between Ft. Totten and Takoma. It's exactly the transit connection sorely missing in northen DC now. Also, if that entire red inner ring were a subway that would be awesome! I think much of it does trace current train tracks with the glaring exception of northern DC E to W.

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 10:24 am • linkreport

I don't think anybody is questioning that DC has precious few good East-West links, particularly in the northern reaches of the city.

Also, I could be wrong here, but I believe that K St was supposed to be a cut & cover trench freeway, with a possible connection to the 395 "stub", and may have been signed as I-66.

by andrew on Jun 30, 2010 10:33 am • linkreport

This is a cool map... Though I'm not entirely sure how I feel about D.C.'s lack of freeways. On the one hand, I think to myself "well, at least we're not like Los Angeles"... But on the other hand (as I'm fighting tooth and nail down Rhode Island or New York Avenues) I think "it'd be awesome of this through traffic was diverted elsewhere".

So it's sorta paradoxical, I suppose.

For anyone interested in seeing detailed maps on the original plans for the I-95 / Center Leg freeway interchange, check out this site:

It shows the area around the NE Giant / Home Depot complex as a humongous "spaghetti bowl" interchange connecting various tunneled freeways... One can only imagine.

by Josh C. on Jun 30, 2010 10:36 am • linkreport

Route 123 is there, at least last time I checked. I guess if you call something a boulevard it's not a highway.

by Lou on Jun 30, 2010 10:38 am • linkreport

I've heard that the Eisenhower Plan was to enable people to evacuate cities in a hurry incase of a nuclear strike, but it seems like the same mischif that the "big three" foisted on our cities at the same time. When Standard Oil, Goodyear Tires, and GM formed bogus companies to buy out all the trolley companies, only to replace them with their products. Unfortunatley for us, this orgy of re-building coincided with Modernism's domination of our proffesional schools, ensuring the destruction of sooo much beauty and memories.

I have a book that describes the overall plans for DC in good measure. It was kind of a Corbusian Villa Radieuse on the Potomac. Amongst other wanton and needless destruction outlined in the plans, Pennsylvania Avenue was going to be commpletely taken out infavor of glass boxes. We may have bombed European cities in WWII, but it seems to me that modernist architecture and urban planning did far more damage to our cities. The saddest thing about this whole affair is that most of our schools are still stuck on modernism, turning out architects determined to look down their noses at anything deemed historical. At least the planning schools seem to be learning from thier mistakes.

by Thayer-D on Jun 30, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

@andrew - it's been questioned; suggested that the purple line would fill the need [No]. And of the many wonderful "fantasy" transit maps I've seen that section (northern DC E to W) is mostly neglected. For many years that was my route and its one of my pet peeves that in a city with transit thats touted as among the best in the nation it takes >1 hour by transit to go 6 miles across the northern part of the city, in large part due to the absence of a direct route, such as the route depicted by that section of the red unbuilt interstate on this map. That's all.

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

How about this for Fairfax and Arlington counties?

by Zac on Jun 30, 2010 10:51 am • linkreport

Thayer-D: I think it's important to separate the forms of Modern Architecture from 1950s freeway planning. Take Chicago, for instance. A lot of the greatest Modern American Architecture is in this city, but it takes place within a classicly urban footprint. Or DC today...most of the newer residential buildings around U Street and near the ballpark are "Modern" Architecture.

I think what you are describing is the Brutalist style (FBI Building, Boston's City Hall) and or specifically Corbusier's Radiant City...and I can tell you from experience, no Archicture or Urban Planning school is teaching anything like that these days.

by stevek_fairfax on Jun 30, 2010 11:00 am • linkreport

...or rather, advocating land use planning such was the case with most of these styles - nothing wrong with modular concrete forms if the human scale is kept in mind.

by stevek_fairfax on Jun 30, 2010 11:02 am • linkreport

It is hard to believe there were once plans to put a beltway around the just the L'Enfant city!?!

by db on Jun 30, 2010 11:14 am • linkreport

A couple of those legs arguable should have been build. NY-Ave eastbound from 395 should have been constructed, and the links between se/sw to 295.

by m on Jun 30, 2010 11:18 am • linkreport

Anything that had been built would have increased total amount of driving and decreased transit. It would have led to more sprawl than there is, but not alleviated local traffic as more people would just have driven to fill the capacity (induced demand). And there would have been more parking lots instead of buildings.

by David Alpert on Jun 30, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

A couple of the lines to the suburbs seem to be pretty much existing railroad ROW's.

e.g. the red line from NE to Montgomery County is the CSX right of way (now AKA "red line to Glenmont").

And the red lines from NE to PG County are also a railroad ROW (and part of the "Green line to Greenbelt" and "Orange line to New Carrolton".)

Would road construction along a railroad ROW have necessarily resulted in many communities being dug up? Maybe.

by B.O. on Jun 30, 2010 11:21 am • linkreport

Alex B: given the presence of the NPS parkways on the map, the "highways" listed include both true freeway and at-grade expressway facilities.

by Froggie on Jun 30, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

I was about to say - it's important to make the distinction between Modern architecture and Modern planning. Chicago is an excellent example.

by Alex B. on Jun 30, 2010 11:32 am • linkreport

Anyone saying "gee it would have been nice if they had built these" needs to read about induced demand. More freeways would only have resulted in more people driving and more congestion.

Properly funded transit systems move people far more efficiently than highways in terms of space and energy use.

by MLD on Jun 30, 2010 11:45 am • linkreport

I rode the train up from DC to NYC yesterday afternoon, and as I entered the great entrance hall to Union Station, I thought to myself, "How on Earth did this incredible place manage to survive the depredations of the urban planners during the 50s, 60s, and 70s?"

Looking at the map of "Washington's Unbuilt Highways", I get the same feeling about my hometown as a whole. We sure dodged a bullet.

by oboe on Jun 30, 2010 11:54 am • linkreport

MLD: Induced demand is true, but only to a point. After all,the logical conclusion of this argument would be to shut down all freeways. Reality is different. Cities require efficient multi-modal transport for commuters (transit) but also for goods and services and service/emergency vehicles (roads). Ever tried to deliver a refrigerator by metro?

DC would have been better off with a few major interstates within the Diamond. 395/NY Ave should be connected (yes I know that displaces one block of townhouses but so be it), and there should be one east-west Parkway across northern DC. I'm all for public transit, but reflexive anti-auto sentiment doesn't build a functioning urban area.

by JM on Jun 30, 2010 11:58 am • linkreport

I don't think that the commenters who said that links between highways should have been built are also saying 'all highways should have been built.'

Certain traffic management is beneficial.

by mch on Jun 30, 2010 11:59 am • linkreport

Unfortunately, the beautiful Penn Station was not so lucky.

by engrish_major on Jun 30, 2010 12:03 pm • linkreport

What does this map have to do with either the preservation of Union Station or the destruction of Penn Station?

by Alex B. on Jun 30, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

@JM - there should be one east-west Parkway across northern DC. There is. Western Av>Military Rd>Missouri >Riggs. What's missing is a direct transit route.

I completely disagree with your assessment that the city would be improved with more interstates bisecting it, if for no other reason then the noise alone. (and there are plenty of other reasons)

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport


No, "shutting down all freeways" isn't the logical conclusion of my argument. Nice straw man though. You're right, moving a refrigerator on the Metro ain't easy; that's why I didn't say "rip up all the roads and replace with streetcars!"

The reality is that single-occupant automobiles are an incredibly inefficient way to get people to work and back. It's fine if you want to believe that we are somewhere close to the threshold for induced demand but I think if you look at other cities and compare to DC you'll see that we aren't at all. So what you do is build more freeways, and then those fill up with cars, so you widen them or build more, and it goes on and on. And all you've done is torn up historic neighborhoods and walkable places and replaced them with pavement and cars. And you'll rue the day you did that when gas is 8 bucks a gallon.

by MLD on Jun 30, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

And you'll rue the day you did that when gas is 8 bucks a gallon. - and when the nation is chronically impaired from preventable obesity, asthma and heart disease because walking is not an option and fine particulates pollute neighborhood air...and the waterways are acidified from the run-off and washout from the air, and the Gulf of Mexico is devastated ... hmm ...

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 12:29 pm • linkreport

@Alex B:

Looking at the map of "Washington's Unbuilt Highways", I get the same feeling about my hometown as a whole. We sure dodged a bullet.

by oboe on Jun 30, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport

Even more interesting than the plans themselves are the relics of unbuilt freeways in Washington. They include:

-The ghost bridge on Clara Barton Parkway that NPS built the connecting parkway segment in its bid to upgrade the entire Parkway to 4 lanes.
-Parking lots in the Great Falls section of C&O Canal NHP were constructed for the Clara Barton Parkway (formerly George Washington Memorial Parkway - yes there used to be two of them)
-Right of way in the Chevy Chase Lake area to accomodate a parkway extending I-270 down Rock Creek Park.
-The unusually large bridge over Sligo Creek Trail, which used to be larger before it was reconstructed in the 1990's. Below would pass the Northwest Parkway up Sligo Creek Park. In fact a large portion of the land for Sligo Creek Park was purchased for this road.
-Right of way in the Kemp Mill area near Northwood HS for a connector between US 29 and MD 193 which would ultimately link the freeway portion of US 29 with the Northwest Parkway bypassing the constrained ROW below MD 650.
-Right of way for the Outer Beltway (AKA Rockville Facility) which now comprises Matthew Henson State Park and Trail, Montrose Parkway (completed and planned portions), a portion of Montrose Road with a 300 foot ROW and the ICC. Ramp stubs and the massive bridge at MD 185 were built to accomodate the highway, which was killed by designating Matthew Henson State Park in the ROW.
-Right of way the now comprises Little Falls Park as an extension of Clara Barton Parkway to the Bethesda area.
-Interchange at I-95 in Beltsville where a park and ride now sits. I-95 was planned to pass along the PEPCO right of way with a segment of cut and cover under New Hampshire Avenue to connect to the North Central Freeway along the CSX/Red Line corridor and connecting to the existing I-395.
-Ramp stubs on DC 295 and the underpass at Barney Circle to accodate the Barney Circle Freeway
-The incomplete ring of parks that house civil war forts were part of the land purchase for the unbuilt Fort Circle Parkway. Fort Davis Drive in SE was constructed.
-Freeway portions of North Capitol Street
-Whitehurst Freeway and the awkward I-66 freeway in Foggy Bottom. Dead ends in Ohio Drive but a freeway would have passed under Lincoln Memorial and West Potomac Park to I-395
-Right of way in Four Mile Run Park for the I-395-I-66 connector
-Right of way in Pimmitt Run Park for Pimmitt Run Parkway
-Right way in Bowie for A-44 (part of the Outer Beltway) now being constructed as a bike trail
-Fairfax County Parkway was constructed in portions of the Outer Beltway ROW
-MD 32 is the constructed portion of the Outer Outer Beltway
-MD 100 and portion of US 29 is the constructed portion of the Baltimore Outer Beltway.

Baltimore has quite a few more of these fascinating relics of the Freeway Age.

by Cyrus on Jun 30, 2010 12:33 pm • linkreport

@Cyrus; you might have missed the archibald/glover parks, which I think we purchased/acquired for freeway use.

by charlie on Jun 30, 2010 12:39 pm • linkreport

Might have been nice on MD side if one or two of those had actually gone through to DC. Oh wells.

by Richard on Jun 30, 2010 12:42 pm • linkreport

As a native Detroiter I can attest to the destruction the freeways caused. Mexicantown(yes, its called that) was cut off from Corktown and Downtown and withered for years. Its had a bit of a revival thanks to activists and younger folks looking to experience real Mexican food & culture. The Fisher Fwy is the line in the sand between largely blighted areas and downtown which is having a sluggish Renaissance.

And if were talking tragic loss of train stations, try Detroit's Michigan Central.(as features in Transformers!)

by dano on Jun 30, 2010 12:55 pm • linkreport

Isn't all of this going to be moot soon anyway, once we all switch over to flying cars? :)

by Dizzy on Jun 30, 2010 12:57 pm • linkreport

Even though it's certainly true the first abstract boxes of the early modernists where concieved with out freeways in mind, they where indelably intertwined with LeCorbusier's Villa Radieuse. Furthermore, the concept of the object in the field, ie. apart from it's context is exactly the kind of architecture highways promote. The abstract forms devoid of surface decoration can be best admired crusing along a highway at 60 mph, without the danger of being bored out of your skull.
I also doubt the buildings you call "the greatest Modern American Architecture" in Chicago would rank very high if the general public was asked, but the public was never the target audience of the early modernists. Eitherway, that is a matter of opinion.

You bring up the classic semantical conundrum in architectural discourse; what does the word "modern" mean? There I completely agree with you that only recent buildings (the last 1-20 years?) ought to be called "modern", but that shouldn't be confused with the modernist styles which you enumerated.

Finally, my experience with architecture school of 20 years ago and with my contemporaries of more recent vintage belie your claim that modernist dogma dosen't underlay the basic "modern" archiectural education. There are notable examples such as Notre Dame, and for sure not all schools are as single minded as in my day, but we have a long way to go before most institutions embody the "liberal" arts the way most seem to feel they should.

by Thayer-D on Jun 30, 2010 1:09 pm • linkreport

@Dano -- Actually, Michigan Central was a bit of an urban planning disaster itself, as it's located in the middle of nowhere, anticipating surrounding new developments that never actually got built. It's a gorgeous building, but completely impractical as a transit hub.

(That said, the Amtrak/CSX ROW and WMATA's Brentwood Yard are almost as disruptive to the fabric of the city as a freeway. Decking over and/or burying the lines, and the Brentwood yard would be noble goals for DC to aim for over the next 50 years.)

Union Station barely survived the freeway days, and even closed completely for a time. Fortunately, the restoration work done on it was magnificent, and it's a fitting entryway to DC. (It could still stand for some improvements, but it is probably the second-nicest train station in the US, behind Grand Central)

Induced demand is indeed a tricky bugger, and something that Robert Moses et. al. never quite understood (I'd actually like to read more on it myself -- any recommendations?). However, I'm not sure that the gaps in 295 and 395 are actually deterring drivers from using the road. Instead, they're routing freeway traffic onto local streets, which I'd argue is even worse. The new 11th St bridge will finally provide this connection, and also allow us to remove the portion of the SE freeway east of 11th. In my mind, it's a win-win situation.

by andrew on Jun 30, 2010 1:24 pm • linkreport


Rail lines and yards can indeed be as divisive as urban freeways - the key difference is that those rail rights of way were usually carved up through farmland before the city developed, rather than through an already built-out city as the US Interstates did.

by Alex B. on Jun 30, 2010 1:41 pm • linkreport

Heh, I just heard that Metro is randomly experimenting with sending Blue Line trains to New Carrollton instead of Largo. I guess that's one way to test out reconfiguring options.

by Lou on Jun 30, 2010 3:12 pm • linkreport

Just wait till Douglas W. gets a hold of this thread...

by MPC on Jun 30, 2010 3:57 pm • linkreport

Another good source for unbuilt DC area freeways:

The map there also shows the unbuilt K Street Expressway

by LA on Jun 30, 2010 4:06 pm • linkreport

>For example, the Clara Barton Parkway is shown as "unbuilt." Obviously, there's a road there, but I assume this map means that it wasn't built as a full-on interstate.

Obviously there is some grey area. Rock Creek Parkway, Military Road, New York Avenue... At some point I just had to make a judgment call.

by BeyondDC on Jun 30, 2010 4:06 pm • linkreport

@MPC yes, I was rather chocked when I saw this.

by Steve S on Jun 30, 2010 5:08 pm • linkreport

The way the Metrorail should have been. I wonder if this could have actually been metrorail if they decided to just build above ground.

I actually wouldnt mind the circular highway to be a street/avenue it adds a way into NE DC from both sides of the Anacostia which has no present way except for leaving DC going into Maryland and then back into DC or taking Minnesota Ave, Benning Road, Bladensburg RD.

by kk on Jun 30, 2010 6:03 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D - I'd argue the main thrust of Modern Architecture was/is honesty in form & structure. Adolf Loos wrote that "ornament is crime"; basically saying, if you've got a steel frame building, let the building say "I am steel frame", as opposed to covering it with brick and stone to make it appear it's a late 1800s STRUCTURAL brick building (like all the new strip malls do - but nothing wrong with brick as a facade form as it's sturdy and weather resistant).

Planning (post Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright) certainly got carried away with the speed of the automobile, and spaced buildings out accordingly to be viewed at 60 MPH. But this was a misapplication of conceptions of Modern Architectural form, not a necessary result of steel frame and reinforced concrete construction that revels in its own form.

This highway-type spacing wasn't ever limited to Modern Architecture. For example, there is a building as big as an entire village near's made to look like a giant castle from 1200s France. And inside, it IS in fact a midevil-looking town square with all types of vendors - except like some sick joke out of the Shrek universe, the whole village is a corporation. It's called Wegmans.

As for the general public not knowing of Chicago as one of America's pre-eminent Architectural towns (and specifically the capital of Modern American Architecture (Mies, etc.)... I have to respectfully disagree.

by stevek_fairfax on Jun 30, 2010 10:30 pm • linkreport

I actually wouldnt mind the circular highway to be a street/avenue it adds a way into NE DC from both sides of the Anacostia which has no present way except for leaving DC going into Maryland and then back into DC or taking Minnesota Ave, Benning Road, Bladensburg RD.

Extending Eastern Ave across the Anacostia (and was planned at one point during the 60s/70s) would accomplish much of the same purpose.

by Froggie on Jul 1, 2010 7:26 am • linkreport

There where social, economic, and material aspects to the begining of Modernism. Honesty in materials is what inspired Violett-Le-Duc in the mid 1800's, the art's and crafts of England, and here starting with Richardson and his arts and craft descendants. The reason they continued to use brick and stone to cover the steel frame is the same reason we still do today, steel colapses in fires. The fact that the detailing has changed is simply a matter of taste, but Loos's insanity quikly died out as the early modernists bent thamselves into pretzels trying to reconcile their dogma with the fact that they still wanted people to say their work was beautiful.

My point of highway architecture was simply the fact that a developer can save money on human scaled detailing if no one is going to appreciate it, and with the cover of modernist dogma, they started giving us crap streets like K street in town.

My point about Chicago wasn't that the public "not knowing of Chicago as one of America's pre-eminent Architectural towns". I conpletly agree with you there, thanks to the non-modernists Louis Sullivan and FLW. You originally referenced "Modern" americann architecture. I'm not sure the Smith's of Springfield would know or care about Mies's work. So I guess we agree!

by Thayer-D on Jul 1, 2010 7:59 am • linkreport

My home town of Rochester NY avoided a disaster when an extension of I-390 into the heart of downtown was cancelled... saving our now historic South Wedge neighborhood.

by on Jul 1, 2010 8:30 am • linkreport

I can't believe there's been no comments by Douglas A. Willinger. He must think it's a trap...

by tom veil on Jul 1, 2010 11:24 am • linkreport

Tom: would you blame him for thinking it's a trap? I wouldn't...

by Froggie on Jul 1, 2010 11:27 am • linkreport

While I am sure that DC is better off without the 'web' of highways this map depicts, a couple of them would go a LONG way towards mitigating the absolute hell that is commuting in and out of DC from anywhere but Virginia. Drive Wisconsin, Conn, GA, NY Avenues or North Capitol St during rush hour and tell me how great things turned out.

by PhilH on Dec 3, 2013 10:59 pm • linkreport

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