A Tale of Two Towns

This past May, at a Derby party, I embarrassingly blurted out a phrase that I thought more people would understand. I said “You won’t be able to stand it. It’ll be like rush hour in Lexington- you’ll pull your hair out.” A friend next to me, who is from New Jersey/New York area, literally guffawed at the thought that my quaint little Kentucky mind believed that Lexington, KY with is 250,000 people had bad traffic. And he’d be right, if it was a major city, but it’s not. And that is what’s so frustrating. In Lexington you look around, stopped at a stoplight for 3 rotations without moving an inch saying “how the hell is this even possible?” Lexington has roughly 4 roads that everyone wants to get to or has to drive on. The city planning made a big town of half a million people all head for the same place like shoving a Costco sheet cake through a funnel. You have to travel 2 miles in this slightly larger than average college town and you can’t believe it’s going to take 45 minutes.  

Lexington & Louisville

So I want to look into traffic, mobility and road planning in the context of two cities, both of which I have lived in and like for different reasons. Both Lexington and Louisville, KY are small. Lexington is more of a big town and Louisville is like a small city. Lexington is probably the true “Kentucky” city. Louisville is our honest to god attempt at a national city. In the same way that I’d say Nashville is the national city, but Chattanooga or Memphis are more “Tennessee” cities*. Going to the largest “national” city in a state doesn’t really reflect the rest of the state. If you get used to Louisville, the rest of Kentucky will surprise you, but if you’re accustomed to Lexington, the rest of Kentucky, though different, will still make sense.

*Indianapolis: national.Fort Wayne or South Bend; state.
Think of this concept like how going to an international city like New York or Tokyo won’t give you very good feeling for what  life is like to the rest of the US or Japan.

Left- Lexington’s freeways miss the city center about a mile to the northwest. Center- Louisville’s freeways (dark blue) cut through the heart of the city. Right- Pre-war Louisville map, before it was cut up by the freeway system

The main difference between the cities development over time is undoubtedly Louisville’s position on the Ohio river. This geographic advantage made Louisville a regional trade hub. Barge traffic on the river converged with rail hubs for CSX (formerly the L&N) and eventually the international air hub for UPS was added as well.

Lexington at one point during the 1800’s was viewed as one of the most attractive new cities west of the Appalachians. Transylvania university was thought to be the best college west of the Allegheny Mountains, and had a medical program which rivaled Harvard’s at one point in time*. The prospect of the town faded over time, however. One event which dampened the growth of Lexington was when the Maysville Road Project, championed by our only famous historical politician, Henry Clay**, was vetoed in 1830 by Andrew Jackson. Maysville, Kentucky, was set to be a major trade hub along the Ohio River corridor, much like Louisville and to a greater extent, Cincinnati. But I guess that Jackson was lucky in that his view of what should be done to run a country is nothing- and you don’t need a supermajority to do that. Before this becomes a rant about my dislike for Andrew Jackson, let’s just say that because of a certain event in 1830, Lexington was doomed to a landlocked, roadless life of slowed growth. It became a college town around the University of Kentucky and the aforementioned Transylvania University. The horse farms in the surrounding countryside became the trademark of the area, and it just became known as an oversized sleepy town which would eventually come to absolutely love basketball.

*According to their own website
**Technically both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are also from KY, but everybody claims Lincoln and for the love of god don’t make us claim Davis.

Fast forward to the 70’s: Lexington has consolidated their city and county governments, creating the Lexington Metro. Lex was then, technically, the biggest city in the state thanks to Louisville’s white flight from its urban core in the decades prior. Later on in the 90’s, in order to count all of the rich white people in the population again, Jefferson Country merged with the city of Louisville. By doing the same thing Lexington had done, Louisville jumped back up to being the official biggest city in Kentucky. But one of the biggest decisions the both of these cities made was during the 50’s when Eisenhower’s interstate program started being planned and implemented. And both cities chose opposite paths.

Lexington’s Good- Preservation 

What’s so great about Lexington? Like everywhere in Kentucky, it’s affordable, and at all times except for the depths of winter when it’s snowless, it’s absolutely beautiful. They achieved their city beautification by design: Lexington is listed in many sites as a great example of using Urban Service Areas, or Urban Growth Areas. By limiting the expansion and sprawl of the city to a confined area, they have retained their status as a rural city, or a big town. Lexington is Kentucky’s best attempt, whether intentional or not, at creating a type of Garden City.

The above map, courtesy of Lexington’s Division of Planning, shows the limited Urban Service area surrounded by protected and semi-protected farmlands. Source

Lexington’s dedication  as a community to preserve the aesthetic and tradition of their surrounding horse farms has limited outward expansion but also forced Lexington to rethink the interior of its city as well. Compared to Louisville 60 miles down the road, the city’s balance of demographics and distribution of growth and diversity is much healthier, though far from perfect. The masses of the middle class can’t simply move to the edge of a good part of town and then keep building out from the center. Of course, there are still wealthy areas and less wealthy areas, but the size and distance of these areas are much closer.

Left Top- Horse farms are strategically protected by limiting the Urban Development zone; Center- A part of the preserved, but limited “downtown” parts of Lexington; Right Top- Aerial view showing the tree cover and limited footprint of the city; Left Bottom- oh yeah, there’s a castle halfway between Lexington and Versailles, which is pronounced Vur-sales. Right Bottom- Lexington in the snow

Another thing keeping Lexington beautiful was their decision not to bring interstate travelers through their town. Louisville’s highways cut right through the city. This decision cut off the beautiful waterfront from the whole of the city. It cut a vein through historic district in the east and south sides of town. Lexington opted not to do that. Lexington’s freeways skirt around the city. This is one of the keys to Lexington’s ability to maintain its soul as a town. Not as many people “pass through” Lexington, even though downtown is less than a miles from the freeway interchange of 64 and 75, you’d never even know you were  near a city if it weren’t for signs. People are either there as citizens or visitors, not passersby.

Louisville- A Geographical Oddity

One of the things I love most about Louisville is the freedom to get from place to place. Considering the amenities of this small city, getting around Louisville is a breeze. You’re almost always 15 minutes from where you want to go. I have lived in 5 distinctly different parts of the city, and it seems not to matter unless you are trying to go somewhere in the heat of rush hour*. Downtown? 15 minutes. Airport? 15 minutes. Indiana?** 15 minutes. Cherokee park? 15 minutes. It’s a true geographical oddity. At rush hour you may extend out your trip by 5 minutes or so. Since Louisville is large (enough), it attracts many major concerts, sporting events and festivals. Louisville’s food scene and craft brewery industry are both much larger than they deserve to be. The infrastructure, specifically the design of the roads, allows for road shutdowns and closures to be absorbed by alternate routes so that you don’t even notice a marathon is going on or half the city is closed off for a Kentucky Derby festival event. Louisville isn’t the biggest or most interesting city in the world, by far, but if you have to live somewhere, it’s nice being in a place where there’s enough to do to keep you interested and most of your time isn’t spent commuting or sitting in traffic. 

*Which lasts a cool 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon

So why am I talking about this? Unless you live in Lexington or Louisville, you should have no interest in my little snippets of “why I like this town” anecdotes. People from large cities are likely uninterested in hearing about these two hick towns, and even rural people in Kentucky don’t like Lexington and Louisville. I’m highlighting the two things I love about each city because each advantage ties directly into the biggest disadvantage each city inadvertently burdened itself with.  

Lexington- Above Grade Congestion

It’s a good thing Lexington is pretty, because you’ll spend a whole lot of time looking at it from your car once you’re there. The city planners diverted the freeways from the city to preserve the beauty of the town and, as a result, there is no express access to any part of the city. At rush hour, a 10 minute trip from downtown to Man O War Blvd, an “outer loop” of sorts, becomes a 40 minute trip. It’s a measly 3 miles! I understand that if you live in a large city this might seem laughable, but Lexington is by no means a large city. There are supposed to be advantages to living in a town- there might be less to do, but you can get there faster. Lexington is cursed with less to do and less time to do it.

The two “express”ways in Lexington are called New Circle Road and Man O War Blvd, and they seem to hurt traffic more than they help. There are on ramps and off ramps, but there are also intersections and traffic lights. It’s like these express roads are androgynous to whether they are highways or access roads. The extended Lexington Metro has a population of about 1/2 million, and a density of a little over 1000 residents per sq mile, but the traffic is comparable to a much, much larger city. Lexington’s own Wikipedia page even mentions this disparity:

“Lexington suffers considerable traffic congestion for a city of its size due to the lack of freeways, the proximity of the University of Kentucky to downtown, and the substantial number of commuters from outlying towns.”

A national study listed Lexington as one of the 30 most congested cities in the US, while it’s population or density isn’t even in the top 100. Lexington is not walkable, does not cater to bikes, and is not populous enough to justify a substantial mass transit system. Getting around Lexington is much harder than it should be- but it sure does look nice?

Louisville- Urban Bifurcation

See the below comparison of Louisville and Lexington’s wealth distribution by neighborhood. Please note- I have committed a cardinal sin in map graphics, where my legend and scales for the two comparisons are not equal. Try to look at each map in reference to itself only, and keep in mind that Louisville is about 2x the physical size of Lexington, and most of Lexington’s size is in the preserved farmlands in greater Fayette County. While there are rich and poor areas, the distance between them is much smaller in Lexington than Louisville.

Please note the differences in the key and scale. Left- Lexington/Fayette County. Right- Louisville/Jefferson County.

Louisville was cut up pretty significantly when the freeways were built in the middle of the 20th century. That, combined with the aftereffects of the ’37 flood, white flight and the structured bifurcation of the city along racial lines known as the 9th Street Divide left a pretty significant split in the divide of rich and poor areas in the city. It should be noted that much has been done to combat this in the past 20 years and the city has taken huge steps, but the split is still pretty clear. In the comparison map above, it shows that the richer areas of the city are distinctly located on the “east end”, while poorer areas are in the “west end” and “south end”. This map doesn’t even show the neighboring eastern county, Oldham County, which is the wealthiest in the state and 20th in the US. 

This is kind of a dumb image pulled from Google Street view, but it shows how the freeway is not fully lifted over the city, it is built up on earthworks. It truly cuts the city up in chunks.
Louisville’s I-64 cutting off downtown’s view and limiting their use of the Ohio Riverside

Louisville doesn’t have much mass transit to speak of, either*. The raw population numbers might be there to justify it, but because of the sprawl and the density is too sparse for it to be profitable, or even maintainable. There are dead, completely undeveloped areas in central parts of the city, where the heart of the city itself should be that make the project unfeasible, even though it has come up again and again for the past 20 years. The way the highway system was developed helped Louisville in many ways, but it did a lot of damage, too. It cut off access to the historical industry backbone of the city, the Ohio River**, divided the city into two and split up or destroyed neighborhoods, some of them among the most historic in the country. Every time you catch glimpse of a map of the city you can see the scars that the highways system left, especially if it’s compared to a prewar map where the highways weren’t even there. But at least I can get to Whisky Row with a $10 Lyft?

*Louisville light rail proposal from the 2000s.; Modern Revisiting of the Proposal
**There is a movement that was defeated but may come to life again to get rid of the overpass cutting off the river altogether- 86 64

So what to take away from all of this? To be honest, I’m not sure. It would have been great if we could go back in time and convince the city of Louisville not to pave over it’s wonderful streetcar system like almost every other city did at the beginning of the 20th century, but that’s not possible. The automobile took over, and we can’t change that reality. There are tradeoffs to every type of planning, and you have to decide what is best for your situation. Lexington opted for preservation and long term health, and they mostly achieved it- all it cost them was their growth as a city. Louisville went for growth, and they got it- all it cost them was the soul of the city.