Urban Planning

The Schuylkill Expressway: Modern Highway or "Worst Mistake"?

Though he later regretted his steadfast support for the intrusive road, mayor Richardson Dilworth saw the construction of the Schuylkill Expressway as a necessary component of the region’s postwar transportation overhaul. To Dilworth and other transit planners, the specter of gridlocked colonial streets loomed large. As early as 1931, a regional planner had derided Philadelphia’s lack of interest in the public infrastructure, calling the city a “growing child in late adolescence,” or “an ailing adult . . . rotting at the core.” With the Depression and World War II intervening, Philadelphia’s situation was dire. In 1955, the Urban Transportation and Traffic Board, an organ created by mayor Joseph Clark to better coordinate transit infrastructure, advised the creation of an 11-county transportation authority with wide control over mass transit, parking, traffic control, buses, and transportation in the air and on water. And pro-growth citizen groups like the Greater Philadelphia Movement and the Philadelphia Citizens’ Council on City Planning joined the official planners in support of a regional network of modern multi-lane limited access freeways. For the businessmen who comprised these organizations, an integrated transit and highway system would assure that center city would remain the healthy cultural and commercial core of the region. Richardson Dilworth understood what was at stake. In an editorial in the New York Herald Tribune, Dilworth portrayed the economic health of a central business district as a general barometer of regional health. “This center city,” he wrote in 1958, “must serve as an effective capital to its area by providing the headquarters for industry, business, banking, hotels, merchandising, medicine, entertainment and culture.”

As early as the 1930s, planners had dreamed of a woodsy, genteel parkway through the Schuylkill River Valley that would connect the then-state park at Valley Forge with Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. The parkway, limited only to automobiles, would offer an aesthetically-controlled and measured movement through the natural landscape. Yet this vision of a sedate, visually appealing drive fell to the exigencies of regional planning and traffic engineering. By 1947-48, the design favored by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission sought to interface with the state’s extension of the Turnpike at King of Prussia. To the delight of civic boosters, the City Planning Commission reported in 1950 that the state had “recognized that inter-regional highways connecting industrial and consumer centers can be fully effective in building up the economic vitality of the state.” Far from a leisurely parkway, the city’s new highways were designed to be people movers and catalysts for growth.

Although highway construction enjoyed popular support in the postwar years, topographic conditions, funding problems, and public resistance combined to make the Schuylkill Expressway one of the nation’s most idiosyncratic highways. Engineers cast the concrete ribbon through a landscape beset by natural and man-made obstacles, designing solutions that were unthinkable after standards set by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Engineer Bill Allen’s narrow stretch under 30th Street Station, the left-hand South Street Exit, and scant acceleration lanes are engineering curiosities which tell of the difficulty of building an urban highway on marginal space. The monumental traffic jams that formed at City Line Avenue when the first stretch of road was completed in 1949 foretold an ominous future. Clearly, the road was so attractive that “expressway” was a misnomer.

By the time the last stretch opened in 1959, Dilworth could boast of a new urban highway, the Roosevelt Expressway, and an embryonic mass transportation authority. But he could not forgive the road’s blunt incursion into Fairmount Park. Truly, Fairmount Park had been irreparably changed. Gustine Lake, a large public swimming hole in East Park near Ridge Avenue and City Line Avenue Bridge had been filled in for the aptly named “Gustine Lake Interchange.” Greenland Mansion in Fairmount Park stood right in the path of the Expressway – it would have sat right where the Greenland Road bridge now stands. Much sculpture was displaced and the large impervious surfaces of the road now affect the park’s watersheds. And the ever present drone of traffic interrupts the stillness. Allowing the road to bisect West Park was “the worst mistake in my Administration,” Dilworth later lamented.


  • Bauman, John F., “Expressways, Public Housing and Renewal: A Blueprint for Postwar Philadelphia, 1945-1960,” Pennsylvania History, Volume 57, Number 1, January 1990.
  • Clark Jr., Joseph S. and Dennis J. Clark, “Rally and Relapse, 1946-1968,” Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. Russell F. Weigley, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 695-698.
  • Conn, Steven. Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 176-178.
  • (Accessed October 17, 2007).