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Abandoned Highways From Around the World

Written by Laura Davies

One of the worst things about driving is, of course, other drivers. They cut you up, tailgate, and just generally exist. But there are some places in the world where this isn’t so much of a problem. For example, the Anne Beadell Highway in Australia is so remote that you’d be unlikely to meet another car on the 800-mile journey across red dunes, salt lakes, and claypans. Of course, you’d also die if you broke down, but sometimes that’s a risk worth taking to avoid rush hour.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anne_Beadell_Highway.JPG

In Hawaii, roads have been abandoned as they’ve been swallowed by lava, dumped cars and all. When the Chain of Craters road was buried in 1986, they stuck a road closed sign straight into the molten rock and turned it into a tourist attraction. However, the roads don’t normally stay empty for long. As soon as it’s cool enough, bulldozers clear the way for tarmac, and in some cases, aggregate can be pressed straight into the cooling lava.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chain_of_Craters_Road.JPG

What’s really remarkable, though, is that there are worse roads. Highways that are so bad they’ve had to be completely abandoned for fear of cars falling down mountains or into enormous sinkholes that are literally on fire. However, as we’re due to have another 1.5 billion cars on the road by 2050, and we need somewhere to put them, some of these probably won’t remain closed forever. Except the one built on top of fire. We won’t be that desperate, right?

Foreshore Freeway Bridge, Cape Town, South Africa

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Foreshore_Freeway_Bridge.jpg

Cape Town’s Bridge to Nowhere, or the Foreshore Freeway Bridge, was part of a huge 1970s infrastructure project designed to relieve future traffic congestion in the city. It was proposed by city engineer Solly Morris, caught up in the 1960s hype surrounding the automobile and accurately predicting that cars would eventually choke the city. Setting aside the fact that providing more roads to house more cars is like trying to fight obesity by loosening your belt, the project started well, but in 1977, work came to a grinding halt.

There are a few urban legends circling for why the freeway was never completed. One blames an engineering error, which meant that the two sides of the bridge could never be joined. Another blames a stubborn shop owner who refused to sell his property or at least demanded so much money that the city refused to pay. The official line is that they simply ran out of money. In truth, the freeway was funded in stages, and when it came to finding the money to complete the bridge, priorities had changed.

The apartheid government of the time was in the midst of the appalling process of constructing segregationist communities, like Mitchell’s Plain. This required a huge amount of funding and the money for the Freeway Bridge had to be diverted. Plus, transport engineers, who’d been inspired by the freeways of the US, were returning with tales of how they’d fallen out of favour and were being ripped down. Designing cities around cars, instead of people was, shockingly, making them not very nice places to live.

Of course, things have come a long way since the 1970s, so what’s happened since then? The bridge has found some use as a TV and film set, appearing in episodes of Black Mirror and Fear Factor. It was also the site of the Guinness World Record’s largest, and most obnoxious, vuvuzela, which was built by Hyundai for the 2010 World Cup. Day to day, though, the bridge is mostly used for parking and skateboarding.

The ultimate goal is to get it either finished or destroyed, and the city has made some attempts. The most inspired effort came in 2012, in the form of a competition for the students at the University of Cape Town. 600 hopefuls were given a year to complete a proposal as part of their course, and the hope was that the young engineers would be able to come up with something more inventive and forward-thinking than a polluting highway. Their entries ranged from rollercoaster to garden and back to skate park. The proposals were all submitted to the transport committee but none were ever taken forward, which doesn’t say great things about the UTC’s batch of engineers that year.

In 2016, things almost got off, or back onto, the ground, when Mitchell du Plessis Associates won a bid to complete the project. Unfortunately, this was shut down in 2018 due to controversy over prejudice and nepotism. There is hope, however, with the latest plans being tentatively announced in 2022. They don’t know what it will look like, or if it’ll be above or below ground, but the hope is that they’ll manage to secure the 1.8 billion Rand needed and the bridge will finally be open to the public in 2030.

Yate’s Road to Nowhere, Yates, England

Built in 1974, Yate’s Road to Nowhere is a stretch of 4-lane highway in the south-west of England that was originally intended to be a bypass. It’s known as the “Road to Nowhere” because, after just 400m, it disappears into the bushes beside a railway line. Unfortunately, just as construction was about to begin on the railway bridge, the cost of steel rose sharply. The council didn’t want to pay for it, and the entire project was put on hold.

The problem was, that no one ever decided to start it back up again, which local councillors hold as the perfect example of the historic and perpetual lack of investment in the area. Especially as traffic congestion is a rising problem that the bypass is perfectly placed to solve. 

Fortunately, the road hasn’t gone completely to waste.  It serves as the ideal setting for TV and film crews requiring a short stretch of road. So far, it’s featured in several very British programs, like Doctor Who and Broadchurch. For one, particularly dramatic, episode of Casualty, they even constructed a fake bridge and blew it up. Presumably oblivious to the irony that it was the lack of a bridge that got the road abandoned in the first place.

Graffiti Highway, Centralia, USA

https://flic.kr/p/EYxY56

In May 1962, the township of Centralia, Pennsylvania, was conducting the annual controlled burn of their local landfill site in preparation for Memorial Day weekend. The problem was, that their landfill was located on an abandoned strip mining pit, and on this particular occasion, it wasn’t properly extinguished. The fire found its way through an unsealed entrance to the pit and set the coal seam alight.

While this might sound like an immediate emergency, it was a slow burn and it took until 1979 before locals even noticed a significant problem. The first sign of trouble came when gas station owner and town mayor John Coddington checked the fuel level in one of his underground tanks. The dipstick he’d used came out hot, so he tied a thermometer to a string and lowered it in to get a temperature reading. He was shocked to discover the gas had reached 77.8oC, but even this wasn’t enough to trigger an emergency response.

Two years later, in February 1981, a 46-meter deep sinkhole opened up under the feet of 12-year-old Todd Domboski. Fortunately, he was pulled to safety by his cousin, or he’d have died quickly as the steam pouring from the ground contained a lethal level of carbon monoxide. It was at this point that officials decided it was too unsafe for residents to remain in the town, and relocation was funded at a cost of $42 million. More than 1000 moved out, but 63 brave residents decided to stay. As of 2020, 5 people remained.

Without a town, there’s not much use for a highway, especially one that was literally burning from below. In 1993, it became impossible to maintain, and Centralia’s section of Pennsylvania’s Route 61 had to be closed, with traffic diverted to a smaller road to the east. This left 0.74 miles of abandoned highway, and that’s when the graffiti began. Tourists flocked from miles away to visit the, now smouldering, town and left art on the abandoned road surface. Later, they visited just for the road, and it earned the name “Graffiti Highway.” Why they chose this particular stretch of road when there are a number of other abandoned pieces of highway in Pennsylvania that won’t give you carbon monoxide poisoning remains a mystery.

And, that’s not an exaggeration. It’s extremely dangerous. The fire is still burning, toxic gases still occasionally rise from cracks in the tarmac, and there’s always the possibility of more sinkholes. Surprisingly, though, that’s not what got it shut down. It was COVID. During the pandemic, people began turning up in huge numbers, from as far away as New York, presumably bored with the shutdown of more official attractions. They set fires and congregated in large numbers, and the owners were inundated with complaints and concerned about liability. So, in 2020, the colourful stretch of tarmac was covered up with a thick layer of dirt.

MP-203, The Ghost Highway, Spain

In 2005, Spain’s finances were looking good. The Barcelona highway was suffering from congestion, and so officials decided to invest 70 million Euros in the MP-203, a new super-highway near the capital, Madrid. In the two years that followed, work continued quickly, and 12.5km was completed.

Unfortunately, work began before the resolution of two stumbling blocks. How to cross the Madrid to Zaragoza high-speed railway line and how to connect it to the R-3 motorway. The first required a reroute, but the R-3 issue was never resolved due to fears that the MP-203 would reduce the traffic on the road and harm its business. Things went from bad to worse when, in 2008, the global financial crisis hit. Spain’s economy took a huge beating and it fell into recession. Even if an agreement could be reached regarding the connection of the two roads, there was no money to do it.

So, the MP-203 has remained 70% completed for the last 14 years. It’s now used mostly by cyclists, wandering sheep and dogs, and is occasionally crossed by a herd of goats. Some stretches of the road were tarmacked, but others were abandoned when they were just gravel and are slowly being overtaken by plants. There’s still some hope that an agreement could be reached, but until then, it will stand as Spain’s Ghost Highway. A haunting souvenir of the 2008 financial crisis and a symbol of boom or bust economies.

Mam Tor Road, Derbyshire, England

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mam_Tor_and_the_old_road_which_has_disappeared_-_geograph.org.uk_-_600.jpg

Not all abandoned highways failed due to a lack of money, some were simply built in the wrong place and beaten into submission by nature. One example of this is the Mam Tor road in Derbyshire, England. It was built in 1819 at the foot of Mam Tor, a 517 m hill. It’s known as the Shivering Mountain due to its frequent landslips or ‘Mother Mountain’ as all of the fallen material has built a number of mini hills around her base. So, it’s not surprising that any road built alongside it would be subjected to frequent damage, and it’d pose a serious danger to drivers.

Construction began during the industrial revolution as the demand for steel rose. The only other route through the area, Winnat’s Pass, was steep, and the horse-drawn carriages at the time were struggling to carry a decent amount of steel through. The foot of Mam Tor was identified as the best site for the new road as it was nearby and less steep, so lots of money could be made from the faster journeys.

Unfortunately, what they hadn’t realised was that the sides of the mountain were composed almost entirely of shale that had fallen as a result of landslides. Essentially, they were trying to build a solid road on ever-shifting gravel. Multiple repairs were required in the 160 years the route was in use, but things got particularly bad when the traffic switched from carriages to cars and lorries. The extra weight and pressure of the vehicles was too much and chunks of road started giving way. They tried to sure it up by adding more, and more layers of tarmac until some places ended up 6 ft. deep. Eventually, in 1979, engineers had to admit defeat, and the road was closed permanently.

Today, it’s still possible to walk or bike along what remains and climb across the huge slabs of tarmac, but each year more is lost to landslides.

Citations

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