Seven Freeways for Seven Hills: Cincinnati’s Long and Winding Highway History

Devising a comprehensive transportation system for a city like Cincinnati, Ohio is no easy feat.  As you can infer from the title, the city is home to seven major hills within the city limits, with some local experts arguing that there are considerably more than that.  And as anyone with a smidgen of highway planning and/or construction will tell you, building roads with hills or mountains in the vicinity can be way more costly and complex than building on flat land, not to mention the increased safety issues.   Complicating matters is the fact that the Cincinnati metro area overlaps with the state of Kentucky, so major transportation projects that benefit the area as a whole can require multiple levels of government involvement.  Further complicating matters is that much of the city, including the downtown business district, sits atop the Ohio River, which has been prone to major flooding throughout the city’s history.  One particular devastating flood occurred in early 1937, which left 100,000 residents of Cincinnati homeless.  As a result of these factors, Cincinnati’s transportation system is probably far more complicated, convoluted, and fascinating compared to many other cities in the United States.  Along with the many roads and freeways, whole networks of bridges, tunnels, and viaducts link the city’s challenging topography.

Cincinnati has had more than its share of “false starts” in its transportation history.  For fans of “abandoned Ohio”, the unfinished Cincinnati subway system is an exciting focal point.  Originally planned to connect downtown with the suburb of Norwood, construction on the line began but was then halted in the 1920s.  Since then the six stations have been sealed off from view from the general public, though they are still very much in existence.


Underground view of the Race Street Station.  Photo taken from

Then there’s the issue of air travel.  Cincinnati’s main international airport is not in the same county or even the same state, but across the river in Covington, Kentucky, hence the airport’s three-letter code “CVG”.  Until the 1940s, Lunken Airport, which was located on the city’s east side, was the main commercial flight operation.  That is, until the 1937 flood submerged the airport under 20 feet of water.  Even if the flood didn’t happen, the airport was constrained by foggy conditions and the surrounding hillside — in other words, no room for expansion.  Originally there were plans to build a new airport in the suburb of Blue Ash, but voters there rejected the idea.  Shrewd political leaders in the nearby flatlands of Boone County, Kentucky, however, were able to successfully lobby for the new airport, which opened for business in 1946.

And then, of course, there are the freeways.  Along with the fabled “seven hills”, Cincinnati has seven freeways running through its metro area as well: I-75, I-71, I-74,  I-275, I-471, State Route 126, and State Route 562.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of Cincinnati’s highway system is the issue of safety, or lack thereof.  Journalist Erin Caproni points out that of the 350 most dangerous crash sites in the state of Ohio, over 50 of them are in the Cincinnati area alone.  Particularly problematic intersections include State Route 126 and I-71, Pfeiffer Road and I-71, and I-471 and I-71.  As if I-71 didn’t have enough problems in Cincinnati, local critics have also disliked the fact that the freeway cuts right through the central business district between Second and Third Streets in the downtown area, limiting pedestrian access to the riverfront.

Other freeways in Cincinnati have their own sets of issues.  Looking at local road maps, one can see that the major bypass, I-275, looks like a misshapen pinto bean.  From a purely logical perspective, however, I-275 is arguably not a particularly efficient bypass around the city.  Traveling north from Kentucky, one can take the western part of the bypass, which travels through the Kentucky suburbs, then wanders over into the state of Indiana before reaching Ohio, slowly meandering back to I-75 after 43 miles.  Taking the eastern route isn’t much shorter, at 41 miles.

Of course, if one doesn’t want to take the long journey of I-275, one can brave I-75 through the metro area itself, which in various parts is more like a roller coaster for motor vehicles.  One particularly infamous area, known as “Death Hill”, is a long downhill stretch of the freeway between Kyles Lane and the Brent Spence Bridge in Covington.  Known for its very high levels of accidents and fatalities, this segment of I-75 opened in 1962, though some might find it hard to believe that it would meet modern highway safety standards today.


Facing northbound on the long downhill slope of  I-75 in Covington.  Downtown Cincinnati is in the distant center background.

Then there’s State Route 126, otherwise known as the Ronald Reagan Cross-County Highway.  The Cross County has proven to be a political lightning rod for the Cincinnati area.  Originally conceived as a means to improve east-west travel in central Hamilton County, developers wanted to build the freeway as a means to relieve congestion on nearby Galbraith Road.  By the early 1960s, the first segment of the Cross County was complete, linking Galbraith with Montgomery Road, just to the east of I-71.  By the mid-1970s, another segment was completed between the west side of I-275 and Colerain Avenue.  It would be a whole 20 years before the two segments were finally linked together in 1997.  Even then, the Cross County remains incomplete to this day.  Residents of Indian Hill and Crosby Township successfully blocked the remaining segment from being completed, which would have connected Montgomery with the eastern side of I-275.


At the eastern terminus of the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway, near Montgomery Road.

The Cross County was not the only expressway to fail to see completion in Cincinnati.  Just as local historians point out the existence of more than seven hills, so too were there more than the seven aforementioned freeways.  Three in particular hardly made it beyond the planning stages: the Colerain, the Taft, and Queen City freeways were all scrapped in their early stages.

Finding information on these scrapped freeways online isn’t easy, but reader David, a Cincinnati native, kindly sent me some relevant links.  According to the website, the Taft expressway was to have run along nearby William Howard Taft Road, with its western terminus at the I-75/Western Viaduct/Harrison Ave. interchange (Exit 2B), and its eastern terminus at Columbia Parkway (U.S. 50), most likely near Torrence Parkway, with additional interchanges at Ravine Street, Vine Street , I-71, Gilbert Avenue, Victory Parkway, and Woodburn Avenue.


Map of the proposed Taft freeway showing some of the proposed interchanges, including Vine Street and I-71.

Although there isn’t a whole lot of physical evidence to support the planned construction of the Taft, one tantalizing piece is the I-71/Taft Rd. interchange (Exit 3A).  The off-ramp on southbound I-71 is exceptionally long, and then widens to three lanes before reaching the first stoplight:



The Queen City expressway would have begun on the opposite side of the I-75/Western Viaduct interchange, traveling west and presumably running near Queen City Avenue and Cleves Warsaw Pike.  Proposed exits would have included Grand Avenue, Quebec Road, Queen City Avenue, Glenway Avenue, and Anderson Ferry Road.

53 Western Hills Viaduct - Google Maps

Facing west on the Western Hills Viaduct, near I-75.  This would have been the eastern terminus for the Queen City Freeway.

Finally, there was the proposed Colerain Expressway, which would have connected I-74 at the Colerain Avenue (U.S. 27) interchange with I-275 between Colerain and Hamilton Avenues, with interchanges at Compton Road, Galbraith Road, and North Bend Road.


Looking northwest at the Colerain/I-74 interchange.  Note the ramp stubs for the proposed  Colerain freeway.  Photo courtesy of


The following map would give you some sense of where all the freeways would have been located, lined in purple:



Well, that’s enough for our “Ohio Tour” for now.  Next, we will head out east to Pennsylvania and upstate New York.  Plenty more to discover there!


Additional sources:—b-C&sig=ACfU3U39nB02Z-CysukdUtTAD36MWYv6Ng&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiYv4mYit_pAhWEbc0KHXRTDekQ6AEwBHoECAsQAQ#v=onepage&q=cincinnati%20ohio%20state%20route%20126%20history&f=false

On the Waterfront: Toledo, Ohio’s Downtown Distributor Freeway

Traveling south on  I-75 from Detroit, we arrive a mere 60 miles away in the Midwestern city of Toledo, Ohio, which also happens to be the native home town of yours truly.  As a young person on the city’s west side, I remember feeling confused whenever I would look at maps of my neighborhood and see streets stop at the edge of Interstate 475, only to start up again on the other side of the expressway.  Hadn’t anyone ever thought to build bridges when these streets were built?  Of course, my memory only went back to about 1980 or so, and so I had to rely on my mother to help fill in the “missing history” that I didn’t know about.  My mom, who also grew up on the west side, told me the story of how, in the late 1960s, certain houses were painted with large “X”es on their front side in her neighborhood — these were the homes that were to be marked for demolition to make room for the new freeway.

While the boom of freeway construction in Toledo happened during the 1960s and 1970s, like many other American cities, plans for the area had been in consideration for many years.  Many thanks need to go to the author of for providing this info.  (for you native Toledoans out there, be sure to check out his site!  Lots of interesting history!)  The 1949 freeway plans looked quite a bit different from what was ultimately built:

toledo 1949map

For those of you who are familiar with the Toledo area, you can see the U.S. 25 Expressway (later I-75), was originally planned to cross the Maumee River just east of downtown Perrysburg, travel along the Anthony Wayne Trail as it approached downtown, and then skirt north of downtown  near the Buckeye Basin and Mulberry Park before turning north again towards Detroit.  The U.S. 20 Expressway (later I-80 and I-90) was re-routed south when the Ohio Turnpike opened in 1955, though the western portion in the city limits would later be re-designated as I-475.  The Cleveland Detroit Bypass (later I-280) was originally planned to run only from the area near Woodville Road to just north of downtown.

By the mid-1960s, plans had been altered to the point that the Toledo freeway system developed to its present day layout.  One issue remained to be decided: how to get commuters in and out of downtown more efficiently.  Rush-hour traffic would routinely jam the streets, and plans were discussed to build an additional expressway that would link I-75 with I-280 via downtown.  Several routes were considered:

toledo downtown distributor expressway-05

In 1964, the Toledo city council gave approval to construct the Downtown Distributor Freeway on the southernmost route, placing it along the Maumee River, with the designation of Ohio State Route 112.

toledo downtown distributor expressway-02

Plans were also discussed to add an additional spur to the Distributor, which would have allowed traffic on southbound I-75 to exit off directly on to the Anthony Wayne Bridge, thus providing easier access to the city’s east side:

toledo downtown distributor expressway-08


toledo downtown distributor expressway-09

An artistic rendering of the western portion of the Downtown Distributor Freeway, drawn up by the engineering firm Howard, Needles, Tammen, and Bergendoff.  The freeway was planned to be elevated between the I-75/Washington St. Interchange and Summit Street before descending to ground level.

In 1970, the Toledo Blade followed up with an endorsement of the planned freeway in its editorial page, after commenting favorably on the newly opened I-475:

“What [I-475] will demonstrate…is the need to expedite the planning and construction of the first phase of the downtown distributor.  This is the key link that will carry the heavy volume of traffic into the central business district…bogged down by indecision, changing plans, and disagreement over routes, this distributor is still a number of years away; meanwhile, thousands of drivers who will be using the expressway in the downtown area are simply going to have to move from and to it over narrow city streets that were never designed to handle the volume expected.”

Although there were still plans to construct the first phase of the Distributor (from I-75 to Summit Street) as late as 1972, discussion soon fell off the map.  The Distributor would likely have had multiple environmental impacts on the downtown area, including the removal of multiple housing projects and commercial businesses in its path, which also would have led to increased financial costs for the city.

Today, there is little evidence remaining of the planned Downtown Distributor.  The ramp stubs at I-75 at Washington Street, which would have marked the western end of the freeway, were apparently removed years ago.  The eastern end of the freeway would have intersected at the I-280/Summit Street Interchange, which was removed in 2007 when the Veterans’ Glass City Skyway Bridge opened to traffic — the upside being a newly re-constructed I-280 that was considerably safer to travel on.


View of the re-built I-280/Veterans’ Glass City Skyway from Summit Street.  The Craig Street Bridge, which carried traffic on the old I-280, is visible below the new bridge and is open to cyclists and pedestrians.

That might be the end of the story, but there is another interesting wrinkle:  later on in the 1970s, plans were devised to construct the Buckeye Basin Greenbelt Parkway, which would replicate some of the functionality of the original Downtown Distributor.  The original plan was for the parkway to connect downtown Toledo with the northeastern most area of the city, Point Place.  Construction began in 1996.  Political controversy over the potential of destroyed environmentally-sensitive wetland areas eventually put a halt to the Greenbelt Parkway as well, which currently ends at Galena Street, just east of I-280.  As was the case with Detroit, even automobile-friendly cities like Toledo can decide that they’ve reached their limits when it comes to new highway construction.


Heading towards downtown Toledo on the Greenbelt Parkway, near Mulberry Park.

Additional Sources:

Motor City Landmark: Detroit’s Davison Freeway

Traveling from the capital of the federal government to the capital of the automobile industry, we arrive at the largest U.S. city on the Canadian border. Detroit, Michigan has been known for its spectacular rise and fall throughout the 20th century.  The “Motor City” was not only an enormous hub for the car industry, but also home to Motown, which launched the careers of many famous African-American musicians.  Detroit is also home to many professionals sports teams (the Lions, Pistons, Tigers, and Red Wings) who each have their cohort of die-hard fans.  Detroit is also a “melting pot” of many peoples from around the world, and there are a slew of ethnic restaurants bound to satisfy anyone’s taste (Chinese, Greek, Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Polish eateries abound).

Yet in spite of all these assets, Detroit struggled mightily during the latter half of the 20th century.  The population declined from a peak of 1.86 million in 1950 to a little over 700,000 today.  It’s no surprise that most major cities in the so-called “Rust Belt” saw major declines over the last 60 years, but Detroit was hit especially hard.  If you ask people why Detroit has had such problems in recent decades, you are bound to find multiple answers: from automation in the automobile industry, to racial tensions and the urban riots of the 1960s, to corporate greed, to the decline of unions (or stranglehold of unions, depending on who you ask), to the accusations of corruption and incompetence of city governments over the years.  The fallout from all these events have led to a particular bitterness and hostility between different sides in Detroit’s politics.  Is there a way out?  Possibly.  Efforts are under way to revitalize the city, and perhaps there may come a day when Detroiters can overcome their differences and work together to get the Motor City back on its feet.

It should surprise no one that Detroit, being the hub of the nation’s auto industry, was way ahead of other cities when it came to planning high-speed motorways: the city can arguably claim to have built the first urban expressway in the United States.  As a result, the Davison Freeway has had a longer history, with more twists and turns, than the other projects that have been covered so far on this site.


The story of the Davison starts way back in 1940.  At that time, Davison Avenue was a busy corridor, shuttling commuters back and forth between Detroit and its northern suburb of Highland Park.  Traffic had reached a point of gridlock, and in 1941 the Highland Park city council voted to rebuild the road as a freeway, and demolition commenced for over 130 homes located along the avenue.  By the end of 1942, the freeway was completed and opened to traffic, with a total length of 7000 feet (about 1.25 miles long).

davison freeway construction - 1942

Demolition and widening of Davison Avenue during freeway construction.



The Davison Freeway shortly after being opened to traffic.

The Davison was only a drop in the bucket to what was planned for the city of Detroit.  Even before the end of World War 2, Detroit already had plans on the board for multiple expressways to cross every section of the city.

detroit plans - 1943

As the 1940s and the 1950s passed, Detroit scaled back its freeway plans somewhat, and the layout started to resemble the network that is in place today:


As you can tell from the above maps, the Davison Freeway was only the start of what was to come.  The Vernor and Conner Freeways were never built, and opposition to the proposed freeway along Grand River Avenue later caused I-96 to be re-routed along Schoolcraft instead.  In 1957 the Davison Freeway was extended west to connect with the newly-opened Lodge Freeway (U.S. Highway 10), and in 1968 was extended east to Conant Street, also connecting with the I-75/Chrysler Freeway, which had just been finished.  The Davison had now more than doubled in total length to 2.85 miles.  Although plans for some of the other freeways in Detroit had been scrapped by the late 1960s, transportation planners were hoping to extend the Davison Freeway further west to meet up with I-96, as well as further east to Mound Road.



1967 Michigan DOT plans for the Detroit/Ann Arbor freeway system.  Note the plans to extend the Davison further west and east, along with a greatly (!) extended M-53/Van Dyke Freeway that would have run to the edge of downtown Detroit.

As late as 1973, E.V. Erickson, who was the chairman of the State High Commission in Michigan, advocated for the extension of the Davison, along with 13 other freeways throughout the state.  The proposed highways were to be built using funds from Governor William Milliken’s transportation package.  However, local opposition to further freeway construction, which had been brewing for years, led Mayor Coleman Young and the Detroit City Council to ax the extension for the Davison.

By the mid-1990s, questions arose as to what the fate of the Davison would be.  The freeway was closed by that point, due to the antiquated and unsafe conditions  of the road: high volume of traffic , no shoulders, narrow lanes and a narrow median had all conspired to make the Davison unable to meet modern safety rules and regulations.  Incredibly the original concrete had held up well over its 50-year lifespan.  What to do?  There was some talk of filling in the depressed freeway and converting the Davison back into a city avenue, although, interestingly enough, there was significant opposition to this idea by residents of both Detroit and Highland Park.  After some back-and-forth political tussling between Governor John Engler and local leaders, the Davison was renovated as a modern-day eight-lane freeway, with wider shoulders and a concrete barrier in the median.  Maintenance of the highway was transferred from local to state control, and the Davison was thus designated as Michigan State Route 8.   The re-constructed freeway was re-opened to traffic in 1997.



Facing eastward on the reconstructed Davison Freeway.



Facing east at the I-96/Davison Avenue interchange.  Note the presence of the wide median, multiple lanes, and on/off-ramps — evidence that the Davison Freeway was originally planned to extend further west to I-96.

Additional sources:

Holland Evening Sentinel – March 12, 1973 – page 7