Freeway Free: A vision for the city
Today a plaque over the Embarcadero plaza reads: “The freeway that brooded over the Embarcadero with all the grace of a double-decked prison wall is finally gone. In its place is a sweep of air, fog, October sunlight, piers, ships, and the silver Bay Bridge.”
How can San Francisco cope with its rapidly growing workforce and population, given the city’s shortage of housing and limited land to build? One answer could come through successive removal of freeway sections, opening up large new areas for affordable and market-rate housing and workplaces in prime neighborhoods.
San Francisco is already the continent’s leader in urban expressway removal. With help from Mother Nature, two sections of freeway were demolished in the last quarter century. Predicted traffic disasters did not occur—instead, new affordable housing was built and livability improved.
A Freeway-Free San Francisco, a new report by CNU, outlines a plan to take this idea much further. The city can use surface streets and transit in place of freeways to better move people, goods, and services, reknit the fabric of neighborhoods, and deal with 21st Century challenges. In a time of declining per capita driving, San Francisco shows that the mistakes of 20th Century planning need not be permanent.
Like most American cities, planners in the 1950s proposed freeways all over the 47-square-mile city that would have gutted dozens of neighborhoods and isolated many more. Some cities, like Detroit and St. Louis, built all proposed freeways and lost up to two-thirds of their population. Freeways were fiercely resisted in San Francisco, and only about a third of those planned were built. Joseph Alioto, the mayor in 1974, typified that attitude when he told a Senate committee that San Francisco is beautiful and people should slow down and enjoy it. That refreshing approach may be why the city suffered less economically relative to most US cities in the second half of the 20th Century.
After the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) wanted to rebuild it. But then-Mayor Art Agnos favored demolition, “and months of debate finally consolidated political support for the mayor’s plan,” writes CNU.
Eventually, the Embarcadero was replaced with an urban boulevard with a streetcar line running down the center that connects Fisherman’s Wharf, Downtown, and the Castro District.
Similarly, the northern portion of the Central Freeway was damaged and its future debated. A portion of that highway was converted to multiway Octavia Boulevard.
Octavia Boulevard. Source: MIG, Inc.
The built results
The results in both cases have been nothing short of spectacular. “Predicted traffic problems haven’t been severe or, in the case of the Embarcadero, traffic actually improved without the freeway,” according to the report. Transit trips increased by 75 percent on the Embarcadero. New housing was built, including thousands of affordable units. The Hayes Valley neighborhood around the demolished Central Freeway has come back to life, while affordable housing has increased, CNU reports. A magnificent historic Ferry Terminal, blocked by the Embarcadero Freeway, was once again revealed.
The Ferry Terminal before and after demolition of the Embacadero Freeway.
The experience with the Embarcadero and the Central Freeway has been so positive that public officials are considering plans to remove a portion of I-280 in the city.
Cities around the world now look to San Francisco as a model for how freeways can be removed from urban neighborhoods. San Francisco contradicts the common narrative that the economy and vital transportation would suffer if these rivers of asphalt and concrete were replaced by surface streets.
Freeway removal elsewhere
Consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world, Vancouver, British Columbia, is a city without freeways in its urban core. Vancouver lacks freeways but it does have twin viaducts—vestiges of a freeway system that was never built. Less than a mile long, the viaducts serve little practical purpose and create a barrier between neighborhoods and limit waterfront access. Vancouver council approved a plan in late October to tear down the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts and reconnect streets and neighborhoods.
New York City, where the West Side Highway collapsed in 1973, is another example. Here also the predicted traffic disaster never occurred as people switched to other modes or used surface streets. As much as 53 percent of traffic simply vanished, CNU reports. Now a boulevard carries traffic where the highway once stood.
Building on the experience of all these cities, Freeway-Free San Francisco outlines practical steps for replacing freeways with surface streets and how those steps could help San Francisco, and, by example, other cities who may consider similar strategies.
When removing freeways, good design and reconnecting a network of streets and blocks are critical, CNU notes. Multiway boulevards provide high-capacity travel lanes in the center and slow-speed, low-volume side lanes that support street life. Unlike freeways, buildings can front boulevards, raising property values and re-establishing housing and businesses.
Removal in stages
A phased freeway-removal strategy, recommended by CNU, has many advantages. Each step presents challenges, but some are more technically and politically feasible in the near term. Each phase builds momentum, making the next one more likely. With San Francisco’s powerful market for development, the return on investment of the initial steps could be strong. CNU proposes a five-step process:
Step 1 is already being considered—removal of the I-280 spur north of 16th Street. “In the scheme of freeway removals, spurs are relatively easy to remove,” CNU notes, because they tend to already disperse traffic into the local street network and carry lower traffic volumes near the spur end. Removal of this section would create better connections between Mission Bay, Potrero Hill, and South of Market (SoMa). SoMa is a key area for workforce development. The new land that is opened up would help to accommodate thousands of jobs that enter the city yearly.
Top photo: The I-280 spur. The rendering shows blocks and buildings that could be built if the freeway were replaced by surface streets. Source: John G. Ellis, AIA RIBA and Mohammad Momin.
Step 2 is to roll back the Central Freeway to Route 80. Only a portion of this freeway was removed after the earthquake—a mile long section remains. The spur dumps about 45,000 cars onto Market Street—not an ideal condition. Removing the remaining spur would address traffic concerns, extend the boulevard and provide more land for housing.
Step 3 is the phased removal of the remaining I-280 in the city. Two phases of teardown would eliminate the entire spur to the east of Route 101, which is now more than three miles long. Another phase could remove the highway all the way to Daly City.
Step 4 is the construction of a new Transbay Tube that connects Mission Bay in San Francisco to Alameda and Oakland via transit, greatly reducing the need for automobile commuting into the city.
Step 5 is removing I-80 and Route 101 in San Francisco, making the city Freeway Free.
San Francisco is booming—the city is expected to add 240,000 new jobs and is on pace to grow by 160,000 residents in 20 years. As the city wrestles with this growth, its freeways are opportunities in disguise.
“San Francisco has proven that by employing aggressive affordable housing strategies as was done with the Embarcadero and Octavia boulevards, neighborhoods in freeway removal corridors can gain economic strength while helping to meet growing housing demand in locations convenient to jobs and urban amenities,” CNU reports.
Robert Steuteville is executive director of Better Cities & Towns, and senior communications advisor for the Congress for the New Urbanism.