Division of Highways was busy
building freeways before Eisenhower presented his 1956 National
System of Interstate and Defense Highways plan, which paved
the way for billions of new federal dollars to subsidize the automobile
in the name of national security.
In 1940, Park Presidio Boulevard was built through San Francisco's
Presidio to Golden Gate Bridge, creating the first roadway built
to freeway definitions in Northern California.
California had determined that San Francisco not only needed highway
connections to the north, east and south, but also crisscrossing
paths of freeways throughout the City as well.
The war-era plans had some basis in Germany's efficient autobahns,
but the American scale to freeway construction would vastly overshadow
anything that existed in Europe. European cities, while connected
by highways and often encircled by them, had never been bisected
by elevated highway viaducts. Highway engineers in California were
moving into new and uncharted territory.
By 1945, the state had laid out a
web of planned freeway paths, although details changed frequently.
the winter of that year, construction started on what would become
Highway 101, stretching south from Marin and north from San Jose.
A 1951 master plan hoped to snake the highway through San Francisco
from the Central Skyway to the Golden Gate Bridge via Van Ness Avenue.
In the middle of the City, a spur would split off and turn east
to the Bay Bridge. Just before reaching the Bay Bridge, another
spur would split off and head northeast, running up the waterfront
past downtown. At some future point, this structure, called the
Embarcadero Freeway, would continue north, serving as a second route
through the City to the Golden Gate Bridge.
construction of 101 proceeded north in the mid 50's, the Disastrousness
of the plans became clear. The freeway north of Army Street was
built as an overhead steel viaduct that split into a massive mess
of freeway viaducts at the end of Potrero Avenue. And what had started
in low value industrial land South of Market was now tearing through
dense residential neighborhoods.
The double-deck concrete structure of the Central Freeway demolished
a wide right-of-way through houses along Division and then Octavia.
Over the next five years, other neighborhood groups realized that
the same thing was slated for their front yards, as had been clearly
laid out in the 1951 master plan. They
As they protested to save their neighborhoods, the Embarcadero
Freeway was completed from the Bay Bridge to Broadway. The massive
ramps of the Terminal Separator Structure were built on warehouse
industrial land just south of Market Street.
The structure that continued up the
waterfront past the Ferry Building replaced the City's Bay views
with a sky
darkening, dual-level elevated concrete viaduct.
In 1959, amid city wide protests to protect remaining neighborhoods
and parks, the City's Supervisors voted to kill seven of the ten
planned freeway projects in the 1951 plan. The portion of the Central
Freeway continuing up Van Ness to Golden Gate Bridge was halted,
as were plans to build several other crosstown routes.
These included a Western Freeway from Octavia through the Panhandle
toward Golden Gate Park, a Mission Freeway to obliterate the sunny
Mission District, and a Crosstown Freeway to cut across the hills
northwest from San Jose Avenue to the Inner Sunset, where it would
join the 19th Avenue freeway headed through the park.
Below is a drawing of the interchange planned between the Central
Freeway and the never built Western Freeway.
After reaching the park, initial plans called for freeways on both
sides of the park, and massive interchanges with a third northbound
freeway running up 19th Avenue and fourth northbound freeway running
up the beach. The freeways' threat to Golden Gate Park, and what
remained of Hayes Valley, was a major impetus behind the Freeway
Work on the Southern Freeway continued, and plans were drafted,
but not completed, to connect the Golden Gate Bridge via Junipero
Serra, 19th Avenue and Park Presidio with a freeway grade roadway.
Over the next three decades, other freeway plans were drawn up,
including the reincarnated Golden
Gate Freeway which would continue the Embarcadero Freeway through
Fisherman's Wharf and the Marina to Golden Gate Bridge.
No new freeways were built beyond the routing of Interstate
280 in the southeast, which continued the path of the Southern
Freeway toward the Bay Bridge. Today, occasional plans are revived
to tunnel freeways, rather than build the overhead concrete and
steel viaducts chosen in the 1951 plan. Tunneling is monstrously
expensive and the construction required to tunnel major roadways
can be disastrous to the neighborhoods it runs through.
Why a Disaster
The San Francisco Freeways were a Disaster in planning, engineering
and design. The plans were Disastrous because they intended to solve
one problem without considering what new problems they might create.
The only costs recognized in the projects were that of demolishing
houses and pouring concrete.
Further, there was no consideration to integrate freeway traffic
into a larger transportation system, nor much thought given to building
transportation systems that better fit in with their surroundings,
nor much research and land use study to determine if laying miles
of overhead concrete was even a worthy goal. The enormous costs
to the City in depressed land values, increases in crime and urban
decay went unforeseen.
As for engineering: traffic got worse. The Embarcadero Freeway was
supposed to move cars from the City either east across the Bay Bridge
or south along 101. Instead, it simply funneled traffic into bottlenecks
in a way that degraded traffic, while at the same time inducing
more people to drive when other options were available. Traffic
actually improved after it was demolished.
Additionally, the Embarcadero and Central Freeways' design optimistically
hoped that Californians would know how to merge into traffic better.
Since their construction, segments of lanes have been painted out
to force drivers to merge earlier and avoid clogging routes. This
has narrowed the viaducts' capacity in an effort to reduce accidents
and make traffic flow better.
And as for design: San Francisco's elevated freeways were not built
to withstand a significant
earthquake. In 1989, all of the elevated freeways were closed
and most retrofit at enormous cost. Retrofitting is still underway
twelve years later. Fortunately, their design problems allowed for
the complete removal of the hated Embarcadero Freeway and much of
the Central Freeway.
Will it happen again, and has anything been learned? After the earthquake,
while business interests downtown and in Chinatown, and the largely
Chinese residents of the Richmond District fought to rebuild the
Embarcadero and Central
Freeways, the rest of the City demanded some rethinking
on the matter. Some in the Chinese community even announced that
removal of the freeway was racist.
Caltrans, the state's transportation office, was charged with handling
the post earthquake damage, but chose only to repair or rebuild
freeways along the unfinished design of the 1951 plan. There were
no decisions to stop and significantly rethink City freeways or
study any other transportation options that may be more appropriate.
That being the case, the City forced Caltrans to replace the Embarcadero
Freeway along the waterfront with a surface boulevard and transit
lanes, and is currently wrestling with them to start work on removing
the remainder of the Central Freeway north of Market Street.
The old Central Freeway route will be replaced with a wide boulevard,
and ramps at Market Street will allow freeway traffic to head east
or west into Market Street, or north to Franklin Street, as well
as northwest to Fell Street. The current freeway only pushes cars
out at Fell.
In 1997, the lower
deck of the Central Freeway was spared, due to hysteria that
a freeway was the only way to move people. Supporters knew that
if the freeway was ever torn down, it would never
did not offer to rethink transportation plans for the area. Instead,
they took the opportunity to spend millions of dollars to retrofit
the remaining segment of the Central Freeway, including its obsolete
spurs designed for the Western Freeway and its continuation north
to Van Ness.
Caltrans was banking on rebuilding the Central Freeway as a wider,
but shorter viaduct that crossed Market Street as a double-wide,
rather than double-tall freeway. San Franciscans rejected the wider
freeway, and introduced the new plan to drop the freeway at Market
and build a new Octavia Boulevard. Caltrans was forced to draw up
new plans for the shorter structure.
Five years later, the old mile long, retrofit onramp still stands
above a dirty Octavia Street as the City and Caltrans discuss how
to handle the land underneath it.
Even the remarkable
success of the Embarcadero demolition hasn't entirely erased
the fear and paranoia that removal
of a freeway is anything but calamitous. San Franciscans should
know better. Interestingly, other cities are following
the example made by San Francisco's earthquake, and are working
to voluntarily remove
their own inner-city freeways.
Here are some before and after photographs of the Embarcadero Freeway.
pictures courtesy Michael Kiesling of Architecture