The Embarcadero Freeway: A San Francisco Disaster

The Embarcadero Freeway, also known as CA-480, was a freeway located in San Francisco, first constructed in 1959. Planned to be part of the Interstate Highway System, originally proposed as a connection to US 101 and US/40-50 in 1947, the Embarcadero was proposed as I-480. When it became clear the entire freeway wouldn't be built, the I-480 designation was removed, converting it into a State Highway.

View of the freeway, facing north near Howard Street. (America's Canceled Highways)

 According to the Congress for New Urbanism, "San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway was originally designed to connect the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge but was never completed. The Embarcadero only succeeded in cutting off the city from the waterfront and running long ramps deep into the neighborhood fabric. In the most used sections, traffic on the Embarcadero reached well past 100,000 vehicles per day."

Image: SF Chronicle, "Vista views of a section section of the Embarcadero Freeway, February 3, 1961, looking north"

Immediately after the first segment was completed, freeway revolts cancelled the rest of the project, as the freeway proposal would have cut off the waterfront with the rest of the city. It was proposed to be torn down as early as 1963, with proposals continuing into the 1980's. The main complaint about the freeway was that it cut San Francisco's waterfront from the rest of the city.

While certainly part of the freeway revolts of the 1970's that occurred in other parts of the United States, it should be noted that the opposition to the freeway was not universal. According the America's Canceled Highways, the city’s Chinatown neighborhood feared the loss of traffic between the Bay Bridge and their district would have a severely negative effect on business.

This is a map of former State Route 480 in California as it existed in 1964, with unconstructed parts in purple. (Wikipedia Commons)

However, Nature would have the final say as to the fate of the freeway. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake would seal its fate, as it significantly damaged the structure. While CalTrans initially planned to rebuild the entire structure, the City voted narrowly to tear down the structure, which it did in 1991.

Slate noted that the Embarcadero Freeway was a good example of induced demand that can be caused by urban freeways. "The Embarcadero was a prime example of what British transport researcher Phil Goodwin calls “disappearing traffic”—get rid of a road, he found in a wide-ranging case study, and, on average, 25 percent of the traffic simply goes away."

After the freeway was removed, the Embarcadero was converted into an at-grade boulevard, providing enough access for both vehicles and pedestrians. A great before and after photo slider can be found here. Reception to the boulevard and the removal of the freeway has been highly positive, and shows that removing freeways can improve cities without sacrificing traffic at the same time.

Embarcadero Plaza in front of the Ferry Building became a place where ferry & streetcar commuters, Farmers Market, cafes and landscaped boulevard peacefully coexist. (Soul of America)

Thanks as always for reading!


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