Habitats for Highways #6: San Fran’s Central Freeway

Octavia Bldv SFTransportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

Central Freeway began carrying automobiles over downtown San Francisco in 1959.  The 4- to 6-lane elevated freeway ran 1.75 miles long, stretching over the city’s main street and into the historic Hayes Valley neighborhood.  In 1989 the Loma Prieta Earthquake changed all that, heavily damaging the freeway.  The northernmost section was beyond repair, and had to be demolished, giving residents a glimpse of their city without a freeway overhead.  While California’s Department of Transportation began planning how to repair surviving sections of the freeway, alternatives to the elevated freeway were proposed.  In 1996, these ideas gained momentum when part of the freeway was closed for reconstruction and the expected traffic delays (a concern that drove much of the opposition to freeway removal) didn’t happen.  Resolve to stop the freeway’s reconstruction grew as neighbors got used to the views and appreciated reductions in noise and air pollution.

In 1999 the decision was put to a vote, with both freeway and boulevard options included as ballot proposals, and San Franciscans chose to replace the portion of freeway with an at-grade boulevard.  Octavia Boulevard opened in 2005, and brought with it newly vacant land ripe for development.  Octavia is now landscaped with pedestrian greenways along the boulevard.  Since then, the area has seen the construction of almost 1,000 new housing units, including the construction of Patricia’s Green, a 16,500 square foot park in Hayes Valley. New business and retail investments have invigorated the area.

San Francisco’s Department of Parking and Traffic evaluated the transformation in 2007 and found that the lower-capacity boulevard reduced the total number of automobiles on that road and therefore decreased traffic.  Traffic on nearby roads remained essentially constant, some roads showed a slight increase, some a decrease.  Overall, the study found that traffic in the area as a whole significantly reduced, which indicates residents are making less discretionary trips.

Many believe the success of Octavia Boulevard impacted the Market and Octavia Plan, a 2007 land use plan to further develop the area as mixed-use urban neighborhoods.  The former Central Freeway footprint has become a lively addition to San Francisco, and sets the stage for more people-oriented redevelopment.

Photo from SFCityscape on flickr.com