Highways for Habitats #15: Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco

EmbarcaderoTransportation 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.

If the Embarcadero Freeway had been built to its original designs, it would have connected the San Francisco Bay all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge along the waterfront. It wasn’t constructed as planned, however, because of San Francisco’s “Freeway Revolt.” The portion of freeway that was completed, in 1959, was only a short, one-mile highway from the Bay Bridge to North Beach. Unfortunately, the one-mile section was still an issue: it disconnected the popular downtown urban fabric from its beautiful waterfront, and it was an elevated, two-level barrier to views across the Bay.

In the late 1980s, amid disputes over whether to continue upkeep of the elevated freeway, the idea of its removal was put to a city-wide vote. Voters rejected the proposition, most believe, because it was a busy automobile corridor; at its peak usage, the Embarcadero Freeway was used by over 60,000 cars a day. Apparently, Mother Nature was on the side of the removal advocates: in 1989 the Loma Prieta Earthquake damaged the freeway. Enough of the elevated structure was destroyed to give San Franciscans a peek into their world without the freeway. In 1991 the freeway was removed to the smiles of the majority of San Franciscans.

The Embarcadero, as it is called today, is a six-lane boulevard, which replaced the elevated freeway. While it still provides service for vehicular traffic, studies have shown that, like we’ve seen with other freeway downsizing or removal projects, some traffic was displaced to alternate routes without creating problematic congestion. The Embarcadero was also designed as a “complete street” to support all modes of transportation (California was the 6th state to pass complete streets legislation in 2008; Michigan was the 14th in 2010); transit ridership has increased substantially. A streetcar line carries 20,000 people daily, and a large waterfront promenade provides for all other pedestrian modes of transportation. Where San Francisco’s Market Street abuts the Embarcadero, a large median was inserted, working as the Bay’s “front door.”

New development arrived in areas surrounding the new Embarcadero, including new neighborhoods, revitalizing the Bay’s waterfront properties.

Photo from Curtis Fry on flickr.com