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San Francisco: Removal of the Embarcadero Freeway

In 1989, a 7.1 earthquake struck the Bay Area which severely damaged many of its elevated highway structures. The Embarcadero Freeway - an ugly, double-decked highway - was replaced with a grand boulevard which emphasizes access to the waterfront and provides people with transportation options like walking, mass transit, and bicycling instead of an emphasis personal vehicle use. In this 12 minute mini-doc, you'll see some of the dramatic changes and how all users benefit when planning takes a pedestrian and people-first attitude.

Just look at these BEFORE and AFTER shots!

Embarcadero 2

Embarcadero 3

Also discussed: Octavia Boulevard which replaced part of the former-Central Freeway.


[intro music]

Clarence Eckerson Jr.: [00:24] Today we find ourselves in San Francisco. Behind me, that’s the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco waterfront, and you might say to yourself, well what’s so remarkable about that? Well the fact is, the spot I am standing in just a few years ago was inhabited by a nasty, noisy structure known as the Embarcadero Freeway, a two-tier highway which ran along San Francisco’s waterfront. Today, thankfully, that highway is gone, replaced by a wonderful boulevard which takes into account all modes of transportation. And the area’s ringed by parks and trees and public gathering areas that allow you to just come here and enjoy yourself and recreate along the waterfront. It’s a prime example of how transportation and car traffic can be designed to fit together to serve the needs of everyone while maintaining people places, a people friendly atmosphere, a place where people will not feel endangered by cars or unwelcome. So this is a great place that The Open Planning Project thought we would come and investigate just how this boulevard came to be.


Andy Thornley: [01:30] The Embarcadero is sort of the roadway that goes around the waterfront, the northeast waterfront of the city. And sometime back in the ‘50’s, when the whole country was crazy for freeways, the State built a freeway along the Embarcadero, and there was this ghastly elevated freeway.


Tom Radulovich: [01:47] As soon as the freeway was built in the 1950’s, people realised it was a mistake and there was a longstanding movement to get rid of it, led by folks like columnist Herb Caen.


Chris Carlsson: [01:58] Here in San Francisco we have a long history of fighting against freeways wrecking our city. And long before I got to the city, before I was even born, there was already insipient movement in the city against this criss-crossing of the city with elevated eight lane freeways. Thanks to the citizens getting involved and organising into various neighbourhood associations all over the city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the vast majority of the freeway plans for the city were derailed.


Andy Thornley: [02:22] In 1989 there was a little bit of an earthquake here, and that earthquake shook and rumbled and when all the shaking was done, we discovered that the Embarcadero Freeway, along with other things, had some pretty serious cracks in it. And the Mayor at the time, Mayor Art Agnos, had the commonsense to say, you know, rather than rebuilding that freeway, maybe we ought to knock it down, because for 40 years it’s been a separator between the city and the waterfront.


Tom Radulovich: [02:52] When nature intervened there was still a lot of debate about what to do with it. People were terrified that by removing this freeway and the others we would have horrible traffic congestion, that Chinatown was really afraid that their businesses would suffer. So it was a very close vote at the Board of Supervisors, six votes to five, that ultimately decided let’s tear this freeway down and replace it with a surface roadway.


Andy Thornley: [03:16] Happily we were able to knock down that freeway, and I think you’ve seen how wonderfully that turned out. It’s a great space for people, for the trolleys, for bicycles, for pedestrians, for roller skaters. Everybody really enjoys the Embarcadero now.


Tom Radulovich: [03:30] Here we are out in the Ferry Building Plaza. Right now the roadway’s splits around this plaza in the middle. It was the result of a long debate, but here in the middle of the plaza is an outline which shows you where the freeway columns were. It gives you a sense of where these were, how big they were and so there’s a wall that we had built separating the city over here from the Ferry Building and the waterfront over here. We’re standing actually right in the course of the freeway, you can kind of see behind me there’s a gap in the trees that the ramps to Washington and Clay Streets came right overhead where we’re standing right now. So it headed through this green sward here. And then the Clay Street onramp came up this way, now you can see that Washington and Clay Street on either side here are pretty quiet streets now. In their heyday of course they were incredible traffic sewers. They had three lanes of one way traffic either coming on to or coming off of the freeway. And you can see they built the buildings all kind of one level up here so that there’s these really blank walls with hiding parking and all of this traffic. Now unfortunately we still have the bad buildings, but the freeway’s gone. So one of the challenges that we have is, well what do you do with buildings like this that really turn their back to the streets cos the streets were so awful? We’re standing at one of the historic markers along the Embarcadero where some historic photos of freeway going up and coming down. First shot is this proposal for an elevated freeway. Then behind it as you see the Ferry building here, this is the ramps coming from the Bay Bridge, the stub ends, this was actually supposed to continue south along the waterfront. You can see the Main Freeway and then the Washington and Clay ramps splitting off of the Main Freeway. A parking lot underneath, and you can see what a barrier it was between the Ferry Building and the rest of the city. The posts that we were showing earlier, that’s these posts right here. Looking at the Bay area post by the freeway, you can see it’s after the earthquake, so they’ve temporarily braced it. Here’s the shot with the freeway gone.


Sam Schwartz: [05:31] Sometimes the greatest opportunities occur during tragedies. It’s unfortunate, but we had a tragedy in New York in which a highway collapsed, fell to the ground, it wasn’t an earthquake, but in December 1973 the West Side Highway came tumbling to the ground. As a result of that, we learned that we could manage the traffic, that traffic either diverts, changes its time, or actually shrinks by going to other modes of transportation. When the Embarcadero collapsed as a result of an earthquake, there were people in San Francisco that used New York as an example. We had our earthquake due to neglect. But they used it as an example where New York City was not rebuilding its elevated structure. In fact New York took its elevated structure down entirely and built a boulevard at grade. And the Embarcadero found many of the same things happening, that there was actually a reduction in total traffic volume that was travelling the Embarcadero as people travelled around.


Chris Carlsson: [06:32] Well I think what you see once you get the freeway out of here and the old industrial uses of the waterfront out of the way as well, is that it opens up for other uses. And the major recreational use of course is perambulation, people moving around together, having a good time on the waterfront, enjoying the smells and sights and sounds of the Bay, the seagulls, the pelicans, the fish, the seals, they’re all right out here.


Andy Thornley: [06:52] It carries trolleys, it carries cars, it carries bikes, it carries roller skaters, baby carriages, wheelchairs, every possible kind of mode and manner. And I always emphasise the benches. It’s a wonderful place to sit and do nothing, and that’s a very important use of public space.


Tom Radulovich: [07:10] When we had the earthquake, four double deck freeways in the Bay area were damaged. The Cypress structure in Oakland had actually collapsed pretty dramatically and probably that was the images that everyone remembers of the collapsed freeway. Another freeway was the Central Freeway, which has also been now torn down. And last year we inaugurated a beautiful new boulevard where that freeway used to be. So here we are at Octavia Boulevard, the corner of Octavia and Market Street. This is another one of the boulevards that San Francisco created to replace earthquake damaged freeways. So if you can picture it, there was a double deck freeway right where we’re standing now. The design of this boulevard incorporates a lot of traffic calming. It was designed to carry a large volume of traffic, but to carry it in a way that wouldn’t kill the life of the neighbourhood. So what you can see behind us are two lanes, kind of on the narrow side, it’s encouraging traffic to go at the speed limit. There’s medians planted with trees in the centre. Then the median that we’re standing on actually separates the side lanes from the main road. So the idea is the through traffic’s on this road, but the road over here accommodates bicyclists, it accommodates people parking, and it also is an extension of the pedestrian realm. This is part of the buffer that really helps protect these houses and churches and there’s dense residential neighbourhood from the impact of having all of this traffic. This is Café Terra Cotta, this is one of the businesses that’s popped up along the boulevard. It’s hard to imagine seeing this here the way it was a few years ago, it was a really dangerous place in the neighbourhood, a lot of drug dealing, a lot of crime, people really avoided this street like the plague. But it is transformed through this new boulevard. And across the street are some of the leftover lots. The removal of this freeway freed up nine acres of land. The sale of that land paid for all the construction of the boulevard and it’s generated surplus, we’re going to use some of the surpluses to green up and calm traffic and create open spaces in other parts of the city that were affected by this freeway. We’re at Hayes Green, which is sort of the crown jewel of the whole boulevard project. It’s a block long park that connects the boulevard to the Hayes Valley neighbourhood. It’s a great neighbourhood/commercial district that has really been reinvigorated by the removal of the freeway. We really wanted to, again, like we did with the side lanes on the main part of the boulevard, make these side lanes part of the pedestrian realm. So you see here a speed table, that’s where the cars kind of drive up and over, side walk comes across at level. It took a long time to get this boulevard done, and we had to go to the ballot three times, with back and forth ballot measures. It really hinged on the ability of this freeway to move traffic, but the good news is it moved traffic great.


[music]

Andy Thornley: [09:56] If you provide freeway space, you will cultivate and grow car trips. But the inverse turns out to be true as well, if you take away freeway space, you actually will see a lot of the car trips just disappear, go away, people start walking, they start biking, they start taking transit. There is not a fixed number of automobiles that you have to accommodate.


Sam Schwartz: [10:18] In both examples of the West Side Highway and the Embarcadero, both highways collapsed, both highways were removed, and what happened was almost magical. A waterfront that was kind of hidden from view underneath a highway, pedestrian access to the land across from there improved, cars still travel both but in fewer numbers. That transportation also includes bicycles and pedestrians and people just enjoying strolls and enjoying the waterfront. And it’s added to the vibrancy of the communities adjacent of both the Embarcadero and to the West Side Highway.


Chris Carlsson: [10:58] Well there’s no question that the waterfront of San Francisco is a really fun place to visit, it’s a really pleasant place to hang out if you enjoy sunshine and you enjoy the smell of the Bay and you enjoy having a chance to, you know, go side by side with your friends on rollerblades or bicycles, or just taking a nice stroll. It’s fantastic.


Tom Radulovich: [11:14] I would say for cities from Seattle to New York, all around the world and all around the country who are thinking of tearing out their waterfront freeways, just do it. You can have a vital waterfront, have a good economy, still move the traffic.

[music]

Transcript Divas Transcription Canada

Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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