Unbuilt Highways

San Francisco: The Embarcadero Freeway
How we get from here to there.
Dec. 23 2010 2:58 PM

Unbuilt Highways

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The Embarcadero Freeway and Ferry Building, circa 1964.

It took an earthquake—the 7.1 magnitude 1989 Loma Prieta event—to do what government could not: Show that cities could successfully remove urban highways without disastrous consequences. San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway was an elevated, 1.2-mile stretch of highway built (not without opposition) in 1958, originally envisioned as part of a larger network of proposed "trafficways" crisscrossing the city (the majority of which were rejected by the burgeoning and noisome "freeway revolts").

The Embarcadero had actually been the subject of proposed demolition in 1986; voters rejected the measure nearly 2 to 1. (One Supervisor called it "a deliberately designed traffic jam.") Even after the quake had rendereded it beyond repair, there was significant support for simply rebuilding it (at an ever-increasing cost), despite the fact that it blocked access to the water and, as writer William Thompson put it, "shunted pedestrians through a dark, sooty gauntlet between downtown and the San Francisco Bay."

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The Embarcadero Freeway and Ferry Building, circa 1960.

But curiously, once the highway came down, the specter that had always been raised against its demolition—thrombotic traffic—never happened. In its time, the Embarcadero carried upward of 100,000 cars a day; the multiuse boulevard that ultimately replaced it carried many fewer. 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.

And yet this hardly meant the area the highway ran through and its environs were becoming a little-visited backwater. The reduced car capacity was augmented with a mid-boulevard streetcar system, a revitalized ferry service, and, importantly, pedestrians, who now had a reason to visit and even to linger in the area. (Even so, as architect Mark Hinshaw notes, the area has ongoing issues of connectedness, given that buildings like the John Portman-designed Embarcadero West Plaza were built with their backs against the old freeway—and can you blame them?)

But newer structures are more user-friendly. As one report notes, "dense commercial development has lined the street, housing in the area increased by 51 percent and jobs have increased by 23 percent. High profile redevelopments like the old Ferry Building and Pier 1 have continued to transform the waterfront."

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The former site of the Embarcadero Freeway in 2003.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.