San Francisco Freeway Removal and Economic Development

San Francisco aerial photo, October 2014.
San Francisco aerial, October 2014.

Following San Francisco’s Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 three San Francisco Freeways were damaged significantly enough to be closed at least temporarily: The Embarcadero Freeway (along San Francisco’s downtown waterfront), the Central Freeway, and Interstate 280 where it crosses US Highway 101 in the south part of the city. Interstate 280 was repaired relatively quickly as it was the most modern design and served as a major junction in the regional freeway system.

Part of the Central Freeway was demolished immediately since it was severely damaged. The rest of the Central Freeway was shored-up while Caltrans (the California Transportation Department) prepared plans for making permanent repairs. Citizens from the neighbourhood led an effort to permanently remove the Freeway from north of Market.

Between 1994 and 1999 three different initiatives were placed on the ballot over what to do with the Central Freeway. The first initiative resulted in a decision to remove the Central Freeway, the second in a decision to rebuild the Central Freeway and the final in the decision to remove the Central Freeway and replace it with a street level boulevard. The street level boulevard was designed in a community effort that included consulting help from Professor Alan B. Jacobs from UC Berkeley (author of the book Great Streets and former San Francisco Planning Director). The new boulevard opened in June 2005.

The Embarcadero Freeway was the subject of a similar back-and-forth process although a decision was made to replace it with a surface level roadway and public transit line about five years after the earthquake and without any public elections. The roadway was finished in the late 1990s and has been acclaimed as a great success.

Today it’s hard to imagine that there was ever any controversy about removing the freeways, but there was!


  • SPUR (2010) – When the Freeways Came Down
  • Wikipedia – California State Route 480 – the official designation for the Embarcadero Freeway was State Route 480.
  • Nash (2002) – Economic Impacts of San Francisco’s Freeway Demolition presentation at Transform Scotland’s 2002 Transportation Conference.
  • Nash – Northern Waterfront Walking Tour takes you through the neighbourhood where the Embarcadero Freeway used to stand.
  • Nash – Civic Center to Castro Walking Tour takes you through Hayes Valley where the Central Freeway used to stand.

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