Since 1959, San Franciscans had to deal with the elevated Embarcadero Freeway cutting then off from the city’s eastern waterfront (and ruining their view of the Ferry Building). Nonetheless, voters kept rejecting plans to tear it down—until 1989, when an earthquake damaged it beyond repair and forced the city to consider alternatives.
Now instead of an elevated highway, the Embarcadero is a six-lane boulevard flanked by pedestrian walkways 25 feet wide. There are street lights, palm trees and waterfront plazas. Thousands of residential units have gone up, increasing the housing stock by over 50 percent, and jobs in the area have grown by nearly a quarter. The Ferry Building now contains a farmer’s market and retail shops. Neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity have seen a revival, whether they the freeway used to isolate them directly (Rincon Hill) or simply held back the entire area from flourishing (South Beach).
There’s something daunting about making changes, in any way, to a piece of infrastructure that serves anywhere from 20,000 to over 100,000 vehicles a day. Critics have a right to express understandable concerns about gridlock and economics when planners announce that they want to remove or convert a major thoroughfare in their city.
It’s vital, then, for advocates to hold up examples of where highway removal has worked. The numbers exist to back up claims that the practice can restore a city’s social fabric and facilitate local development, all without severely impacting traffic or commerce. We just need to make sure our neighbors know that.