Revisiting the San Francisco Freeway Revolt
Editor's note: This piece was written for Shaping San Francisco and is now incorporated into the new wiki version, your best place to research San Francisco history, FoundSF.org.
Photo courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
In the 1950s, the California Division of Highways had a plan to extend freeways across San Francisco. At that time the freeway reigned supreme in California, but San Francisco harbored the seeds of an incipient revolt which ultimately saved several neighborhoods from the wrecking ball and also put up the first serious opposition to the post-WWII consensus on automobiles, freeways, and suburbanization.
The Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC), one of the city's oldest and most persistent neighborhood groups, dates its origins to the initial struggles against the proposed Panhandle-Golden Gate Park freeway, which was to extend the central freeway up the Oak/Fell corridor, slice 60% of the Panhandle for the roadway, and tunnel under the north edge of Golden Gate Park before turning onto today's Park Presidio towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
On November 2, 1956 the San Francisco Chronicle graciously published a map of the proposed and actual freeway routes through San Francisco even though its accompanying editorial was already chastising protestors: "The remarkable aspect of these protests and claims of injury is their tardiness. They concern projects that have for years been set forth in master plans, surveys and expensive traffic studies. They have been ignored or overlooked by citizens and public official alike—until the time was at hand for concrete pouring and when revision had become either impossible or extremely costly. The evidence indicates that the citizenry never did know or had forgotten what freeways the planners had in mind for them."
Today, San Francisco's freeways have changed again, thanks to the Loma Prieta 1989 earthquake. The much maligned Embarcadero Freeway has been removed, as has an unsightly spur of the Central Freeway. A raging debate over the future of the Central Freeway ramps that go north across Market was finally resolved and has now been replaced by the surface Octavia Boulevard. The 101-280 interchange was a mess from 1989 to 1996. New offramps were added to I-280 to serve a new waterfront roadway and the planned Giants ballpark at China Basin in 1997, but no new freeways will be built in San Francisco. New transit money goes to BART and MUNI, while Caltrans and SF Dept. of Public Works continue to spend vast quantities of social wealth on maintaining the San Francisco road system. The rapid rise in value in both areas where freeways were removed, along the now open waterfront, as well as the rapidly gentrifying Hayes Valley/Civic Center area, show that profits can be drawn from forward looking urban planning, de-emphasizing cars and re-emphasizing neighborhood, community, and nature. But most U.S. urban planners still adhere religiously to the cult of the car, hence constant efforts to expand roads and parking at the expense of numerous more sensible alternatives, from decent mass transit to ubiquitous bikeways.