The Case for Removing the 280 Freeway

Urban Design student Ben Caldwell's vision for an alternative way to use the land currently occupied by the 280 freeway.

Talk of San Francisco’s next freeway removal has heated up since a proposal from the Mayor’s Office to take down the northern spur of I-280 went public. The highway teardown would open up land for housing, connect neighborhoods, and help bring high-speed rail and Caltrain downtown.

“The good news is this would be the third segment of freeway we will have removed,” said Livable City Director Tom Radulovich, referring to the removal of the Central and Embarcadero Freeways, which revitalized the neighborhoods the roads used to divide. “Before each of those freeway removals, carmageddon was predicted, and it didn’t happen.”

While San Francisco officials say they’ll have to go though years of analysis and negotiations before any decision is made, building public support will take some work, judging by the outraged listeners who chimed in on the issue on an edition of KQED Forum last week.

On the forum, SF Planning Department Director John Rahaim stopped short of endorsing the proposal, but acknowledged, “If it works from a transportation standpoint, we think there could be some substantial benefits: increased park space, reconnecting Mission Bay to the rest of the city, opening up land for development, and connecting that part of that city that is kind of divided right now by the freeway.”

Transportation agencies certainly seem to be thinking seriously about the highway removal. Ben Caldwell, a masters student at UC Berkeley’s Department of Urban Design, did recent a project [PDF] analyzing the removal of the same same section of freeway (completely coincidental to the mayor’s proposal), and he’s already been invited to make presentations for staff at the SF Municipal Transportation Agency and Caltrans. (He hasn’t presented it to them yet.)

The reality of 280's existence today. Photo via Ben Caldwell

When researching Caltrans data on how much car traffic 280 carries, Caldwell said the numbers varied depending on the source, but that the freeway’s capacity was underused. That bolsters the case that turning the skyway into a boulevard wouldn’t result in major car congestion. “It seemed to me that Caltrans was being a little cagey about admitting what the data was, because the traffic volumes on that section of 280 are extremely low — far too low for a freeway of that capacity,” said Caldwell. Caltrans hasn’t responded to a request for comment.

Contrary to the popular misconception that elevated roads are needed to carry a fixed amount of car trips, a lot of freeway traffic evaporates when the highway is removed. As Radulovich explained, past freeway removals (as well as freeway expansions) have shown that highways actually generate a certain level of demand for driving that is reduced once they’re gone, especially as transit, walking, and biking alternatives are improved. As the area around Mission Bay grows, maintaining the freeway will only encourage commuters to drive.

“The amount of traffic on city streets is, to some degree, a function of how easy you make it to get there, and how much automobile capacity you provide,” said Radulovich. “Providing more automobile capacity often gets you more vehicle trips, removing it often gets you fewer.”

Traffic patterns also change as drivers take different routes. As Rahaim noted on KQED, one advantage to removing the 280 highway into a street-level boulevard would be that “you can disperse traffic more quickly from 16th Street, so it’s not all going to those two ramps that exist today.”

It’s not hard to imagine what a surface-level boulevard version of 280 would look like: King Street, the surface-level extension of 280, shows the contrast between a street integrated into the neighborhood and a blight-inducing, neighborhood-severing elevated highway structure.

King Street demonstrates what a surface-level boulevard in the place of 280 would look like. Photo: ## Cityscape/Flickr##
Image: ## Cityscape##

A look at the planned network of unbuilt freeways in San Francisco can also help explain why elevated structures aren’t necessary. If mid-century city planners had gotten their way, and the freeway revolt failed to sway the Board of Supervisors to vote reject the freeway plans, highways would today overshadow neighborhoods from the Haight-Ashbury (with no Panhandle) to the Marina to the Mission. If we lived in that alternate universe, would proposals to remove those highways be met with similar predictions of carmageddon?

Tim Colen, director of the Housing Action Coalition, said the organization is “very excited” about the 280 proposal, which would allow the development of neighborhoods that were displaced or never built because of the structure. With the real estate tax revenue it would generate to help fund high-speed rail, it’s a one-time opportunity. “The principle seems straightforward and easily supportable,” said Colen. “Use the enormous value of the land beneath and adjoining the I-280 freeway to underwrite getting high-speed trains buried and all the way to the Transbay Center.”

  • Fantastically horrible images of what was planned:

  • “Panhandle freeway”… awesome!

  • The public rejected the proposed freeway over Golden Gate Park, but that means that now we have more than 60,000 vehicles a day using Fell/Oak streets and more than 32,000 vehicles using Masonic Avenue every day. Taking down the Central Freeway has put more than 50,000 cars a day on Octavia Blvd. in the heart of Hayes Valley.

    Moral of the story: no free lunch in handling traffic.

  • mikesonn

    It’d be much better if we just lived under the shadows of freeways. Cars über alles, literally!

  • I don’t advocate building any more freeways in or over the city, but you anti-freeway, anti-car folks have to acknowledge that there is a trade-off: either the cars go over city neighborhoods or they end up on our surface streets. Radulovich’s notion that taking down the Central Freeway “revitalized” Hayes Valley is simply untrue. Maybe he should go down and take a look at Octavia Blvd. 

  • mikesonn

    I was just on Octavia the other day and it was beautiful and sunny and well attended by many people. Hayes Valley’s sidewalks were packed and buzzing.

    Maybe you should head down there sometime, it’s really nice.

    “I don’t advocate building any more freeways in or over the city”

    No, but you sure do lament the ones that were never built.

  • vcs

    Muni from the Sunset district to Caltrain is 45-60 minute trip, and that’s on a good day. If we want to get rid of the cars, we need to start thinking about mass transit (subways) on a much grander scale than the current piddly projects. Let’s extend the Sunset Tunnel out to 19th Avenue, and Octavia will look less like a parking lot.

    Truncating freeways stubs, which are really just glorified exit ramps, might have some neighborhood benefits, but probably does very little to encourage mode-shift.

  • Mom on a bike

    Since I live right nearby, I’d happily take you on a walking tour along Octavia and then dip south through the McCoppin dead-end and Duboce/Division via Valencia where the Central Freeway roars overhead. Which part of the walk do you think would be the most pleasant, Rob?

    You can keep on keepin’ on with that bloviating about how awful Octavia is, but the reality is that it absorbs an astonishing amount of traffic and although development of the roadside parcels has been disappointingly slow it’s really quite fine to walk along–interesting, even. And great for biking, too!

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Can I get some freeway-removal talk in the East Bay, or what?  

  • Gneiss

    Yeah, and Division is a real walk in the park too.  I love having the freeway roar overhead while I’m in the dark.  I would take the current configuration of Octavia as a substitute for how Division is set up any day.

  •  vcs – if you were trying to get to Caltrain from the Sunset, you take the 28 to Daly City BART and take that to Millbrae and get on Caltrain. Assuming you aren’t in the .3% of Caltrain Commuters headed from SF to Bayshore, SSF, or San Bruno.

  • Anonymous

    Which freeways do you see being removed?  There aren’t any stub-ended freeways like the Embarcadero or 280 in the East Bay

  • Kevin

    Its ridiculous how many freeways crisscross Oakland! It’s so difficult to find housing that isn’t a couple blocks from a major freeway.

  • Anonymous

    I think it could work if it were done right.  The problem with the Central Freeway / Octavia Blvd is that it dumps the traffic right at Market Street, which does create a big mess. For I-280, I think the end of the freeway should begin at Cesar Chavez.  From there to 16th Street it should be transformed into a parkway, with cross traffic and bicycle lanes.  And from 16th Street on it would be a grand boulevard.

  • Before it opened to traffic in 2005, Octavia was called “the boulevard of dreams.”

  • Jeffrey Baker

    @p_chazz:disqus I don’t see connectivity as a justification.  Just because a freeway goes from and to some place does not justify its existence.  In particular, I don’t necessarily grant anyone the god-given right to drive from Walnut Creek to San Francisco, through Oakland, on an elevated freeway.  Same for 580, really.  It can connect the Far East Bay to 880 at Castro Valley but there’s no justification for it running right through Oakland esp. the valuable grand/lake area.

  • vcs

    @twitter-14678929:disqus — Okay, there’s another completely awful way to take public transit to the peninsula. Are you arguing we can’t do any better?

  • Anonymous

    “Freeways” are free for cars — everybody else pays.

  •  There’s nothing that the segment between 16th and Cesar Chavez that can be transformed to because of the surrounding terrain. Caltrain has two tunnels in the area.

  • vcs

    I-980 could easily go. It’s just a short connector which makes it slightly easier to drive to downtown Oakland.

  •  We just spent hundreds of millions to add another bore to the Caldecott Tunnel. If there’s enough momentum to remove a freeway, an effort to essentially widen a freeway wouldn’t have been successful.

  • Anonymous

     @p_chazz:disqus wrote: “The problem with the Central Freeway / Octavia Blvd is that it dumps the
    traffic right at Market Street, which does create a big mess.”

    Indeed. But you know what was a bigger mess, the same thing happening a bit further down but with an enormous, ugly, livability-destroying freeway running right with the middle of a residential neighborhood. Honestly, as much as the traffic sucks where it gets dumped off, it’s no different than many other major thoroughfares in the city like Gough/Franklin, Cesar Chavez, 19th St, etc.

    In the end, the traffic still sucks, but at least we don’t utterly decimate the livability of our neighborhoods with the utter urban-design disaster of the 1950s-1980s that is ramming freeways through the middle of cities.

  • Maybe we should turn that new Caldicott tunnel into bike lanes.

  • Anonymous

    Would the increase of surface traffic on Oakland streets of commuters going to/from Walnut Creek and Livermore that would result be much of an improvement?  Removing the Central, Embarcadero and a portion of the Southern Embarcadero Freeway involves a comparatively short distance of stub ended freeways that are located very near the destination point.  The traffic can be assimilated onto surrounding streets with only a modest increase in congestion.  The portions of I-580 and SR-24 that you want to remove are through routes that are traversed by people making much  longer trips.  The only freeway that I think could be removed would be SR-13, the Warren Freeway, which could be scaled back to a boulevard.

  • jd_x:

    Instead of “ramming freeways through the middle” of SF, we have a lot of that traffic on our surface streets. Is that better?

  • Anonymous

     @ea1809617b00430091318d0e92a6ef00:disqus What you are saying makes no sense. Either way we have traffic, just one way we have it elevated on a nasty, livability-of-the-neighborhood killing freeway and the other way we have it on surface streets. And really, the traffic in this area is no worse than many other busy intersections on thoroughfares throughout the city (Cesar Chavez, Franklin/Gough, etc.). Plus, you simply *cannot* argue that the removal of the freeway has breathed life into Hayes Valley.

    Finally, I think there is a net effect, even if small, of the current design reducing traffic over the previous design. By making it “less efficient” (from a motorist’s perspective) to get across the city, less people are willing to do it and make other plans. The more miserable driving is, the less people do it.

  • Anonymous

    Please explain Andy.  Why would Caltrain’s tunnels have an affect on putting 280 on a road diet in that area? I am thinking of reducing speed limit, lanes, adding bike lanes and cross traffic where feasible. 

  • Anonymous

    @ea1809617b00430091318d0e92a6ef00:disqus I’m not sure how that’s related or what it even means, but I appreciate the fact that of all the places you could have posted “bikes suck” today you chose my post.  Thanks, Rob.

  • life in the sunset is supposed to be hard, vcs

  • Andy – the momentum to build that 4th bore came from construction companies and they legislators whose pockets they fill with money

  • mikesonn

    @facebook-616986286:disqus Look at Ben’s PDF above. You aren’t even trying anymore.

  • Anonymous

    @vcs:disqus – you could also take the 48 Quintara across town to the 22nd Street Caltrain Station. 

  • taxes

    Actually, freeways are largely covered by the gas tax. It’s local roads that are more heavily subsidized by non-motor vehicles taxes like property and sales taxes.

  • pretty pictures

    mikesonn, just because someone drew a water color of some buildings doesn’t mean it’s possible or feasible where you have train tracks.

  • I know this is probably hard for you to comprehend, but SF actually existed before the freeways, and yet somehow people got along just fine.

  • Anonymous

    You didn’t read what I said, because: yes, that’s exactly what I said. In both cases, we have a bunch of traffic. In one case, it’s elevated in the air and destroys the livability of all nearby neighborhoods. In the other, it’s on (is) the surface streets and there is a better chance of making the surrounding neighborhoods livable (see Hayes Valley revival after freeway removal for more on this). So yes, I prefer it on the surface streets than on an elevated freeway.

  • Jim Trenkle

    Couldn’t agree more.  Why should the best real estate in Oakland be criss-crossed with freeways?  The entire waterfront is diverged from the rest of the city by 880 (keeping Jack London and Jingletown perennially under-utilized), I-580 is a blight on the Grand Lake district, and I-980/24 would be simple to remove and would finally reconnect downtown to West O.

  • Anonymous

    Removing freeways is not without a cost–more congestion on city streets–but I think in the cases where it was used it is far outweighed by the increased real estate values and liveability of the streets near the freeway once it is removed.

  • Anonymous

    Keep in mind we’re talking about Oakland here.  The money would be better spent lowering the murder rate, not taking down freeways.

  • mikesonn

    @p_chazz:disqus Think there might be a correlation? You are good at those, right?

  • mikesonn

    taxes, WRONG.

  • taxes

    mikesonn, sorry the facts sometimes get in the way of your opinion. From VTPI, page 12 of this report:

    “Although motor vehicle user fees fund most state highway expenses, local roads are mainly funded through general taxes that residents pay regardless of how they travel.”

  • taxes

    Streetsblog is great for what it is, but the information on VTPI is far more factual.

  •  pretty pictures – this is true except when some big freeway project comes from the pork barrel, for example the new Bay Bridge. Doyle Drive. The fourth bore.

  •  p_chazz you are getting soft. Go back and get your narrative straight.

  • Anonymous

     @3550580e0dae869bade147960bef7b80:disqus You’re right about federal highways … if you exclude externalized costs. The report you link to, in Table 3 on page 13 exactly specifies them precisely

    – Roadway subsidies (see @twitter-14678929:disqus ‘s comment)
    – Parking subsidies (the biggest externalized cost of them all and the one motorists completely ignore)
    – Congestion
    – Crash risk imposed on others
    – Environmental costs

    That all adds up to, according to the report, 30 cents per mile. If your average motorist drives 13,500 miles a year (, that’s $4050 per year that motorists don’t have to pay even though they inflict that cost on society. With 190.6 million licensed drivers (, that works out to just under $800 billion a year! So how can you call something “paid for” when all these costs are completely ignored?

  • Jeffrey Yasskin

    I think they’re not going far enough. They should explore removing 280 all the way back to its intersection with 101, and the central freeway back to 101.

    Maybe they’d find that the traffic impacts are too big, but it’s better to do the bigger study and find the right level of removal than do a small study, find that everything it explores is a good idea, and then wonder if we should have done more.

  • The Facts

    If people affected by the increase traffic would stop complaining about it, then it would be fine. But NOOOO. They still complain about the clogged streets caused by the traffic that is now on the surface streets that they were warned about. This only solidifies the fact that traffic does not go away as Radulovich claims. It only affects real estate values and livability in the immediate area, but not the city as a whole. Freeways are still a vital part of the city’s transportation infrastructure. Denying that is being lost in reality.

  • The Facts

    “life in the sunset is supposed to be hard”

    Just goes to show that that all this anti-freeway/anti-car talk is NIMBYism at it’s best. Screw every other neighborhood except the ones near downtown. Pathetic.