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,

Ecology1_freeway_protest_embarcadero.jpgProtesters march along Embarcadero in early 1960s, stump of Embarcadero Freeway ends behind them at Broadway.
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.

Fwy_NBeachIntx.jpgEarly plan for 8-lane freeway to cut under Russian Hill on its way from the Embarcadero to the Golden Gate Bridge.

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."

Picture_6.pngIn the 1940s the California Dept. of Highways came up with
various plans to blanket San Francisco with freeways. This is a version
proposed in 1948 by San Francisco’s Planning Department. Image: San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR)

Just three years earlier San Francisco had opened what became known as "hospital curve"
both for its location behind General Hospital and its high rate of
accidents. On October 1, 1953 the Bayshore Freeway opened from Army to
Bryant/7th Street, nearing a later direct link with the Bay Bridge. San
Franciscans could now drive three unmolested miles of "divided no-stop
freeways" from Alemany to Bryant. But as the plans unfolded, public
opposition grew. By the time the Embarcadero Freeway was nearly under
construction in 1958, a loud opposition had formed, going on to
campaign for its removal after its completion. Over 30,000 people
signed petitions at meetings organized in the Sunset, Telegraph and
Russian Hills, Potrero, Polk Gulch and other threatened areas. In 1959
The Supervisors voted to cancel 7 of 10 planned freeway routes through
the city, much to the shock of the Department of Highways and the state
government. But that was not the end of the freeway revolt.

Ecology1_1953_aerial.jpgJames Lick Freeway under construction in 1953: San Francisco’s first. Seals Stadium, the old ballpark is visible in center-left of photo. Photo: Ed Brady
Proposed_freeway_routes_embarcadero.jpgProposed freeway routes for the continuation of the Embarcadero Freeway to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Freeway builders continued to resurrect various routes,
encountering persistent, well-organized resistance by San Francisco
neighborhoods. In 1964 the Panhandle-Golden Gate Freeway plan reached a
climax, with a May 17 rally at the Polo Grounds to save the Park,
featuring a "Natural Anthem" and a dedicated tune by Malvina Reynolds,
the famous left-wing folk singer, and a speech by poet Kenneth Rexroth.
Months later, in a final, climactic 6-5 vote, the Board of Supervisors
rejected the Park Freeway on October 13. Black supervisor Terry
Francois cast the deciding vote, delivering a point-by-point six-page
rebuttal to the pro-freeway arguments. (It is interesting to note that
the other No-votes on that Board were future mayor George Moscone,
future CAO/auto dealer and consumer of sexual services Roger Boas,
future Lt. Governor Leo McCarthy, William Blake and Clarissa McMahon.
In favor of the freeway were "progressive" supervisors Jack Morrison,
Joseph Casey, Jack Ertola, Joseph Tinney and Peter Tamaras.) Mayor Jack
Shelley was all for it, as was the Labor Council from which he hailed.
The Supervisors’ Transportation Committee had received a petition with
15,000 signatures, 20,000 letters and telegrams, and had received
opposition from 77 community organizations.

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.

End_of_fwy_duboce.jpgDemolition of Central Freeway over Market Street, 2003. Photo by Chris Carlsson

Fwy_revolt_plan_dept_maps.jpgVarious freeway plans over the years.

Maps and photos of San Francisco’s original freeway plans

Images and maps of many San Francisco freeways that were never built and some that were

  • Please stop posting this mangled version of the perspective drawing from the 1948 Trafficways Plan. An scan of the original document is at

  • Can we now begin the Central Subway Revolt?

  • Thanks, Eric. Updated.

  • ggggg

    I think its intersting to note that since the superstructures were fought off caltrans moved the same number of vehicles on the surface streets creating the multi-lane one way streets that are often the most dangerous points in the city for ped/bike such as in SOMA. Also, the rationale behind freeways is of course the LOS standard as in cars get slowed down need to build a “free”way. Application of this standard to the city streets allocated formerly multi-modal space to all car use.

    As this standard eventually became incorporated into CEQA environmental review as a percieved “impact” the stage was set for much mangling of environmental review and a huge waste of resources as such consideration stopped the undoing or repairing the all-car re-design. The origins of highway design can be found in the first Highway Capacity Manual (available in the collection at the main branch of the public library). This first of the still governing text of traffic engineerings sets it all out and is of course published by the good roads burea, or some agency along those lines which is composed of you guessed it, oil rubber and automobile interests.

    Even more interesting than all of this, is what is embodied in the LOS standard and the manual as in the idea of a traffic engineer or someone who tells the community how things should move on the street. Prior to this there were private roads or the legislature governed the way things moved. A contemtporary outgrowth of the “expert” idea is even found in contemporary transportation planners. At times, their need to see things though the eyes of engineering and the legislature’s deference to them as “experts” obstructs any real change.

    This is further exacerbated by non-profits who often restrict their advocacy to public relations type speech. So you end up with a situation where the experts are studying studies about studying studies and the non-rofits are advocating that they study more and faster. Such is the situation in SF, now.

    Instead of resolving the issues at hand studying them just perpetuates the idea that there actually are any issues. As in the Bike plan EIR disaster. Sure it’s almost done and hoepfully something will happen but did the City in doing one and failing to othwerwise defend its decisions just sanction a skewed and backwards system. Will the next Bike Plan require EIR and take eight years to complete, etc.

    This is what comes form not understanding the history or working through the issues and not looking outside of the current perceptions of what the street is, or what it could be.

  • MellyG

    The Freeway Revolt is a good example of civic participation. However, this was a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movement, and not a revolt against the automobile. Also, communities were mobilized to act against the freeways through their local churches. As you can see, the freeways that were built were done so through the neighborhoods with disenfranchised groups: the Bayview and Excelsior, which house a majority of the city’s Black and Latino communities.

  • MellyG is correct – this was no eco-movement against the “evil auto” or whatever, this really was a “omg I don’t want that thing next to my house” movement.

    I’ve read plenty about the “revolt” and it’s definitely interesting. What’s missing though is an analysis of the “why” about freeway planning (and its cousin, urban renewal/redevelopment/etc), esp. as it relates to the mood of the nation and its leaders in the immediate post war era.

    It’s easy for us, with our 60 years of hindsight to cluck our tounges and opine on just how “horrible” freeways were/are, and how terrible much post war redevelopment turned out (Case Study being the destruction of the Fillmore and the mistreatment of its population, for one).

    That said, think back to what the country had gone though – a long, sustained economic depression, followed by a world war that made significant impacts on people’s lives and sowed the seeds for social movements that were to come later. It’s not hard to understand why people, esp. leaders in that post war prosperity and newfound status as a superpower, would want to rid themselves of reminders of the hardship of the past, and would want (a car, suburban house, etc etc etc).

    I’m not saying these were the wisest decisions, nor do I believe they turned out particularly well, and we can write many books about that. But I do think it’s important to realize that these plans were not the work of Satan – they were the work of people who, in their way really believed in a vision of a properous nation and were convinced this is the way to go.

    Again, before anyone flames me , I’m not saying I agree with it (read carefully) but I am saying it’s worth someone studying.

  • Thanks Greg… I’ll just add to your cogent points that most mid-century humans shared a vision of what modernity and the “good life” might look like. A book called “Workers Against Work” is about the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s and at one point author Michael Seidman talks about how in anarchist newspapers illustrations of the “anarchist city of the future” look a lot like downtown Los Angeles came to look!

    So sure, the freeways weren’t planned by Satan or satanists, but they were organized and planned by people who believed strongly that what was good for General Motors was good for the U.S. Luckily a lot of San Franciscans didn’t believe that, and along with such well known counter-thinkers as Lewis Mumford, created a contrary social movement that was not automatically in favor of “progress,” and was not cowed by civic elites who took it for granted that their cement-pouring plans were inevitable and superior…

  • JT

    MellyG – I agree that this was a nimby movement, but nimby movements are not inherently bad.

    Also, While I acknowledge the consciousness behind you’re statement about where the freeways where built, I do not think that the the Excelsior was a largely minority neighborhood. The freeways where built largley near what once was industrial land.

  • one other thing – I know we’re supposed to cheer the destruction of all freeways and all, and that’s fine, but the one place I wonder if we made a mistake was Market and Octavia. The current situation where bicyclists keep getting run down by car drivers can’t be good for anyone, and that whole intersection seems like a bit of a mess. Just sayin.’

  • marcos

    Many professional planners are trained to reduce all criticism of unbridled development to the easily dismissable NIMBY because they are trained in the modernist notion that government is a science and there is an academically discernible “correct” answer to every engineering or planning problem.

    Especially in a city that is 85% built out, the solutions to the evolution of the built urban environment are going to be political, likely suboptimal, but with broader buy-in than the East German model where the technocrats bestow their thinking on communities, whether our NIMBY asses like what they’re doing to our communities or not.

    TOD without the commensurate investment in Transportation is another of these modernist impulses, where the cleanliness of a theory needn’t be perturbed by the functional realities on the ground.


  • ggggg

    The way freeways were executed and developed is through the idea of the expert and the expert, the traffic engineer, often was speaking in contradiction to what the people of the community wanted. This is seen in the Bike Plan EIR. Here is the whole community wanting improved bike facilities and the plan to do them is being studied, largely for percieved contradictions with traffic engineering. There were many other ways to justify that plan without doing a huge EIR, even with the law-suit.

    This was an opportunity to re-assert the local legislature and the community’s right to keep its people safe and determine how things moved on its streets. Because ultimately that should have never happened and allowing it to happen was a mistake on the part of advocates. This is why it is important to expand advocacy beyond letter writing and packing meetings. Just minor details there caused such a huge mess. Then failing to help the City see some alternative or other way of proceeding intensified the problem.

    Now, hopefully, the bike network, orginally planned in 1997, will be more complete, but I think that advocates, citizens should take note of this and try to avoid the same mistakes in the future. CEQA problems were originally identified in the late 90’s. The SFBC actually worked to take such issues out of the Bike Plan and convinced the Planning Department to not do environmental review. I think this was done because they didn’t want to work through the problem, which really isn’t that big of a deal certainly not three years and millions of dollars worth of a problem.

    This has alot to say about public process. First, private advocacy groups should not work to privatize public plans and exclude the ideas of other citizens. Second, organized advocacy groups really need to put more resources towards, figuring things out. The City agencies are often not equipped to do this, or are not doing it in an advanced way. If all the speech is advocacy and planning then such issues are often not resolved until they create some epic disaster.

    Because the freeways now linger on the surface streets, some of the most dangerous situations in the City are where surface freeway designs interact with regular streets, places often not on the bike network. There are ways to address such problems but it takes work and it particularly takes paying attention to the laws and policies that effect street design and using this information to make the streets different. In some places in the City we are talking about systematic, repeat problems that are often ignored. I think that advocacy that restricts speech just sort of ignores these issues perpetuates the problems.

    With no public planning process and the funded advocates’ staff busy with advocating that consists largely of meetings and letter writing, this is likely to continue.

  • stiiv

    I live near that 101 section that cuts SOMA off from the Mission. Every time I go under that blighted monstrosity I wonder if there isn’t a better way. I’ll grant that some highways are needed, or at least depended upon, but have we let them pick the cheap option too many times? If a road there is so important can we just bury the damn thing?

    Yes, that would be costly, but looking at what that highway does to the surrounding land I have to wonder if it was really the cheaper option in the long run.

  • “but the one place I wonder if we made a mistake was Market and Octavia. The current situation where bicyclists keep getting run down by car drivers can’t be good for anyone”

    As I remember, that was a compromise: environmentalists wanted to demolish the Central Freeway south of Market also, but couldn’t get everything they wanted. It is not too late to demolish more of the Central Freeway.

  • ggggg

    one thing that could be done in soma is to address the many situations where high capacity street designs makes for very dangerous intersections, particularly the on and off ramps. To do this it would be necessary to recognize that these places are dangerous.

    Currently the City often tries to ignore such situations because they fear liability in recognizing the danger. the reason this sounds all of about totally backwards is because it is, and is another outgrowth of traffic engineering and the seperation between what is happening on paper and what is really happening on the street and what the community wants.

    another thing that was taken out of the the Bike Plan is the development of an inspection system to find such situations and address them instead of ignoring them. in doing this you overcome traffic engineering/highway design with the simple reasoning that moving people safely is at times more important than moving x number of cars per minute.

    this isn’t removing the superstructures but it is a start and it it also developing a different way of percieving the street. almost sixty years and lord knows how many billions of dollars was put into developing the idea that car movements should take precedence at all costs. there has been a lot of work in recent decades in planning and advocacy but this work often does not address the underlying issues in this manner. the currently proposed los replacement measure which may or may not ever go anywhere doesn’t directly address extremely dangerous situations. because as I said the City tends to ignore these places.

    to undo highway design you have to develop a new way of doing things and develop the rational for how to do it. we have seen what ignoring things and not developing a different type of thought has brought. a lot of people want the same things they want safe streets. its just about developing ways to reach that goal. the bike network will certainly help, but that is just the begining. that’s just what was envisioned in 1997 and hasn’t been attained yet because of ignoring the work that needs to be done.

  • Mark

    Greg @5 & MellyG @4: I think you miss the point – not wanting a freeway next to your house is an environmental concern. There has long been a [conservative] conservationist sentiment in this country, which was the origin of much of the opposition to Robert Moses’ destruction of New York. San Francisco, by the mid-1950s, was full of [liberal] preservationist sentiment – see UCB planning prof and Chronicle columnist Allan Temko, who wanted to protect San Francisco from “a variety of villains: real estate sharks, the construction industry and its unions, venal politicians, bureaucrats, brutal highway engineers, the automobile lobby, and — in some ways worst of all — incompetent architects and invertebrate planners who were wrecking the Bay Area before our eyes.”

    It was obvious by the late-1950s that freeways and urban areas didn’t mix. Give some credit to the San Franciscans who had the vision to oppose them, even if they didn’t necessarily articulate 2009 ideals at the time.

  • Not every proposed freeway was a good idea, but it is sad to see how many necessary road improvements were blocked. The same forces who block necessary road improvements give us “mass transit” schemes that are way over budget, do not serve the practical needs of working commuters, and actually in many respects make the environment worse. For example, if thru traffic cars are put onto freeways and separated from city streets where bicyclists are, you have fewer bicycle accidents.

    The website shows how the Leftist Luddite mentality of San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area has made
    it hopelessly congested and unaffordable for a typical working class person to live in, and has stifled commerce. Truck shipments of goods and commercial services can’t move on a light rail streetcar, or even a BART train.

  • My city, São Paulo in Brazil, had its inner city/downtown destroyed by expressways built during the pro-Car, pro-American military dictatorship of the 60s and 70s.

    But the sad part is that many people here (including many politicians) in the city still support this kind of constructions today, alleging that “São Paulo is a city for work! If you want green, go the highways with your cara and go to the beach or to the countryside. And if you don’t have a car, f**k you! You’re a poor loser and don’t deserve a decent life!”

  • Chris and all: For more on the complexities of the freeway history, readers may want to consult my article “‘Land Values, Human Values, and the Preservation of the City’s Treasured appearance’: Environmentalism, Politics, and the San Francisco Freeway Revolt” in Pacific Historical Review, 68 (November 1999): 611-646. The historical record abounds with complexities, implausible contingencies, unanticipated consequences, and ironies that defy neat generalizations that apply today’s categories of description, analysis and explanation to understanding “the foreign country” that was 1940s and 1950s San Francisco.

  • Freeways Not So Evil

    Oh, the root of all evil, the much maligned freeway! Imagin, if you would, our mteropolis without these evil freeways. Why, we would all where green hemp togas and take the ferry, ride the street car, or just bike to our destination…Wait, that is what we were doing 60 years ago, when it took hours to get across the the Bay Area, and people were stuffed in low-quality congested downtown slums. Freeways are what give the Bay Area, nay our country, it unique spirit of go-anywhere do anything freedom.

    Over the last 20 years, I have seen bad ideas, one after another, trying to do away with the evil freeways. TODs, the high-speed rail (yeah, right, let’s call it Euro-Disney Redux), BRT, and what have you. Look, all these things make good sense, but not at the expense of taking much needed funding away from our main mode of transport – the car on the freeway. The new SFOBB span is a clear example. Spend $ 6 Billion, but keep it to 5 lanes in each direction. WHY? Because, environmentalists want the most critical link in the Bay Area Transportation Corridor not to be a capacity-increasing project. No, they would rather that our economy keeps on tanking as people use federally-susidized mass transit. Could you imagin any other system anywhere else in the world where only 15% of the cost is borne by the users of the facility, and the rest by tax payers who don’t ever use the system?

    Let’s not get carried away. Restore funding to roads and freeways. Let’s invest in greener cars, congestion management, and even higher gas taxes…But, please wake up and stop pushing utopian ideas like TOD and BRT on the free American commuter…

  • You’re all wrong, stacked highways are not only good for cars, they’re also great for drug addicts which are using it as a shelter, and also criminals who wants to get rid off someone quietly, as roam of the cars above won’t allow gun shot to be heard.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like highways and they’re really useful, but in such a beautiful place like S.F. that load of concrete just doesn’t fits, see how Embarcadero looked before, furthermore they proved that they’re really dangerous in place were earthquakes are so common.

  • freddytravel

    SF is fortunately located to be eye candy. Much like the old beautiful urban centers of Europe. How did the latter meet the challenge of mixing automobile traffic with their densely populated urban cores while maintaining the livability of their neighborhoods? They built their main traffic arteries underground. They separated thru auto traffic from pedestrians and slower modes of transport like buses, trams, and bicycles. Look at Brussels. Or Madrid. From ground level, you’d never know that their urban centers are crisscrossed with automobile rights of way. Expensive, but we could do it here, too, over time. Moving the thru traffic quickly through our city would do a lot to ease our current highly congested streets.

  • Vinnieus Cheesius

    Today’s freeway maps look incomplete. There must’ve been a way to have the freeways and keep the neighborhoods safe. It seems as though it could’ve been done, yet no one bothered to study the possibilities fully. I hate driving the 101 to get to the golden gate. I would’ve loved a 480 freeway, maybe tunneled or out by the water, but not at the cost of homes and my beloved Girhardeli factory. Homes and offices can be moved or rebuilt, landmarks cannot. And who says that a freeway through the city has to have an exit at every corner. Keep it simple to one or two on- and off-ramps. Build freeways more eye-catching and suitable for the neighborhoods they run through, and build (or rebuild) buildings, that were lost to freeways, stronger and better and equally as eye-catching. Tunnels, tunnels, tunnels… we have the technology for them. The only places to build in the city is upwards. Make room for better buildings and better roadways that are eye-pleasing.

  • Irishman

    Dead right mate!  Every city should have a proper road system – we have a proper freeway system in Dublin with a 6 to 8 lane beltway (called the M50 C-Ring) as well as a 2.75 mile underground freeway (2 x 2 lanes) connecting the M50 to Dublin’s docklands – this is well managed (by selective tolling) so that it doesn’t jam up at rush hour.

    On your subject, going by google maps, it’s seems no more then 3 miles from the Central Freeway to the 101 Freeway leading to the Golden Gate – maybe an Irish solution to an urban problem (of course, we have NIMBYs too) – as you say, go underground – if Dublin (with only 1.25m people) can do it, so can San Francisco – no excuses IMO!

  •  because you know, Dublin is a juggernaut of a City compared to the useless wasteland without a proper road system that is San Francisco

  • Michael Morris

    I can’t confirm or deny, but are your sure those areas were the same in the 50’s? is it possible those areas just had the lowest population density?  

  • It astounds me that people think just saying an acronym that looks like a two-syllable word is making an argument. “NIMBY” was actually coined in an attempt to disparage people who didn’t want toxic waste dumped on them, the implication being that we shouldn’t question that it needs to be dumped somewhere, so why can’t these selfish, selfish people do their part?

    So somebody’s called somebody NIMBY, now what? Can we get past the dumb name-calling and talk about the reasons for opposing or supporting this or that project?

  • ☼ A little more info in this more recent writeup:

    Also, a really spiffy fashionable “Save Us From The Freeway” hat that really ought to come back into style.


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