Mayor’s Transpo Chief: “Let’s Be San Francisco and Take Down the Freeway”

The 280 freeway looking from Potrero Hill, where it divides the neighborhood from Mission Bay. Photo: ## Patrick/Flickr##

The idea of removing the northern section of Highway 280 near Mission Bay is gaining more traction as planners look for ideal ways to usher in high-speed rail and transit-oriented development in downtown San Francisco.

At a SPUR forum yesterday, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director, Gillian Gillett, sketched out a proposal to follow in the footsteps of the removals of the Embarcadero Freeway and a section of the Central Freeway, which revitalized the neighborhoods the roads used to divide. As Adina Levin at Green Caltrain reported, Gillett argued that replacing the elevated portion of I-280 with a street-level boulevard, from its current terminus at 4th and King Streets south to 16th Street, would improve the livability of the area, open up land to develop new neighborhoods, provide funding through real estate revenue, and open up engineering solutions to facilitate the extension of Caltrain and CA High-Speed Rail to the planned Transbay Transit Center.

If the freeway is left to stand, its pillars would present an engineering obstacle to running the train tracks undergound, meaning the only other feasible way to allow rail tracks to safely and expediently cross 16th Street would be to dip 16th underneath the tracks. And that would make the intersection — a gateway to Mission Bay — even more hostile for people walking and biking than it already is.

As past cases have shown, creating a surface street where that part of I-280 now stands and integrating it into the neighborhood would actually reduce overall car traffic. In a moment that would make the city’s mid-20th Century freeway protesters proud, Gillett told the crowd, “Let’s be San Francisco and take down the freeway.”

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe called the proposal “an exciting opportunity to re-orient our city around sustainable public transportation and create a more walkable city.”

The north end of the 280 freeway, where it transitions into a boulevard on King Street approaching 4th Street. Photo: ##

“Freeways don’t belong in cities,” she said. “They’re enormous barriers, and cars getting on and off them at high speeds pose the greatest risks to pedestrians. Folks knew that in Hayes Valley, and they took down the Central Freeway and helped knit San Francisco’s urban fabric back together.”

Mississippi and 16th Streets, where the 280 freeway passes over. Photo from the Mayor's Office Presentation via ## Caltrain##

Long a dream of livable streets advocates, the possible removal of the inner portion of I-280 is being studied by the CA High-Speed Rail Authority at the urging of San Francisco officials, who also see it as a way to open up engineering options for a more direct rail alignment toward the Transbay Center, and to free up land for development that could help fund the project.

In a memo to Metropolitan Transportation Commission Executive Director Steve Heminger, Gillett wrote:

We need to create a faster and cheaper [Downtown Extension] alignment, realize the full value of the 4th & King Streets Railyard site, and eliminate the intrusiveness of I-280 in Mission Bay by terminating it at 16th Street and replacing it with a boulevard, based on the lessons learned from the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway to create a new Rincon Hill neighborhood and the Central Freeway to create the new Market-Octavia neighborhood.

As to whether Mayor Lee himself backs the proposed freeway removal, it seems likely given Gillett’s position at City Hall, but to make sure, we’ve put in an inquiry to his office, and have yet to hear back.

To look at the development possibilities for the land occupied by the 280 freeway and Caltrain storage yards, the Planning Department commissioned a study released last month [PDF], which estimated the value of removing the freeway in terms of development. Without the freeway, more space could feasibly be used for housing, and nearby land would be worth $228 million, compared to a value of $148 million if the freeway is retained. The difference in land value largely comes from the noise, pollution, danger, and visual blight that comes with living next to a freeway, the authors noted. “Reconfiguration of Highway 280 to create a boulevard would increase the value of the land, both from a financial standpoint and also from the perspective of improving the physical environment,” the study said.

Cheryl Brinkman, a member of the SF Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, said she “definitely supports taking a serious look at [the freeway removal] option.”

“I think we are very lucky in SF that we have the example of the Embarcadero freeway coming down, we all got to see what a big change that meant for the waterfront. So, with that in mind, we should be more open to a big change like a freeway coming down. I am certainly glad we are having the discussion.”

The alternative to tearing down the freeway. Image: CAHSRA via the Mayor's Office

In addition, without the freeway, train tracks could run under 16th Street, instead of the other way around. This would be far preferable for the city’s surface transit, biking, and walking environment.

Were the train tracks to kept at ground-level with 16th Street, it would cause delays for Muni’s 22-Fillmore line, which the SFMTA plans to re-route on to 16th east of Kansas Street with center-running bus lanes, as part of the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project. That proposal is aimed at speeding up the 22 and moving the line closer to serve the UCSF campus and workers coming to developing Mission Bay, according to the SFMTA’s website.

“The 16th street at-grade crossing is nearing gridlock today,” Levin noted on Green Caltrain. “More trains from electrified Caltrain and high speed rail will make grade separation a necessity.”

Brinkman agreed: “The alternatives look pretty unwelcoming to pedestrians and people on bikes, and as [Levin] noted, create gridlock for transit and autos,” she said. “I would hate for the two neighborhoods to be cut off from each other on either side of the train tracks, and to lose the opportunity to use the land for other things, like housing or businesses.”

There’s currently no timeline set for any possible removal of the freeway, but if approved by the CAHSRA, Caltrans and city agencies, it would be part of the larger project to extend Caltrain and high-speed rail tracks from 4th and King to the Transbay Center, which is still in its early stages. The CAHSRA currently aims to open high-speed rail service to Los Angeles by 2029.

  • If we don’t figure this out for our generation, your daughter won’t have the choice to take a zipcar when she really needs it.

  • Anonymous

    I understand what you’re saying, though I don’t know what it’s like to raise kids in this city — probably horrible if you choose not to drive, or have no other choice. And indeed, biking is not practical in many neighborhoods or for many people, let alone with kids.

    However, “all out war” is the perfect description for the treatment of transit riders in San Francisco, as you aptly describe: MUNI is chronically underfunded, makes terrible operational decisions, and is expected to be reliable while sharing roads with gridlock-inducing private cars. Calling the installation of parking meters and removal of parking spots “all out war” against cars ignores the fact that the vast majority of public space in San Francisco was designed for the private automobile.

    With finite space and money, it’s pretty obvious where the priority should be.

  • akod

    I said I hate having to drive and need help with ideas. I’d love to see 280 go away. isn’t this an advocacy blog? What’s up with 2 people giving negative votes. Kind, gentle, San Francisco – as long as you agree with everyone and don’t ask questions. Thanks folks.

  • Anonymous

    Right on!

  • Anonymous

    And new york city has frequent, reliable public transportation.

  • Anonymous

    why is that guy being wasteful cuz he has to go somewhere to pick his kid up. He wrote that he’s divorced and could mean he doesn’t have a choice and his kid isn’t with him all the time. No reason to jump on him. Not everyone lives the same way, you know? Not everyone makes trips less than 2 miles (hadn’t heard that before – kinda interesting – would love to hear more). Used to work in Amsterdam for a while and it was good – bikes get along well and the street cars are a great way to get around. I wish it was just a little easier to get around town with muni for days when it’s raining.

  • Anonymous

    Wow – super nice again. Very kind and open. Didn’t sound like the guy was being a d!ck to me…

  • mikesonn

    I always find it entertaining when car-centric folks say “don’t force me to live like you!” when it is their car-centric lifestyle that is making it more difficult to live car-free (or even car-lite).

  • Anonymous

    Totally. Give everyone options. Safer and better for everyone. Agree

  • mikesonn


  • The above poster was making it a claim that San Francisco was becoming like New York City, hard for anyone with children to cope. I was pointing out that New York City has far more children per capita than San Francisco, with far lower car ownership. Part of it is public transit, part of it is that people patronize businesses and services within walking distance. (People in New York walk *a lot.*) For example, very few people in New York take their kids to swim lessons on the opposite side of town from where they live.

  • mikesonn
  • Anonymous

    Sweet. So it’s “entertaining” for you and everyone SHOULD live just like you in a city that has lots of different people is what you’re saying?? I was agreeing with you, dude (assuming male -sorry if not). Different kinds of people is a good thing and made this a great place last time I checked. Isn’t that what this article was about? Making it a better livable place? We all should want that – even for people who drive. I ride a bike to work, raced a rode bike in my early 20s, have been at it a long time and still have to drive for work and stuff sometimes – don’t always have a choice. Have a lovely day, man.

  • mikesonn


  • Andre – the guy supposedly lives in Potrero Hill. There is a kick butt new pool in Mission Bay, but he wants to go to Petit Baleen in the Presidio. I don’t think that is a choice we need to design our transportation infrastructure around.

  • This++

    We are bending over backwards to make sure that everyone can seamlessly make their irrational choices less painful, and in the process investing enough money in that strategy that we don’t make rational choices more attractive.

    I think Zachary’s pizza blows away Patxi’s. But when I lived in Noe Valley, I didn’t hop in the car and drive to Rockridge to get Zachary’s, I walked to Patxi’s.

  • akod – here’s something you aren’t even considering. The amount of real estate we use on parking and roads. If we got rid of the parking, we could build another pool near your house. Imagine if there was no 280, maybe there could be a kick butt new pool in Mission Bay. Well, there already is a kick butt new pool in Mission Bay but I digress.

  • There is so much trouble in the original post. He’s ridden a bike for 25 years, but he drives to the dogpatch to catch the T? By the time he drives to the dogpatch and parks and walks to the platform, he could have ridden a bike at a snails pace and already been in the office – supposedly he can walk to the office in 45 minutes, so probably a 10 minute bike ride.

  • Irishman

    OK, I know what you’re saying, but I think you looking at this whole energy thing wrong. Now, let’s forget about freeways for the moment even if to do so is off topic. Energy is not simply consumed by just people wanting to travel about and do their thing – energy is IMO largely consumed by the very faulty economics of extreme materialism and built in obsolescence which results in unacceptable waste in resources and energy usage.

    If products were made better and lasted longer, there would be less need for production, procurement and therefore energy usage through manufacturing, transportation and disposal. Also, look at the simple example of fashion – is it not a waste generating monster that promotes the throw away mentality like “oh! my shirt isn’t cool this year because it’s green – better chuck it away and buy a new one” or “clothes are tighter now” and all that crap etc.

    Now to product compatibility, like in a year or so, will I be able to walk into my nearest computer store and get a replacement lead for my iPad 3 or just like clothes, will I have to chuck it way and buy the new iPad 6 or something just because my iPad isn’t cool, even if it works perfectly well for me then and I want to keep it for another year? You know, these are expensive items that take a lot of energy and resources to produce – they shouldn’t be thrown around like pieces of paper – when we’re finished with them, surely they could be sold on cheaply to those less well off. If my washing machine breaks down in a couple of years, will I be told “oh, they don’t make those parts anymore – you need a new machine”…? Then there’s crap quality furniture produced for the domestic market – items that frequently need replacement after a few years. Now, don’t get me started about unnecessary printing when one books online etc…

    The above are only a few examples of why it’s primarily the industry that needs to change and downsize so as to cut consumption of energy and resources – I believe we can live our current lifestyles with a smaller industry that produces better and more durable goods. If we deal with that first, then we can deal with transportation itself.

  • JP

    I’m all for this as long as affordable housing is built. Every where I look, especially in Mission Bay, luxury housing/condos are being built. The last thing San Francisco needs is more luxury housing.

  • Anonymous

    Lets put BOTH 101 & 280 underground. Let private enterprise invest (like they did in Santiago, Chile) and put the freeways underground. Private enterprise then “owns” the freeway for 30 years (as a toll road) and in 30 years it would revert back to the government. And on top of the freeway is parks & windows. ,

  • jesse

    What kind of magical thinking to think that a city can continue and expand and add more vehicles to a finite amount of space. What do you think this can just continue forever? And to think that the tourism industry relies on vehicles is a joke. Most people come from Europe and take our public transportation. And since bike lanes, better walkability and more “anti-car” measures have been passed in the past 5 years, can you show any evidence that tourism has dropped? Look in your magic bag and maybe you’ll find something.,

  • Jesse

    I drive through Octavia just about every day and it’s no better or worse than having to go across the Bay Bridge. And those 50k vehicles ended up on surface streets anyway. Do you even drive in this city?

  • Mom on a bike

    That certainly sounds like my (probably unattainable) dream–101 gets re-merged with Bayshore Ave and the viaduct gets removed. Then all freeway traffic comes in via the 280 cut, which is now a tunnel w/ a whole new neighborhood on top. (Cover up the Bernal Cut, while we’re at it!) Then piggyback on the construction of the DTX tunnel and have cars running through a 2nd bore out towards the bridge, and resurface in Rincon Hill.

    Aside from all the other logistical problems, tho this would help revitalize and reunite a lot of neighborhoods along the way it still wouldn’t help the traffic in SOMA/Rincon Hill–but hey, while we’re dreaming, slapping a big ol’ congestion charge on all this would help pay for it!

  • Robert Norris

    Make Muni & BART run 24/7 and then (& only then) can I see it as being feasible (especially during construction).

    Oh yeah, might as well assimilate CalTrain into a larger BART loop while you’re at it .

  • Bruce

    Muni DOES run 24/7, and AC Transit runs All-Nighter Transbay service after BART closes. Caltrain will operate much more frequently and reliably once it is electrified in 2019, with BART connections at Millbrae (and Santa Clara, once BART’s Silicon Valley extension is complete). So that’s basically everything you asked for.

  • Bruce

    But what does BART running 24/7 have to do with it anyway? It doesn’t run anywhere near the area between 4th & King and 16th & 280, even during the day!

  • There is zero congestion during the hours that BART is closed.

  • Robert Norris

    I had an answer to my statement about muni & BART running 24/7 before this would work.

    First, yes, Muni runs 24/7 on a couple lines…, but it is NOT adequate service for a city. After midnight or shortly after, the route home on mass transit becomes much more difficult & much more time consuming.

    Telling someone to catch A/C transit that comes into the city from walnut creek or further out? Good luck.

  • Ted King

    BART is reasonably fast and could (and should) ring the Bay.

    Ring the bay with rail transit ? YES !
    Do it with BART trains ? HELL NO !!!

    It would be cheaper and faster to bring Caltrain up to BART-like frequencies. Electrification is the first step, followed by increased frequencies, grade separations, and triple- / quadruple-tracking where needed.

    The NIMBY’s fighting CAHSR construction and Caltrain upgrades are relatively few in number. But trying to convert that corridor to be a part of the BART system would set off a furball that could resemble a small-scale civil war. Also, take a look at the price tags on the current southern extensions of BART. They’re almost as bad as the Central Subway’s price tag on a per mile basis (at least $500 M+ *). And the Millbrae – Santa Clara gap is about thirty (30) miles long. The math and the time-span are strong negatives for an all BART solution.

    *Source :
    [Scroll down to the “BART to San Jose” section.]

  • Per

    No, Ted, Karen is right here, BART is the future. If we had BART around the Bay and, say, underneath Geary, Columbus and Van Ness, we’d be in fat city.

    Caltrain is hopelessly over-engineered and, were it not for the fact that it serves the most dynamic economy on the planet. would have been abandoned years ago.

    And Muni, well, ’nuff said.

    The real problem with Bay Area transit is Bay Area politics – we are one big city of 5 million divided into a thousand fiefdom’s. Only BART really transcends that.

  • Ted King

    SFMuni’s Owl Service (1 AM to 5 AM) is more than a “couple [of] lines”. Their owl map is not available via their new site but a copy can be found at (see below). Information on other agencies late night service is also available through .

    PDF –
    Page (Web Archive) –’s Regional Info All Nighter Service :

  • Ted King

    BART is a prime example of “Fool me once, shame on you …” and is the transit version of gold-plated plutonium – very shiny but poisonous to what surrounds it. Caltrain could be brought up to BART-level frequencies by about 2020 with minimal disruption. Ringing the bay with BART would be a scene like the c-section from V (a TV mini-series) and would NOT even break ground until about 2025 or 2030 IF the money (tens of billions of dollars) could be found to pay for it.

    The other analogy that crossed my mind was along the lines of “rape of the body politic“. I’ll leave it up to Richard M. to fill in the blanks on that thought.

  • Maido

    Please if any one have the the DWG ( CAD) file for this area ” mission bay and the free way 280 ” please please please it is urgent
    thank u all

  • ZBurlingame

    which would also reroute, nearly 200,000 (daily) cars/trucks/buses, that use that part of 280, onto 101 (which already sees around 250,000 (daily) vehicles). so this brilliant idea, would squeeze nearly a half million vehicles (an 80% increase) onto a stretch of highway 101, that is already a traffic nightmare most of the day.

    all this, so that there can be more development in an overdeveloped area…adding MORE vehicles to 101. i guess lee thinks that caltrain will be able to sufficiently serve the needs of those coming from south of the city…even though the need adding of more more local trains and the addition of high speed rail, will actually create more problems than it solves…oh, an add a new warriors arena…good luck getting to the giants to the games, or even the warrior games, or just good luck getting into the city. the bay side of san francisco will become a disaster in the coming decade, to the point that non one will want to go anywhere near it, and forcing more people and associated problems, into san mateo and santa clara counties

  • ZBurlingame

    “based on the lessons learned from the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway”

    the lesson we learned is that it now takes 20-35 minutes to drive the distance (along surface streets) that would have taken 5-10 minute on the “Embarcadero Freeway”…but, it’s such a prettier drive now…yay


The Case for Removing 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 […]

Forum: Freeways Without Futures

From the Studio for Urban Projects: DATE: September 19, 2013 TIME: 7:00 pm LOCATION: 917 Bryant Street, San Francisco REGISTRATION: Please register with eventbrite SUGGESTED DONATION: $5-$15 TRANSIT: Served by Market Street transit lines to Civic Center or MUNI lines 19, 27 and 47 to SOMA. Secure bike parking available. Throughout the 20th Century elevated freeways were created in many American cities. […]

Mayor Newsom, Caltrans Announce Plans to Remove Portions of I-280

A controlled explosion from the filming of the TV series "Trauma," on a closed portion of I-280 Mayor Gavin Newsom yesterday announced one of his most ambitious plans for re-shaping San Francisco, telling reporters at a press conference with Caltrans Director Will Kemption and Caltrain Director Michael Scanlan that the city would move forward with […]