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.”

  • Anonymous

    Your whole position is framed on the idea that everyone in the bay area drives, which is absolutely false, especially in San Francisco.

    Bart has 400,000 daily trips and is projected to reach half a million in the next year. I forget the Caltrain stats, but it’s also setting records. A significant part of this project is to make caltrain and high speed rail better so that people won’t need to drive into the city from the peninsula. Ferry ridership is high, bus ridership is high, bike riding is high, SFO is also breaking flight records.

    Taking down part of the freeway isn’t going to stop cars from visiting SF or cut off the peninsula auto drivers from the city, but it is going to help improve the area where the freeway is taken down and is a critical step in bringing high speed rail into SF.

  • C. Pro

    I live in Newark, and I understand urban life is different than suburban life, but I also look into where taking certain street and road changes may impact areas positively and negatively, and the biggest concern I have is that by taking out the 280 freeway (as ugly or underused as it is) it’s not going to mitigate people’s driving habits to use other modes of transportation to get around that area. The only benefit taking out 280 seems to do is to try and reconnect a neighborhood in that area; and that will yet to be seen as successful if it occurs.

  • C. Pro

    well, tell me where I’m wrong Mike, I welcome you to share your side of the story.

  • C. Pro

    that’s just it: I don’t know if the benefit will outweigh the cost of taking this freeway out and building new living/business structures up. Already the Mission Bay area is going under revitalization and proceeding to do so around the 280 freeway, the Potrero Hill neighborhood seems like it’s doing fine the way it is (no one’s stopping it from trying to beautify itself), and with high speed rail – I’m pretty sure any civil engineer can draw up plans and work around existing structures such as the 280 freeway and the existing Caltrain rail line that leads to downtown in order to make it work.
    I know that commuters use BART, MUNI, buses, ferries, etc. to commute to and within the city, but there are still way too many people that rely upon private vehicular transport that use these freeways and streets to get to their destinations. Before something such as this 280 freeway comes down, more traffic pattern studies need to be done before it happens because I believe it will backup 101 and 80 worse than before and it won’t be as easy to mitigate around such as the 480 and inner 101 freeways.

  • You are pretty sure any civil engineer can draw up some plans and work around existing structures, ignoring that the City’s engineers have already come out and said that getting rid of 280 will make it easier to build and that it will perform better. Looks like the City needs to fire those people and hire you!

  • mikesonn

    I’ve commented plenty on this thread and others, I’m not going to engage a car-commuter from Newark about the cost-benefit analysis of removing a 1/4mi stub of 280.

  • The 280 west of 101 acts as a reliever when 101 is congested. So suggesting that all 280 drivers can take 101 instead isn’t realistic. Many of them use 280 because they want to avoid 101. Muni 8X buses frequently use Potrero instead of 101 when 101 is crowded. Buses don’t use 280 because they can’t get on it. If there’s no 280 and the 101 is congested, then drivers will use local routes like Potrero (as well as other corridors like San Jose/Guerrero).

  • mikesonn

    Maybe all those 8x riders can take the T-Third/Central Subway if your 101/280/Potrero armageddon comes to pass.

  • I thought that you are against the Central Subway. Now you’re a fan of it. Before the T-Third, 8X didn’t run on Sundays. So in a way introduction of the T-Third helped people avoid the corridor with more 8X service.

  • mikesonn

    I was being sarcastic because you love to defend 101/280 because “transit” (laughable). Anyway, they barely serve the same areas (just the extreme ends of each route).

  • Go tell the folks who take the 8X that their bus and the freeway should be eliminated. I don’t think many of them want to stuck with the “limiteds” and “rapids” or “T-Thirds,” anything that is subject to local stops or traffic lights. The 101 is in someways no different than the Twin Peaks Tunnel for transit. So there should be infrastructure for transit that would maintain if not improve current speed and performance.

  • mikesonn

    The difference between a Twin Peaks Tunnel for transit use and 101 for transit use is so great a disparity that I don’t see the point of continuing this conversation.

  • Zachary Hanna

    Or those people could just take bart or caltrain. What we really need is increased transit service and hours. Why does it have to stop at 12am?

  • mike regan

    once again you are waging a war against cars in this city and I will not vote for anyone who is in your army. The freeways have a purpose this freeway was the one thing that the city has done in over 40 years to improve traffic. Now you want to get rid out it. Well i say NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • AlexWithAK

    It’s interesting to watch those who once enjoyed a position of power cling to it as it slips away before their very eyes. Happily, more and more cities are seeing how dreadfully damaging freeways that were rammed through them a half-century ago really are. The war on cars has only begun.


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