John Norquist: “Time to Talk About a Freeway-Free San Francisco”

Brian Vargo's "Highlink," a winning entry in a design competition called "What if 280 came down?" held by the Center for Architecture + Design. Image via ##

San Francisco is considered one of the leading American cities in the growing movement to tear down freeways. Fortunately, San Franciscans got a head start by averting the freeway-riddled fate of most other American cities in the 20th century by successfully protesting the construction of most of the proposed structures, which would have torn apart some of the city’s most livable neighborhoods.

John Norquist. Photo: ## for Public Spaces##

But John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, wonders why SF doesn’t just go all the way and take down the few that were raised. “If you didn’t want them to build the ones they didn’t build, then why do you want to keep the ones that did get built?” says Norquist. “It’s time to start talking about a freeway-free San Francisco.”

Norquist, the former Milwaukee mayor who took a freeway down in his tenure, flew into SF for a panel discussion held last night called “Freeways Without Futures,” where he made the case that freeways have only degraded the value of cities where they’ve been built, and that cities that have removed or avoided building the structures have generally thrived because of it.

With Mayor Ed Lee’s office pushing for the removal of the northern spur of highway 280, replacing the elevated structure with a boulevard and opening up room for housing development seems like a no-brainer. It would be the city’s third freeway removal, and the first one prompted not by damage from an earthquake, but by the benefits it would bring to the economy (as well as the engineering solutions it would open up for the construction of high-speed rail).

Norquist pointed to Vancouver as a city on the North American west coast that never built freeways near its downtown, has decreased car traffic even as its population grows, and which has “the best appreciation of real estate value in North America over the last 20 years.” By contrast, Detroit has gone bankrupt trying to expand freeways in its never-ending quest to eliminate car congestion.

Image: ## Cityscape##

The fatal flaw in the rationale behind freeways is the mistaken belief that building separated structures for cars can effectively whisk traffic through dense urban areas, says Norquist. The actual result is that freeways clog up with traffic “when they’re needed most,” he said.

Meanwhile, building street-level boulevards and allowing traffic to distribute through a street grid allows travelers more choices in the routes they take and the modes of transport they use, resulting in far less congestion while preserving the livability and economic value of urban neighborhoods.

Some amount of car traffic is also induced by the construction of freeways and seemingly disappears when they’re gone. A 1998 study of international cities found that amount to be between 14 and 25 percent, on average.

Essentially, urban freeways just don’t solve the problems they set out to address, and often make them worse, while costing a lot of money and doing damage to a city’s livability and economic vitality. “The freeway is a rural form. It doesn’t belong in the city,” said Norquist. “It concentrates traffic and creates congestion at the nodes.”

Just imagine if San Francisco had built freeways over the Panhandle, through the Mission, and over the Marina — all of which were proposed. By tearing down highways 101 and 280, SF could “re-insert the urban complexity,” as Norquist called it.

“You can change history,” he said. “Things can go really rotten, or things can go better.”

To hear more from Norquist on freeway removal, take a moment to revisit a chapter from our Streetfilms series “Moving Beyond the Automobile”:

  • Nathanael

    “But a portion of traffic from north of San Mateo Bridge and south of the
    Richmond San Rafael Bridge,”
    This just can’t a significant amount. Put them on local roads.

    The traffic in San Francisco, off the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County is, one would expect, mostly going to San Francisco, not through it. Perhaps some of it is commuter traffic to the Silicon Valley companies — that really ought to be on rail and ferries. Very little of it is real intercity driving, which would be on 880.

    “as well as Sonoma and Marin residents using
    SMART, Ferry and BART, surely? Who wants to drive all the way to an airport and pay airport parking rates?

    “most logically pass through San Francisco.”
    But this just isn’t significant.

  • Nathanael

    The border of San Francisco is just south of Bayshore Caltrain and just north of Daly City BART.

    The freeways in San Francisco are:

    (1) the worthless Central Freeway;
    (2) the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge;
    (3) CA 280, which serves no long-distance purpose and parallels BART;
    (4) the Bayshore Freeway (US 101 and I-80), whose long-distance purpose is to funnel cars from San Mateo onto the overcrowded Bay Bridge. If this were severed, they would use the San Mateo Bridge, which would be better. It parallels Caltrain.

    There is no need for any of the freeways within San Francisco proper. I wouldn’t start trying to rip them out of San Mateo, though.

  • Nathanael

    Hey! Maybe you could put the Key System trains back on the Bay Bridge…. like they used to be….

  • Nathanael

    Serious industrial land needs freight rail service and barge service, not freeways.

  • Angelmuso

    “There needs to be options for people traveling through The City that are not going to stop.”
    If you are not stopping but going through to the other side, why would
    city residents have an obligation to accommodate those who do not live
    in the city and do not pay taxes? Would you like it if someone walks
    through your living room every time they want to get to the house on
    the other side? I say if you are not stopping, go around. I.e., build the
    road outside the city, as roads are meant to do, to connect different
    cities and towns to each other.

    “Separating local traffic from freeway traffic would make a significant difference.”
    That was the idea behind the freeway, and as the research, the article above, and decades of
    traffic jams show, it hasn’t worked. Funneling amounts of people to one entrance and exit option
    (a freeway) creates more of a crowd. Like the lines at Disneyland, a supermarket or a
    bank with few tellers or cashiers. Everyone is funneled through one or two ropes, hence creating lines, where they stand upset, waiting forever for what’s going to take you a few minutes to
    pay; and fuming at how cheap the establishment is for not paying enough
    cashiers. And then there’s Whole Foods. It’s a huge market yet they use
    multiple cashiers all the time. And the bigger ones have several
    entrances and cashiers on both sides of the supermarket. Hence you see
    little lines.

    The best way to handle large
    crowds is dividing and dispersing them. It works for riot control, as the police and military know well, and it works for traffic. The smart thing is to create multiple entrances
    and exits with multiple ways of going through (car, bus, train, bike,
    walking, etc.) to multiple destinations. And if you provide multiple entrances and exits to multiple ends, there is
    no need to distinguish between local and through traffic.

  • jnr2223

    Dismantling the United States. Bit by bit.

  • murphstahoe

    That’s what the South said in 1860.

    The US is never dismantled. It changes via Democracy. If you don’t like the specific changes that’s a bummer for you, but it means that the US is in fact functioning as designed.

  • jnr2223

    Oh, I have no problem with changes via democracy, not a bit. However – this movement is tied in with the so-called ‘New Urbanism’ grand plan for cities around the planet. This is really a corporate-cult scheme for their vision of how WE, the people will live. WE, the people, aren’t in on it. The cult is nothing more than the same old, same old scheme to fleece the sheeple. If you think living in their ‘new urbanism’ fiefdom is great – more power to you.


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