Guest Commentary: Cut Out a Cancer on San Francisco

Removing the Central Freeway is essential for San Francisco to reach its 21st century climate, transit, and housing goals.

The Central Freeway over Duboce Street looking toward Valencia Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick
The Central Freeway over Duboce Street looking toward Valencia Street. Photo: Aaron Bialick

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For over six decades, the Central Freeway has blighted the heart of San Francisco, as it looms over 13th and Division Streets. Four of the ten most dangerous intersections in the city are either part of or underneath the freeway. Motor vehicle pollution along the overpass, and other neighboring freeways, pose serious health hazards for the thousands of residents and workers who live and work nearby. Its presence blocks essential benefits, such as desperately needed new housing, an expansion of public transit, and new green space. It is indeed a cancer for San Francisco. 

An excision is in order.  

It has long been City policy to study and explore alternatives to the Central Freeway. San Francisco’s upcoming Housing Element calls for an analysis of Central Freeway removal, as does a previous Transportation Element. A significant section of the Central Freeway, which ran above current Octavia Blvd, has already been removed. There are no calls to resurrect it, of course. That would be absurd. A few years before that section of the Central Freeway was removed, the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down as well. Again – nobody wants to bring back the Embarcadero Freeway. The complete removal of the remaining Central Freeway stub will yield the same result. 

In early August 2022, I was walking underneath the Central Freeway overpass, on my way to meet friends in SoMa. It was a walk I had done countless times before, as I have lived in the neighborhood for nearly twenty years. I gazed up at the Central Freeway structure above, and scanned my surroundings along Division Street. A foreign thought was suddenly obvious: I should launch a local campaign to tear down this monstrosity.

Vision Blvd was formed.  

My first instinct was to reach out to as many local neighborhood associations, political action groups, non-profits, city planners, and politicians as possible. I received plenty of enthusiasm, which felt unbelievably encouraging. I pressed forward.  

Eventually, Senator Scott Wiener and his office expressed support. The senator publicly endorsed the removal of the Central Freeway on September 12th, 2022, just over a month after I began this effort, and just a couple months before he penned a letter to Caltrans, requesting an analysis of potential Central Freeway removal. Many local organizations signed on. Meanwhile, San Francisco architects are working on Central Freeway removal designs right now. We all eagerly await Caltrans’ response.  

Given the local interest towards freeway removal within San Francisco, and given the current national interest in freeway removal, it is near impossible for me to stop this effort. In my mind, the Central Freeway’s ultimate removal is inevitable. 

Once the Central Freeway is removed, we will see a dangerous and dysfunctional urban corridor transformed into a thriving and beautiful neighborhood hub, filled with abundant new housing, new small businesses and shops, public transit, and cyclists making good use of a modernized boulevard that is safe and inviting. Traffic congestion will be mitigated, and car dependency will be reduced. New parks will be added in a part of the city that is afforded the least amount of green space in all of San Francisco. New entertainment venues will provide art, music, and other performance spaces. Perhaps most importantly, the residents of the surrounding areas, many of whom are from the City’s most vulnerable communities, will no longer be exposed to toxic freeway pollution that has been well-documented to cause serious health problems. San Francisco deserves this, and we can accomplish it without disrupting any of the residents,  such as myself, and the businesses that currently live and operate nearby.

So, let’s not wait around for a tectonic event to decide the fate of the Central Freeway. As we march towards meeting important climate, transit, and housing goals of the 21st century, it is time for San Francisco to remove the Central Freeway once and for all, and be a model for the entire nation.

That’s the San Francisco that everyone wants to live in.

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Daniel Owens is an SFUSD high school educator who has worked in education since 2008. He has lived in the Mission District for nearly twenty years.

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