Against All Odds: San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway

Few highway projects in the United States have inflamed as many passions and resulted in as volatile a politics as much as San Francisco’s much-hated Embarcadero Freeway — and yet, for 35 years, the freeway stood in spite of the opposition that dominated throughout its history.


Construction of the Embarcadero Freeway, circa 1956.  Note the clock tower on the World Trade Ferry Building in the background.


First, a little historical background: in the immediate period following World War II, every major American city was focused on the future, which included construction of a series of high-speed expressways to connect different parts of the city, so that traveling across a major metropolitan area could be accomplished in minutes instead of the hours it could sometimes take.  San Francisco, like every other city, had plans for a sprawling freeway system that would connect multiple areas of the city together in a web of arterials and interchanges.  One of these links was to construct a freeway that would link the Bay Bridge on the city’s east side with the Golden Gate Bridge in the northwest.  The proposed highway, Interstate 480 (later downgraded to State Route 480 after 1965), was to run along the Embarcadero up until Bay Street (the “Embarcadero Freeway”), at which point the freeway was to turn west, running parallel to Lombard Street before turning northwest to Doyle Drive as it approached the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge (the “Golden Gate Freeway”).


From the beginning the project was mired in controversy and dissent.  Opponents harshly criticized the double-decker freeway for obstructing the view of the San Francisco Bay and the World Trade Ferry Building, one of only a few historical buildings to have survived the city’s  1906 earthquake and subsequent fire.  Also of concern was the probability that the freeway would wreck the natural beauty of the Telegraph Hill neighborhood.  The San Francisco Chronicle took a particularly harsh tone in one of their 1959 editorials:

“We oppose and have consistently opposed the hideous monstrosity which the State Highway Commission built along the Embarcadero in front of the Ferry Building, obscuring the tower and the World Trade Center from view. … Such an evil is the Embarcadero Freeway, which as we said last Friday and here repeat, should be demolished.”

Although initial construction happened at a rapid pace during the mid-1950s, opposition to the Embarcadero Freeway grew strong enough that further construction was halted in January 1959.  Although there were plans to resume construction in 1964, a major protest attended by 200,000 people in Golden Gate Park to protest further freeway construction  within the city dissuaded California transportation officials from embarking any further on the project.



View of “The Stub”, the point at which construction of the freeway was halted, near Broadway.  Note the metal barriers to prevent errant cars from diving over the edge.

In the following years, calls were made to tear down the portion of the Embarcadero Freeway that had already been constructed.  In 1987, a citywide referendum to tear the freeway down was defeated by a nearly 2-1 margin.  Interestingly enough, the greatest opposition to demolishing the freeway came from the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, who feared the loss of an easy-access corridor between the Bay Bridge and their district would have a severely negative effect on business.


Another view of the freeway, facing north near Howard Street.

All this changed on October 17, 1989.  The Loma Prieta earthquake did significant damage to the transport system of the Bay Area, including 42 fatalities as a result of the collapse of the double-decker I-880/Cypress Viaduct in Oakland.  While the Embarcadero Freeway did not collapse, the structural damage was enough for the city to close the freeway due to safety concerns.  Discussion began as to what to do next.


Embarcadero Freeway in 1990, closed after sustaining damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake. Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice

One proposal was to re-build the freeway with stronger supports in order to withstand a higher-magnitude earthquake, but this soon proved impractical as the projected price tag for such a project rapidly escalated.  Art Agnos, the mayor of San Francisco at the time, sensed the city shouldn’t squander “the opportunity of a lifetime,” and campaigned to tear down the freeway.  The Board of Supervisors eventually voted to tear down the freeway by a vote of 6-5, and demolition commenced in February, 1991.

Today, the Embarcadero is open to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, with a ground-level boulevard for cars to pass through.  Many visitors to the area may find it hard to believe that a freeway ever existed there at all.


James Leo Halley, who was once asked about his career on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors during the 1950s and 1960s, was blunt in his assessment:  “I made one mistake. I voted for the Embarcadero Freeway.”


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