1948 San Francisco Trafficways Plan

San Francisco Department of City Planning

In 1947 the Federal Bureau of Public Roads and the National Interregional Highway Committee proposed a plan to construct freeways throughout the country and through established cities. San Francisco was no exception, and was subject to a plan for an elaborate network of expressways that would bisect the city.

The Central Freeway was planned to start at the Bayshore Freeway, run along Webster St and then connect with the Golden Gate Bridge via the Panhandle and Park Presidio St and to connect with the Embarcadero Freeway via Broadway. The Embarcadero Freeway, meanwhile, was planned to connect the Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate Bridge by following along the shoreline.

An initial part of the Central Freeway was opened in 1955, following a revised route alongside Octavia St and ending in ramps at Oak and Fell Streets and at Golden Gate and Turk Streets. An initial portion of the Embarcadero Freeway was completed four years later, connecting with US-101 (the Bay Bridge) and running north as far as Broadway Street, where a stub was constructed to allow the freeway construction to continue further at a later date.

Aerial view of the interchange between US-101 (the Bay Bridge) and the Embarcadero Freeway, before the freeway was destroyed.

Photo by US Geological Survey

There was a resistance to the freeways from the start, but it wasn't until these two structures were built that the objection gained critical mass. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed several measures to halt further freeway construction and they attempted to reverse the construction that had already occured, but this proved politically difficult due to objections from merchants in the Richmond and Sunset districts who feared a loss of business would result from the loss of the freeways.

A Muni streetcar passes under the Central Freeway on Market St, circa 1974.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged both structures, causing them both to be immediately closed. The Central Subway was adapted into a single-deck structure by removing the upper deck and closing the portion north of Fell St, but the earthquake damage was ultimately the deciding factor in the total removal of the entire Embarcadero Freeway and the demolition of the Central Freeway north of Market St by 1996.

The Embarcadero Freeway had an elaborate interchange with US-101 near Folsom St between Essex St and The Embarcadero. This, along with the ramps for the recently-destroyed Transbay Transit Terminal, left several blocks completely unoccupied. This land was used for little more than parking lots for several years, but has at least seen some in-fill development and the construction of the Transbay Temporary Terminal that will provide public transit links to the East Bay until the Transbay Transit Center is completed.

The three-block gorge left by the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway's interchange with US-101. The foreground shows the Transbay Temporary Terminal occupying one of these blocks, but the others remain to be filled.

Photo by Martin Atkins

This corner parking lot, along with another parking lot out of sight under the US-101 deck in the distance, occupy the space previously taken up by the eastbound connection from US-101 to the Embarcadero Freeway.

Photo by Martin Atkins

This building near Essex St once backed onto the Embarcadero Freeway's connector to US-101. All that remains now is a largely-blank wall and, on the other side of the building, the off-ramp that now ends at Fremont St.

Photo by Martin Atkins

The Central Freeway was replaced by a boulevard that accommodates two lanes each way for access to the new freeway ramp at Octavia and Market Streets as well as one lane each way of bike-friendly local access streets. The freeway access lanes are separated from the local lanes by an attractive tree-lined median.

The portion of the Central Freeway north of Market St was originally constructed alongside Octavia St, which remained as a normal city street despite being overshadowed by the freeway. The destruction of the freeway structure therefore left an unusually-wide space that allowed the construction of the 6-lane boulevard that replaced it.

The freeway took up so much space alongside Octavia St that even the new wide Boulevard leaves some some dead space that betrays the former location of the freeway.

Photo by Martin Atkins

Part of the Central Freeway on-ramp on Oak St is still present, and is — along with what remains of the corresponding off-ramp on Fell — now part of a community garden.

Photo by Martin Atkins

Despite the removal of this part of the freeway right after the 1989 earthquake, the connection to Golden Gate St remains a conspicuous gap in the buildings from Hayes all the way to Golden Gate. Some in-fill construction has started, but much of this land is still used only for parking.

Photo by Martin Atkins