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Imagining a Bay Area Free of Freeways

Local urban planners are dreaming of freeway-less cities. Let the bulldozers roll.

Among the roads highway critics are targeting: I-980 in Oakland and I-280 in San Francisco.

If and when Congress makes good on President Trump’s pledge to overhaul the country’s transportation infrastructure, authorities should use the bulldozer as well as the paver. So say a vocal coterie of urban planners who, rather than advocating for new or widened thoroughfares, are hoping to euthanize poorly situated roads—like the Embarcadero Freeway, which was torn down in 1990, and the part of the Central Freeway removed in 2003. So when local planners gathered in June for a two-day confab at SPUR’s Oakland branch to consider the fate of urban highways, they cast their eyes on a number of local roadways.

I-980, Oakland
For years, pressure has been building to better use the space currently occupied by I-980 downtown. The vision that seems to have gained traction inside city hall is a two-part plan: It calls for, over the next 10 years or so, turning I-980 into a surface-level boulevard; then, in ensuing decades, creating transit tunnels beneath it to connect to a second transbay tube for BART and high-speed rail lines. That plan, first articulated by Chris Sensenig and his group Connect Oakland, will likely be included in the next Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, officially making it a city priority.

I-280, San Francisco
Since 2012, when it first floated the idea of demolishing the final mile of I-280 that juts into SoMa, the city’s planning commission has been studying the possibility of removing the freeway and building new rail lines underground to link the two Caltrain stations to the Central Subway. Such a move would also connect Mission Bay, Potrero Hill, and SoMa and free up some 24 acres of land for development. It’s an idea endorsed by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in its “2017 Freeways Without Futures” top-10 list of ill-fated roads, though some, including ex-mayor Art Agnos, have called the plan a nonstarter.

Central Freeway, San Francisco
Time and history have largely validated the once-contentious demolition of the 1.5-mile stretch of the Central Freeway over what’s now Octavia Boulevard. But there’s still more left to prune. In city planning parlance, what remains of the Central Freeway is a classic “stub”—a short road that leads, basically, nowhere. Removing it, as the CNU calls for in its 2015 “Freeway-Free San Francisco” report, would be the consummation of the freeway revolt movement and would finally erase for good what was always an ill-conceived road.

I-580 and I-880, Oakland
Activists say that Oakland’s two major freeways physically separate the city’s poorest neighborhoods from its more affluent ones, cleaving Oakland in two. Removing them would be a radical change—with potentially radical benefits. Phil Erickson, president of Community Design + Architecture, says that removing I-980 and a portion of I-880 downtown would create “this really intense downtown mixed-use core, surrounded by great neighborhoods.”

Farther east, I-580 encroaches on Lake Merritt and cuts a gash through East Oakland. Removing it, activists say, would help to reintegrate that neighborhood with the rest of the city.

Business I-80 and I-5, Sacramento
The Bay Area isn’t the only place where activists want to tear down roadways. In Sacramento, two ideas have been floated. Bike-and pedestrian-focused activists are looking at a stretch of I-5 that cuts downtown off from Old Sacramento, hoping to drop it into a subterranean trench and put a deck over it. They are also hoping to remove a two-mile section of Business 80, restoring it to surface streets.


Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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