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 May 30, 2023 at 12:00 AM PDT

S1: At home for the Giants , one of the most spectacular vistas on this continent , any continent.

S2: October 17th , 1989 , Baseball fans across the country are tuning in to watch game three of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's for the.

S1: First time in 27 years. A World Series game will be played in Candlestick Park. The Battle of the Bay continues.

S2: Evening rush hour was relatively light that day. People had left work early so they could watch the game , and those who did may have saved their own lives. At 5:04 p.m..

S3: Second base , so the Oakland A's take. Take.

UU: Take. I'll tell you what , we're having an earth.

S2: The broadcast goes dead and everyone watching in the Bay Area immediately knew why. A 6.9 magnitude earthquake had struck near Loma Prieta , a peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Jose.

UU: There has been a power failure. Therefore , the game will be postponed.

S2: The shaking was so powerful , people felt it as far away as San Diego and western Nevada. In the Bay Area , apartment buildings collapsed , fires broke out from ruptured gas pipelines. And most disturbingly.

S4: That is the cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway. And you can see , oh , my God , look at that. The freeway has just completely collapsed.

S2: From Kpbs in San Diego. This is Freeway Exit , a podcast about the past , present and future of our freeways. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 killed 63 people , injured thousands , caused billions in property damage , and from the ashes and rubble emerged some very important lessons. Many of the freeways built during the boom years of the 50s and 60s were not safe , and fixing them with earthquake protections would be extraordinarily expensive , but tearing them down. Not only was that cheaper. It also presented a golden opportunity to build something better. San Francisco decommissioned not one , but two freeways after the earthquake. And if you're listening from San Diego , maybe you're thinking , sure , that's San Francisco , where even the most radical ideas are embraced by the mainstream. But these freeway removals were not an easy sell. They were extremely controversial at the time , and it literally took an earthquake to force the city to think outside the box. So were these projects just a blip in history , something that can only happen in San Francisco ? Or is there a lesson here for the rest of us ? Stay tuned.

S5: Now boarding at Amsterdam.

S2: The first San Francisco freeway to come down after the 1989 earthquake was the Embarcadero Freeway. Go to the Embarcadero today and the first thing you'll notice is the ferry building with its stunning neoclassical clock tower. You'll also notice the panoramic views of San Francisco Bay , the Golden Gate Bridge , the Bay Bridge , Alcatraz before it was torn down in the early 90s , the Embarcadero Freeway blocked all of that.

S6: And it was noisy , it was gritty. It was not a safe feeling place.

S2: Robert Rivero is a retired professor of city planning at UC Berkeley. He published a paper in 2009 on the impacts of removing the Embarcadero Freeway. He says Bay Area freeways developed very differently from those in Southern California , where land was more abundant.

S6: San Francisco was so land scarce it would be hard to lay eight lanes at surface level , so they stack them at least 60 70ft high. So when we talk about noise impacts and headlight glare and spraying fumes , it was significant because it was such a large structure.

S2: But as unpleasant as the Embarcadero Freeway was for pedestrians , for drivers , it was a great way to get from the East bay to downtown San Francisco.

S6: You'd be driving the waterfront and you could see all the Transamerica Tower and you could see all the lights of the city. So it was quite spectacular looking at night. But what was beneficial to the motorist , to people on the street , was an eyesore.

S2: The Embarcadero Freeway didn't totally collapse during the earthquake like the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland , but it wasn't safe to drive on. After the earthquake , there was an intense debate in San Francisco about what to do next. The mayor at the time favored the cheapest option , tearing it down. But Caltrans wanted to rebuild it.

S6: The projection you heard from Caltrans engineers is you would have massive gridlock with very high economic costs. And , you know , the nature of this game is you can spend these numbers in so many ways based on the assumptions that you build into your models and analysis.

S2: The San Francisco Board of Supervisors ultimately voted six five to demolish the Embarcadero Freeway and replace it with a surface boulevard. Over time , the city added wider sidewalks , bike lanes and a light rail line. Now the area is a thriving tourist destination and the doomsday traffic scenarios predicted by Caltrans never materialized. To understand why , let's go back to something we talked about in episode two how widening freeways does not fix congestion. It's a bit counterintuitive. Add some more lanes to a freeway and you'd think traffic would go faster. It actually does for a short period of time , maybe a couple of years. But then people start making trips they otherwise wouldn't have. More cars end up on the road and traffic ends up right where it was before the freeway was widened. Sometimes it gets worse. Policy wonks call this phenomenon induced demand or induced travel. Turns out the flip side is also true when a freeway loses a couple lanes or is removed entirely. Traffic might get worse in the short term , but there's only so much congestion people are willing to tolerate. Consider what you would do. Let's say there's a store across town where you'd like to shop , but one day the road you normally take is closed and it takes twice as long to get there. There's a good chance you'll decide it's just not worth it. So you go to a store closer by. There's a term for this phenomenon to traffic evaporation. It's been observed in freeway removal projects around the world. Surveys after the Embarcadero Freeway demolition showed some people just avoided driving to that area. Others switched to Bart , the Bay Area's commuter rail system.

S6: And that wasn't just short lived. It held at least a few years into when the surveys were done. I think the lesson partly is you just don't tear down a freeway and call it a day. And in business as usual , you've got to have a lot of other respectable mobility options and choices.

S2: Robert's study found replacing freeways with more pedestrian friendly boulevards doesn't just reduce car travel and increase transit ridership. It also impacts development. The Embarcadero Freeway had massive off ramps that took up several city blocks. Tearing those down allowed for new apartment and office buildings , both on the land that used to be the freeway and in the adjacent neighborhoods that had long suffered from blight. Robert says this case study shows freeway removal can help accomplish a central component of our climate goals redirecting growth from car centric suburbs to dense , walkable cities.

S6: There still will be a lot of stuff happening in the suburbs and the freeways , but there's clearly a growing market demographic that wants to be in walkable , vibrant urban districts. So to me that's the bigger effect is that development that otherwise would be in a more auto oriented suburban setting now stays in urban centers.

S2: Coming up , a second freeway comes down and the story of that freeway isn't over. By all accounts , removing the Embarcadero Freeway was a huge success. And it's a very similar story with another San Francisco freeway damaged by the earthquake. The Central Freeway. I'm standing in Patricia's green. It's a little park in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. There are probably 3 or 4 dozen people here sitting on park benches , talking with their friends , drinking coffee. And then there's this pretty trippy public art installation with six very tall , skinny cats , each with a collar that lights up and makes noises when you walk around it. I later learned this art installation is called Cat Henge. It first premiered at Burning Man , very San Francisco. As trippy as it is , though , even trippier is how much this neighborhood has changed since the Central Freeway was taken down and replaced with a surface boulevard and how plenty of people in San Francisco thought things would be better if the freeway had been rebuilt before the 89 earthquake. Hayes Valley was a hotbed for crime , flush with liquor stores and auto shops. It took a lot of organizing and two ballot measures , but the city ultimately decided the damaged sections of the Central Freeway should be demolished. After that happened in the 90s and the early aughts , more restaurants and cafes moved in. There was a lot more foot traffic. Noise went down , the lighting got better , and all of that worked to make the neighborhood a lot safer. Some of the land occupied by the freeway was set aside for affordable housing. Other lots were sold to developers , with the proceeds going toward infrastructure improvements. But unlike the Embarcadero Freeway , most of the Central Freeway is still standing. Tell me where we are right now.

S7: We are walking right under Central Freeway at the corner of South Venice. The overpass is right above us and we're standing at the boulevard underneath the freeway. So you can hear the booming acoustic sound. That's very unpleasant.

S2: Theresa Jan is an urban planner with the firm Multi Studio. She's showing me around the one mile section of the Central Freeway that still remains.

S7: So it's pretty special to have. If we were to build a metal , you should have concrete deck above for the rigidity.

S2: As the name implies , the Central Freeway is situated near the center of San Francisco. It acts as a barrier between the Soma neighborhood to the north and the Mission District to the south. If you've been listening to this entire series , I'm guessing I don't have to list all the things that make this area unpleasant and dangerous. Teresa is part of a coalition that wants to finish what the earthquake started and remove the rest of the Central Freeway. Teresa spent most of her childhood in Taiwan before moving to the East bay suburbs as a teenager.

S7: One thing that struck me is how much life is so different between an urban setting where I grew up in Taiwan versus suburban. I'm like the worst driver ever. So if I could just walk and take transit and , you know , do all that , I would be happy.

S2: Teresa helped develop three concepts for decommissioning the Central Freeway. The options range from keeping most of the freeway in place and converting it into an elevated linear park to tearing the whole thing down all 25 acres and starting from scratch.

S7: Caltrans and the city could work together and really just build housing. We can remove certain chunk of the freeway , so then you can bring more daylight down to the ground. There are already ramps that you can bring a food truck up there. The lack of open space is evident in this neighborhood as well. So really thinking about how does it become both recreational spaces and also outdoor educational spaces for the K-12 population here that desperately needed for the young family.

S2: Teresa's job is to think about what cities will need to thrive in the 21st century. How can we get around without fossil fuels ? How can we adapt to more extreme and unpredictable weather ? And how can we fit more people in cities where there's less need for fossil fuels while simultaneously improving the quality of life ? The way Teresa sees it , pruning back our network of urban freeways is part of the solution to all of those things.

S7: We need this valuable land , whether it is to house more housing , has more public amenities to house , more healthy , more convenient way to get around the city , to reconnect the neighborhood. It's what we're going for.

S2: The campaign to remove the rest of the Central Freeway has been gaining steam lately , and it got a big boost with an endorsement from State Senator Scott Wiener.

S8: I represent San Francisco and northern San Mateo County and the California State Senate. And before that I served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

S2: Wiener is a powerful player in state politics. He chairs the Senate's housing committee , and he's proposed some of the most ambitious housing and transportation bills of anyone in the legislature. In the fall of 2022. Wiener sent a letter to Caltrans asking it to work with the city of San Francisco on removing the Central freeway.

S8: You know , Caltrans has definitely evolved in its approach. It used to be a very highway freeway focused agency. I think it's recently become much more multimodal. So I'm sure we'll get a thoughtful response from the department about what the costs Et-cetera would would be.

S2: The timing for Wigner's letter was not an accident. President Biden's bipartisan infrastructure law included funding for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program. It's been giving out grants to local and state governments for planning and executing freeway removal projects in disadvantaged communities. Caltrans is even setting up its own freeway removal program before the Central Freeway can be removed , though Weiner says the coalition has to build more public support.

S8: I've gotten an enormous amount of support and positive energy from the San Francisco community. There are people who are concerned , and so I don't want to pretend like it's unanimous. It's not. And when we took down the Embarcadero Freeway in the Central Freeway back in the day , there was a lot of controversy around that. And there will be around this.

S2: I spent a good amount of time walking around where the Embarcadero and central freeways used to be , talking to tourists and locals , and most of them had no idea those spaces used to be occupied by freeways. The city did such a good job of getting rid of them that the history of their existence seems to have been mostly forgotten. Theresa Jan says maybe that's a reason to keep parts of the Central Freeway in place. Not for driving , but as a monument to the past.

S7: Down the line. In the future , maybe , like , our grandkids wouldn't know anything about this freeway , but they have something to look at. I remember once upon a time there was if we were here , but we found a better solution with it.

S2: So back to the question I posed at the start. Is freeway removal something that can only happen in a place like San Francisco , or can it happen anywhere ? Will it always take a natural disaster to get the ball rolling , or can we make the decision on our own ? Next time on Freeway exit. We'll take a look at what ideas are being contemplated in San Diego , including a freeway removal project that already won unanimous support from the mayor and city council , but has since been stuck in limbo.

S9: So the connectors would need to come down. That's that cost money , right ? I mean , that's really what it kind of comes down to. I know that this work is going to outlive me. Like I know that future generations will come and continue the work that I've been doing. Like I came in continuing the work that other folks.

UU: Have been doing.

S2: Freeway exit is produced by me , Andrew Bohn and edited by David Washburn with support from Clare Trager and Elizabeth Haymes. Mix and Sound Design by Emily Jankowski. If you like this podcast and want to spread the word , tell your friends about it. You can also help more people find it by leaving us a rating and review. And you can support this work by making a donation at Thanks for listening.

A devastating earthquake forces San Francisco to consider the radical notion of tearing a freeway down.

A devastating earthquake forces San Francisco to consider the radical notion of tearing a freeway down. The results are wildly successful: The Embarcadero Freeway is replaced with a transit and pedestrian-friendly boulevard. The Central Freeway's removal revitalizes a neighborhood and improves safety. Some activists want to finish what the earthquake started.