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San Diego's first freeway

 May 9, 2023 at 9:00 AM PDT

S1: It's a few hours before sundown and I'm walking through a network of hiking trails along the floor of one of San Diego's urban canyons. This canyon is part of Balboa Park , which is referred to as the city's crown jewel. 1200 acres of open space gardens , museums , the world famous zoo. Right in the center of the city. These trails are one of my favorite places in San Diego. The walls of the canyon make you feel totally immersed in nature. Sometimes you can see hummingbirds , drinking from the wildflowers and darting around the tree canopy , chasing after insects. Canyons are part of what makes San Diego special. There are little pockets of peace and quiet inside a metropolis of 1.4 million people.

S2: You know , the way the canyons kind of reach up into the neighborhoods. I've always enjoyed.

S1: My hiking buddy. This afternoon is Briar Marsh. He's a local architect with a warm smile and salt and pepper hair that he pulls back into a ponytail. He also sits on the Balboa Park Committee , which advises the city on park matters. Like me , he has a deep appreciation for urban canyons. They've been a refuge for him since he first came to San Diego in 2001.

S2: There's one near my first job over and Mission Hills where I could go and walk down it and lunch and you wouldn't know that you were in the middle of a city. Even as we were walking down the trail. Like you would have no idea that there's a freeway about 500ft away.

S1: Not just any freeway. The Cabrillo Freeway , aka State Route 163. These trails lead right up to it. And as you approach the canyons , tranquility gradually devolves into this. The 163 is a freeway unlike any other in San Diego. For starters , it was the first freeway ever built here , and it's the only one in the city that was subject to a referendum. Up until the 40 seconds , Cabrillo Canyon had just a two lane road. There was also a lily pond. The vote to allow a freeway through the canyon was held in March 1941. It passed with 89% support. One of the biggest landslides in city history.

S2: My feeling at that time was progress was a word that people took seriously. San Diego was a much smaller town , and the idea of it growing and becoming better financially compete with its neighbors up the state and become more of a player on the map is something that we still feel. We still talk about ourselves in terms of how we relate to San Francisco or Los Angeles. If you try and sell progress to people that want to be bigger or better , they're going to buy it. It's an easy sell. I guess is what I'm saying.

S1: The 163 then called Cabrillo Parkway , opened on February 28th , 1948.

S2: There was a parade or a procession that drove down the freeway for the first time. And when this sort of inaugural procession cleared the off ramps , the barriers would be taken down. And there were lines of cars , people in cars waiting to go drive on the new freeway and they were instantly caught in traffic. There was so much interest in so much excitement about traveling on this new high speed roadway that it was just a traffic jam.

S1: Kind of ironic , right ? A freeway whose main purpose was to relieve traffic saw gridlock the moment it opened. Anyway , Breyer has an affection for this freeway. You can see its age in the design. The barriers separating the lanes from the landscaped median aren't concrete , like with most freeways , their wood posts just a few feet high.

S2: Newer freeways have a larger right of way , bigger setbacks. They tend to have dividers between the road and houses , fences on the bridges to keep people from throwing things or jumping off them. The standards that this freeway was built with. Um. Well , there were no standards , really.

S1: The walls of Cabrillo Canyon are blanketed in wildflowers. And then there's the view of Cabrillo Bridge with its seven Spanish style arches , towering 120ft in the air. It was built in 1914 to connect Balboa Park's West and central mesas over the canyon.

S2: I had an old motorcycle and I used to ride it down the 163 to downtown and then back up to Hillcrest when I was playing with carburetor settings and I loved it. I mean , it's a really lovely road to ride on. It has that that quality that only old roads have. It's the way they draw the arcs and the curves and the ups and the downs of the road surface that modern engineers intentionally avoid. And there's also that moment where you pass under the bridge and you can kind of hear the echo of the exhaust , and it's exhilarating.

S1: One day in 2014 , Rare got a chance to experience the 163 on a completely different level. The part of the freeway that goes through Balboa Park was closed for a construction project. Breyer was going for a run just before dawn , and for the first time ever , he saw the freeway with no cars on it.

S2: I just kind of went through an opening and went for a walk down to check out what was happening. And I would say it was like going back in time a little bit , the quiet and , you know , the early morning light. And I don't know how to describe it , but there's something about being in a space where you're not allowed to be any longer because of the infrastructure that's been put there , that it kind of gets you thinking about what you're missing out on. I don't want to say in that moment I thought , hey , this needs to change. That's not that's not true. It it was like the start of an idea , right ? An idea that I didn't really think about more until I went to architecture school and started learning more about cities and the urban environment.

S1: So tell me what this idea is.

S2: The short version of the idea is that the 163 should be closed.

S1: From KPBS in San Diego. This is Freeway Exit. I'm Andrew Bowen. In this series , we're looking at how San Diego's relationship with the freeway has changed over time and how it will have to change in the future to accommodate a growing population that's sick and tired of being stuck in traffic. To reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and leave a better planet for our kids and grandkids , and to heal the wounds that freeways have inflicted on people and neighborhoods. What's the most extreme route to those objectives ? Decommissioning. Closing a freeway to traffic. If that sounds crazy to you , consider this. San Diego has committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Hitting that goal in 12 years will require changes to our behavior and our infrastructure that are so colossal , so dramatically different from what we know now. It's hard to wrap our heads around it. But let's try. More after a short break. Stay with us. Net zero greenhouse gas emissions means no new greenhouse gases sent into the atmosphere. Cars could still burn gasoline , but all of their emissions would have to be recaptured either the old fashioned way , using trees and photosynthesis or using carbon capture technology that doesn't exist yet , at least not at scale. Now , the city does plan on planting more trees , though it's not happening fast enough. And the trees we already have aren't always well maintained. And it would take literally hundreds of millions of new trees to fully offset the city's carbon footprint. So what's a more realistic pathway to carbon neutrality ? Reducing emissions to the point where everything that we emit is reabsorbed by the natural environment. Most of our emissions come from transportation about 55%. And while electric vehicles will reduce emissions somewhat , there won't be nearly enough. Thousands of people are buying brand new gas powered vehicles today , and they'll be on the road for decades past our deadline of 2035. The unavoidable truth is that San Diego needs to dramatically reduce the amount of driving that takes place on its streets and freeways. And that shift needs to happen fast , like yesterday.

S2: As a city and as a society , I think we're moving past the era of abundant freeways. I think people are coming to the realization that cars are having a significant impact on our environment , a negative impact on our cities , Despite all of the great opportunity they provide , we can't ignore the social and environmental impacts that.

UU: Come along with them.

S1: Decommission is a word you've probably heard in reference to naval ships or maybe an old power plant. It's when a society says this public asset has served its purpose , we don't need it anymore and it's time to turn it over to another use. Seoul , South Korea decommissioned a freeway and turned the land back into a natural stream. Rochester , New York decommissioned part of its inner loop highway and turned it into a boulevard. There was enough space left over to build more than 500 homes , most of them affordable. On the 163 , Breyer isn't suggesting we decommission the entire freeway , just the roughly two mile stretch that goes through Balboa Park. When he tells people about this idea , the typical reaction he gets is horror. Why would you close this freeway ? How would I get anywhere without it ? Where he tries to steer the conversation is what would go in the freeways place.

S2: When you start talking about taking space away from cars , people want to fill it with things that they they think that are missing , that are missing from the neighborhood and from the city.

S1: For most of us , freeways have always been there. I know they've played a big role in my life. I grew up in Santa Rosa , a small city north of San Francisco , and I remember when I got my first car , it was a 1992 champagne colored Toyota Camry. It had a cassette player and those automatic seatbelts that slide forward when you open the door. The idea that I could just get behind the wheel , hop on the freeway and be in San Francisco in an hour. It was liberating. Then I moved to Chicago to go to college and I didn't have a car. And suddenly freeways weren't all that relevant to me anymore. After college , I moved to Germany , and for the six years that I lived there , I never once got behind the wheel of a car. I didn't need to. Moving to San Diego in 2015 and having to buy a car again and drive on the freeways almost every day gave me some serious reverse culture shock. Devin.

S3: Devin.


S1: Who.

S5: Who.

S4: Get back on San Vicente , take it to the ten , the touch over to the 405 north and let it dump you out onto Mulholland. You black.

S1: That sketch still cracks me up because I've had so many conversations like this that revolve around freeways. They're deeply ingrained into our culture. So of course , it seems radical to talk about chipping away at that system , even for just a few miles. But like I said , if San Diego is really committed to taking action on climate change , it has to cut back on driving by a lot. And freeways are the backbone of our car culture. Hey , man. To people like Julie Corrales. Freeways are also symbols of inequality and division.

S6: You can get the food.

S1: This neighborhood used to be a lot bigger before I-5 split it down the middle. Julie is an organizer with the Environmental Health Coalition , or HC. It's a nonprofit that works to reduce pollution and improve the health and well-being of people in underserved communities. This is a meeting of one of FCC's community advisory teams , which try to get regular people involved in policymaking. I love it. I love it. That's the best. Julie has an infectious laugh. Her friendly banter with the group make it clear she absolutely loves her job forever.

S7: First of all , it took me like two.

S8: I'm just messing with you , sis.

S1: After some eating and socializing , the group gets down to business.

S9: Has anyone heard of Boston Avenue Park ? Yeah. Yeah.

S10: Yeah. I'm so excited. So l park Estamos de.

S11: In the Boston area.

S1: In about a week , Caltrans is going to break ground on a new park in Barrio Logan , the section of Greater Logan Heights that was cut off by I-5. The park will go along a long , skinny strip of land that nudges up against the freeway. Julie is hoping everyone will go to the press conference to show their support.

S12: I've been trying to vision that park and I just can't see it yet. I mean , I think that's.

S10: Why the tour is going to be so great because we're going to walk the space and it's it's a really big space. It's all ice plant right now. Yeah , there's going to be a plaza like a like a stage and a plaza. Basketball courts , community gardens.

S1: The group is clearly excited about getting a new park in a neighborhood that is seriously lacking in green space. And they're already thinking bigger. They don't want to stop at the edge of the freeway. They want a park that stretches over the freeway and reconnects the two sides of Logan Heights that have been divided for more than 60 years. A freeway lid. Still ahead , Julie shares how freeways have been haunting her since childhood. Stay tuned. Julie has lived in Barrio Logan for eight years , but she grew up in a nearby community that's had a very similar experience with Freeways City Heights.

S10: Daughter of migrants , right. Poor was very impacted by by the criminal justice system at an early age. And I didn't know what the school to prison pipeline was called , but I knew what it was.

S1: City Heights in the 80s and 90s was heavily impacted by State Route 15. Since the 60 seconds , Caltrans had planned to build an extension of Interstate 15 through the neighborhood , but for various reasons that we'll get into later , they took a really long time to build it. The state seized properties , evicted all the residents and businesses , demolished buildings , but the land for the freeway sat vacant for years. Even before it became a freeway. The 15 was already dividing City Heights.

S10: I remember we would like bike around the neighborhood and then we'd get up to 40th Street and then we'd all just wait for each other so we could cross like this deserted area together because it was scary and it was dark. I mean , it was not lit , but as a child , I didn't understand the impacts of pollution , like the pollution that freeways brought. But I always understood , like the separation and the devastation that they brought.

S1: Julie's understanding of freeways and pollution came after she moved to Barrio Logan as an adult.

S10: I remember the first workshop that I went to when I learned about the health impacts of particulate matter and how they're finding it in the brains of Alzheimer's patients , and they're connecting it to behavioral problems and how our communities have like a life that's average ten years shorter , right ? And our asthma rate visits and all this stuff like we're getting killed slowly. And I remember just crying at the workshop and saying , like , we're fighting all these fights. We're fighting for immigration rates , we're fighting for against police brutality. We're fighting all these things. And we're slowly we're just slowly being killed and not even knowing about it. And and so I came to work for HRC and just been focusing on highlighting that fight ever since.

S1: There's a term for the kind of pattern Julie noticed in the ways that freeways impacted the communities she's lived in environmental racism. It's when people in positions of power choose to place unwanted land , uses landfills , heavy industry , freeways in low income communities of color , the communities that are least able to fight back. That's what happened with Barrio Logan. First , I-5 was built through the neighborhood in the early 60s. Then in the 70s , the city changed the zoning to allow all kinds of polluting businesses. Junkyards and chemical supply companies popped up right next to homes , creating some of the worst air quality in California. Julie says the city and state have barely started the work of trying to repair that harm. Someday she would love to see I-5 decommissioned , but she knows it'll take a while.

S10: Boston Avenue Linear Park that we're planning is and working with Caltrans in the city. It's essentially the beginning of that dream. When we talk about it in community , we say , Oh , and then eventually it'll reach all the way across. And then eventually maybe there'll be some housing over the freeway and eventually. Right , Like eventually is , is our , our dream. But yeah , I mean , let's start with that lid. It can happen , right ? Like soon. Like really soon. Like , can I see it ? I want to see it.

S1: Right now. Julie's dreams for I-5 in Barrio Logan are a little bit closer to reality than Briar Marsha's dreams. For the 163 , the lid over I-5 is mentioned in the Barrio Logan Community Plan. SANDAG , The county's transportation planning agency , recently applied for a federal grant to study the project's feasibility. And Breyer is happy about all that.

S2: I mean , I'd like to believe that both ideas have merit on their own and for different reasons. You know , the idea of spending money to improve the environmental health of Barrio Logan is a top priority. And one of the things that makes the 163 different is the fact that it is redundant. There are large freeways to the east and to the west that serve the same purpose. It's a convenience and from one point of view that makes it an unimportant project , but from another it makes it the ideal first step to take in the larger idea of , you know , removing the these huge impediments to our city's health and our city's happiness.

S1: Maybe you don't see freeways as impediments to your health and happiness. There's no denying they've created a lot of economic opportunity for a lot of people. But what you're going to learn if you keep listening , is that freeways are not free. They have hidden costs that are not shared equally by everyone. When the five and the 163 were built , freeways were progress , awesome feats of engineering that would usher in prosperity and help put San Diego on the map. Next time on freeway exit. We'll dig deeper into where that optimism came from and how it blinded us to the freeways. Dark side.

S13: The building of the of the interstate highway system , the development of the suburbs , the movement towards auto ownership are all part of a bigger social engineering experiment. Probably one of the biggest ones that this country has ever taken to move us towards automobile dependence.

S1: Freeway exit is produced by me , Andrew Bohn and edited by David Washburn with support from Clare Trager and Elizabeth Hames. 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.

As San Diego struggles to meet its climate goals, a radical idea emerges — shut down part of a freeway.

An architect has a radical idea for San Diego's oldest freeway, SR-163, which cuts through Balboa Park. An environmental justice activist dreams of someday reconnecting her community that was divided by Interstate 5. If San Diego is serious about its goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, how will our relationship with freeways have to change?