San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the eastern waterfront, is the city’s historic harbor area. The three-mile stretch is the result of engineered sea walls originally installed to create an accessible port for ships. In the latter part of the 19th century, the Embarcadero and the iconic Ferry Building were among the busiest transit hubs in the world. But within a few short decades, America’s embrace of car culture would change the area dramatically. Today, I’m looking back at the Embarcadero Freeway and its undeniably fascinating role in San Francisco history as one of the US’s most hated freeways and its ultimate demise.
Before the automobile took off, and before San Francisco was connected to Oakland and Marin via suspension bridge, the Ferry Building of 1898 served as a vast terminal for trans-bay ferry service. This famed landmark, which anchors the end of Market Street, served commuters and major railroads alike by connecting the downtown area to points across the bay.
In the early part of the 20th century, San Francisco’s Ferry Building was actually the world’s second busiest transit hub behind Charing Cross Station in London. But fast forward to the 1930s, when both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge were finally complete. These new corridors over the bay devastated ferry traffic, and at the same time, car culture in this country truly took off. California was one of the leading states in the nation to embrace an intricate network of highways and state routes, with plans to pave over essentially whatever stood in the way.
The Embarcadero Freeway
Despite the community uproar, and after multiple iterations, the Embarcadero Freeway, i.e. State Route 480, was erected in 1959 along the eastern waterfront to connect the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. It was an elevated, two-story eyesore that blocked both the vistas of the Bay and the Ferry Building and created a dark, foreboding presence that was rife with crime. Over the years, ongoing community fights ensued over the freeway, but still it stood. It wasn’t until 1989 that Mother Nature finally intervened. The Loma Prieta earthquake did severe damage to the freeway, and opponents saw their opportunity. When engineers reported it would cost at least $14 million to rebuild the structure and make it safer in the event of future earthquakes, the Department of Transportation finally conceded that fixing it was nearly as pricey as rebuilding it entirely.
The aftermath yielded a remarkable transformation for downtown San Francisco. The removal of the freeway was an unequivocal success, ushering in an era of expansive public spaces, inviting pedestrian walkways, and dedicated bike paths. San Francisco demonstrated that freeway removal was not only feasible but also could be an incredible economic catalyst. The decision to replace the freeway with a wide boulevard proved financially prudent, as construction costs were lower compared to repairing the damaged freeway. Moreover, the redevelopment efforts had a positive impact on property values, further underscoring the project’s economic benefits.
From Then to Now
Gazing at San Francisco today, it’s almost surreal to imagine that a sprawling, elevated freeway once dominated the picturesque bay view. Locals and visitors alike enjoy unobstructed views of the Bay and the Ferry Building serves as a cultural hub and artisan food community. With any luck, we’ll see a re-emergence of more Ferry Transit now that the Yerba Buena Residences are starting to be occupied in Yerba Buena Island.
For a great video of the history of the freeway, including the never built Butterfly Bridge that was meant to be a third bridge from San Francisco to Alameda, check out the YouTube video Lost in Time: The Embarcadero Freeway.