The time was the late 1950s, and the push to complete the Interstate system of highways was in full swing. Transportation officials across the United States were busy drafting plans and proposals to connect major American cities and regions with modern, limited-access highways modeled on the autobahns of Germany.
The state of California was no exception, and in 1956 San Francisco the planners released to the public their grand design for a system of freeways across the city. This plan, dating from 1948 and revised in 1951-53, outlined a proposed network of freeways and expressways through the city and would incorporate the existing Bayshore Freeway, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. New freeways would be routed through the downtown area, around the Embarcadero, and a corner of Golden Gate Park. San Francisco, despite its smaller land area, would have had a system of freeways to rival the tangled Los Angeles maze. What they did not plan on was a series of actions that came to be known as the San Francisco Freeway Revolt.
THE REVOLT BEGINS
Public reaction to the plan was swift. Local organizers conducted meetings in the San Francisco neighborhoods that would be affected, and opposition to the freeway proposals took on the strength of a movement, complete with protests and petition campaigns. Nonetheless, some of the plans went ahead, most notably the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway, which began in 1958.
The Board of Supervisors took note of the public furor and decided to get involved. At a 1959 meeting, the Board voted to cancel seven of the ten proposed freeway projects. This action apparently caught the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) by surprise, and the Board expected to have the last word on the situation. However, the freeway planners at the state capital in Sacramento were undaunted and continued to propose new freeways and expressways for San Francisco, even though they still met with very vocal resistance from the neighborhood groups.
Things finally came to a head in 1964. Plans had been published that year for the Golden Gate Freeway, which would cut across central San Francisco and link up with Highway 1 in the eastern corner of Golden Gate Park. The organized resistance had not been idle and had grown to include opposition to all current and proposed freeway projects. By now, opposing freeways in San Francisco had become almost a way of life, and that was evident in the Board of Supervisors' famous meeting in late 1964. The Board, in a 6-to-5 vote, rejected the Golden Gate Freeway and stated its opposition to further projects in a point-by-point rebuttal to the freeway planners' proposals. This action effectively put an end to further freeway proposals in San Francisco.
As a result, the remaining unconstructed portions of the Central Freeway (US Highway 101) and the Embarcadero Freeway (Interstate 480, later California 480), the connecting ramps between Interstates 80 and 280, and some other lesser projects were cancelled. Those construction projects already started would be completed, but there would be no new freeways built in San Francisco.
The freeway situation in the city remained unchanged until the Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989. The small part of the Embarcadero Freeway that had been built was severely damaged, and as there had been calls over the years for its removal, repair or retrofit was deemed inadvisable and the freeway was pulled down. A few miles of the Central Freeway, similarly damaged, met with a similar fate. San Francisco was left with an incomplete freeway system, requiring motorists to take sometimes-complicated surface road routes in order to navigate through the city.
Faigin, Daniel P., "The History of San Francisco Bay Area Freeway Development
(Part 1—The City of San Francisco)
", California Highways. 1996-2004. <http://www.cahighways.org/maps-sf-fwy.html> (August 2004)
Carlsson, Chris, "The Freeway Revolt", originally published in Shaping San Francisco. 1998-2004. <http://www.bikesummer.org/1999/zine/freewayRevolt.htm> (August 2004)