Freeways, Market-Octavia / Hayes Valley, San Francisco, Streetcars, Transit Fantasy

Bridging the Divide

central-freeway_11stbryant1When Octavia Boulevard opened in 2005, it became an urbanist case study, joining The Embarcadero as another shining example of how removing key segments of freeway can breathe new life into once-blighted urban neighborhoods. Empty lots along Octavia are still undeveloped, so Hayes Valley is a work in progress; and the intersection of Market & Octavia, where the freeway touches down to the street, created a dangerous situation in which motorists executing an impermissible right turn onto the freeway collided with bicyclists. Octavia is heavily traveled by motorists, but it still remains a vast improvement over the northern segment of the Central Freeway that once cast shadows over Hayes Valley. South of Market neighborhoods, in contrast, have not had the opportunity to enjoy a similar renaissance. The urban fabric of those neighborhoods remain sliced in half by the southern segment of the reconstructed Central Freeway — even while South of Market bears the burden of hosting still other freeways and many unsafe traffic sewers.  The remaining freeway, combined with 13th/Division Street directly below the freeway (pictured above), cuts a wide swath of automobile capacity into the heart of San Francisco, thus preventing the affected neighborhoods from flourishing in the way that neighborhoods north of Market have. One day, it would be gratifying to see the rest of the Central Freeway removed. And if it were removed, what might San Francisco look like then? What follows here is certainly not a proposal, but simply a depiction of one potential vision for the Central Freeway corridor — a long-term vision, which aims not just to reclaim, but to transform, neighborhoods now cast in shadow. The goal is to not simply remove the freeway structure and replace it with a boulevard, but to set the bar high with a joint transit and land use vision.

Actually implementing such a plan would require careful study of engineering alternatives and travel patterns, but two potential redesigns of the freeway on- and off-ramps come to mind. Under one scenario, the ramps would adopt a similar configuration to the existing one, but connecting to a surface boulevard instead of an elevated freeway. In another scenario, Vermont Street and San Bruno Avenue, flanking I-80/US 101 on the east and west side respectively, would facilitate traffic flow onto and off of the freeway between Division and 17th Street (diminishing impact to the mostly residential blocks south of 17th and east of Vermont). Motorists would then navigate surface streets for only a couple blocks to access Division and other South of Market arteries. This latter alternative would confine immediate freeway-oriented traffic to the primary freeway corridor and adjacent parallel streets, freeing up land west of I-80 that is currently in the shadow of freeway overpasses. For simplicity, the map I drew for this post assumes the latter approach. Click here to see the full map:


Opportunities abound to improve the
pedestrian realm, on Townsend (top)
and on Division (bottom).

The full corridor considered here — including Townsend, Division, 13th Street, and Duboce — is bounded by Market Street on the west end and Mission Bay on the east end. Not specifically marked on the map, but nonetheless assumed, is that livable streets treatment would be implemented to the fullest extent possible. Division/13th Street would itself be completed to accommodate transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists, in addition to automobiles; featuring a public plaza and lined with active ground-floor uses, Division and 13th would be conceived in the manner of a “great street.” Alleys and cul-de-sacs reaching into the middle of the large South of Market blocks could be connected to reduce block footprints to a human scale, and they present nice opportunities to add pockets of green and cobblestone pedestrian paths.  Since this is long-term, the map includes hypothetical locations for stations on a new BART line — but it also includes new crosstown streetcar line between the Caltrain station and Market Street to help spur development on the corridor. Some changes to signalization would be required; westbound, coming from the E-Embarcadero route on King, streetcars would turn right on 4th Street and then left on Townsend (using a brief section of track on 4th Street that would be built with the Central Subway) and then follow Townsend, Division, 13th, and Duboce to Market Street. There would be a new wye at Duboce and Market, which would include a non-revenue connection to ease access to Geneva Yard. Historic streetcars could be used for the route, complemented by low floor modern streetcars. The route could be named D-Duboce, maintaining the {D, E, F} consecutive lettering for surface streetcar routes.

Streetcar at Market & OctaviaThe new section of track, combined with existing track on Market, the Embarcadero, and King, would create a large loop through the northeastern quadrant of the city. With a little extra track, double-end streetcars following the new route could turn right onto Market off of Duboce and travel as far as Van Ness, then using the Eleventh Street wye to turn around. Single-end streetcars could run the large loop with Market Street, or they could use an optional extension along Octavia Boulevard to Hayes Valley. Along Octavia, the northbound track would be in the far right lane and the southbound track in the far left lane; upon reaching Hayes Green, two possibilities are a simple loop right at the Green, or a loop around the block on Grove and Laguna, which reaches a bit deeper into the neighborhood.

Townsend Street
Townsend Street, northeast from Sixth Street.

Even with the planned commuter rail extension to 1st and Mission, some runs will likely terminate at Mission Bay; as such, 4th & Townsend will increase in importance as a transit nexus, and there is so much more we could do in terms of place-making in this area. We can envision a high-rise district to cap off the station, with the tallest points concentrated along Townsend and stepping down to the north and west. Some track capacity for storing and turning around trains will be necessary at the current Caltrain yard, but through tracks will transition underground, perhaps freeing up additional land for development near the station. Despite what appears on the map — which marks city blocks, but not many lot lines — one objective would be to maximize visual interest by avoiding the monolithic, single-design, master-planned blocks that now characterize development in Mission Bay. Heights along both Townsend and Division/13th would step up and down to vary the urban form and transition to nearby neighborhoods — but they would remain very dense, creating activity centers and high-rise clusters that concentrate near transit the new jobs and residents that will grow the city for decades to come.




34 thoughts on “Bridging the Divide

  1. I read over on Streetsblog SF that Livable City is proposing knocking down 280 all the way back to 101. The reason being that the 280 aerial structure intrudes on the right-of-way for CAHSR, so it would have to be rebuilt anyway, and the amount of traffic it carries doesn’t warrant the rebuilding.

    Posted by Jeffrey W. Baker | 14 April 2009, 9:04 am
  2. While one can debate the finer points of the plan, I think the general idea is very, very right: the Central Freeway is a blight upon the landscape. and removing it would have huge benefits. One minor suggestion I’d make at the edge of your plan: have a pedestrian bridge connecting 5th Street across the tracks. It would provide a connection the little neighborhood of high-rises at 5th and King, which is somewhat of a dead end now. In my ideal world, I’d also do something about the 280, either eliminate it entirely, or at least narrow it significantly. It dumps a huge amount of traffic onto both 6th and the Embarcadero, turning both streets into traffic sewers. Also, the support columns are in the way of the logical location for the 3rd and 4th track on the Caltrain ROW.

    Posted by anonymouse | 14 April 2009, 9:41 am
  3. i’ve always thought that Brannan and Townsend have the capacity to handle more vehicles than they currently do. That said, wasn’t the hybrid boulevard/Central Freeway a plan basically to funnel people in/out of the western neighborhoods via Fell/Oak? Will anything replace that? Sorry, I can’t recall your BART extension offhand.

    Posted by eddo | 14 April 2009, 9:46 am
  4. Another thought – the western neighborhoods (or rather, the neighborhoods that are perceived as “outer”) are pretty much the only ones left that can claim a blue-collar or working-class population, and I would venture the majority of children under 18 in San Francisco are from these very neighborhoods.

    I can imagine the argument to a plan to take away the remaining Central Freeway and increasing density around the ballpark and South of Market to be framed in socioeconomic terms, which always turn ugly.

    Posted by eddo | 14 April 2009, 10:08 am
  5. Wow. An awful lot to digest here. I’ll have to let it all settle in a little bit, but my first thought is that with a couple of caveats, the D-Duboce appears to solve the crosstown problem.

    Without going too far off the reservation … I wouldn’t terminate at Van Ness, and I definitely wouldn’t use the local lanes on Octavia. I would go to 9th and Irving, and into the park if possible. D, meet the G.

    But the changes to the street network — that’s the really intriguing part here.

    Posted by Steve | 14 April 2009, 10:08 am
  6. The idea’s great, but I think there would still have to be a direct connection to Octavia. Otherwise, this would create a traffic nightmare. Streetcar integration would be an instant boost to the neighborhood though.

    The 280 idea was actually an April fools jokes.

    Posted by Daniel | 14 April 2009, 10:11 am
  7. Oh yeah, one more minor critique — you’re setting up a major bottleneck at 4th & King. But that’s technically solvable. The question would be the politics (and any world in which we can eliminate the entire Central Freeway is likely also one where we could get DPT to go along with reconfiguration of 4th).

    Posted by Steve | 14 April 2009, 10:11 am
  8. As both Jeffrey and anonymouse mention, the stub end of 280 extending north from 101 is yet another candidate for removal. There is, after all, no longer an Embarcadero Fwy to feed into, as a completed 280 would have done.

    anonymouse: I think you may do it too much justice to call it a “plan” – a sketch is closer to the truth. A 5th St bridge is something I’ve thought about too, and there are lots of other ways to fix the pedestrian situation.

    Daniel: I didn’t really make it all that clear on the map, but there actually would be a street connection to Octavia, but cars could divide themselves among a couple streets before switching over to 13th. In the absence of a freeway beginning at Market Street, other drivers would probably choose a different route altogether.

    Steve: I was wary about the 4th/King bottleneck, but yeah, assumptions do abound there. I agree the political implications for something like this are pretty gigantic, but it’s easier to chew in the abstract.

    Posted by Eric | 14 April 2009, 10:24 am
  9. I wouldn’t terminate at Van Ness, and I definitely wouldn’t use the local lanes on Octavia. I would go to 9th and Irving, and into the park if possible. D, meet the G.
    The point of the VN thing was just to connect to the other Metro lines, which is a small hike from the Duboce/Octavia area, but I do like the D/G idea…

    Posted by Eric | 14 April 2009, 10:40 am
  10. Part of what’s so appealing about this idea is the flexibility in routing it gives you. You could, say (and this is not my idea), run the J surface to free up space in the tunnel, and then just run the F from Castro down Duboce/Division and Townsend to the Embarcadero. This could be an extension of the E (although MSRy wants it to extend into Mission Bay). You might want to operate on Brannan instead of Townsend if decking the Caltrain yard wasn’t on the table (or, a friend has pointed out, if HSR/Caltrain were in a tunnel you might prefer to run straight through to King). All of which is really beside the point — the point is that you’ve taken the worst place in San Francisco, transformed it, and managed to more or less replace the people-moving capacity of the freeway. So I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details.

    Although, I can’t help but mention–I was just talking to someone yesterday about relocating the T platform at 4th & King to the front of the station. Now I’m picturing a major surface rail hub there.

    Posted by Steve | 14 April 2009, 10:55 am
  11. I find this pretty interesting, but the placement of the BART stations on this proposed plan seem a little odd, since there is nothing really noteworthy at 8th and Townsend or on Division Street.

    Posted by Daniel M | 14 April 2009, 11:20 am
  12. At some point, you’re going to need to acknowledge the impact that all these proposals are going to have on residents of the western neighborhoods, and dismissing their needs is not a way to build consensus. If you coupled some of this with reviving the idea to turn portions of 19th Avenue and maybe even Van Ness/Lombard into tunnelled freeways, it would go a long way to making this idea a reality.

    Posted by DaveO | 14 April 2009, 11:44 am
  13. Daniel M: the station placement is 100% theoretical, though right now that area is Showplace Square. But really, that’s part of the point of the line: more “interesting” things should develop near the station as a result of the station being there, that would not develop there otherwise. (Note that heights are quite a bit higher than what’s there now.)

    Posted by Eric | 14 April 2009, 11:44 am
  14. Great Idea! (intentionally capitalized). I’ve toiled over other ideas of taking light rail down 16th Street, Folsom and other places, but as Steve notes, this really addresses some major crosstown problems AND creates major redevelopment opportunities. I’ve always thought you could take light rail down Duboce and cut through to Berry and up King, but that would require a grade separated crossing with Caltrain (at Berry & 7th) and a downsizing of a small development ped passthrough of Divison and Berry near 7th Street.

    The idea of taking light rail down Townsend, linking Embarcadero, 4th & King with West SOMA, Duboce Triangle or beyond is brilliant. By adding attractive rail transit to Duboce/13th/Division or “Vision Blvd” as mentioned years back and now again in new SFMTA study, AND next to 4th & King railyard, you give more reason to push for the rail yard development and redveloping Vision Boulevard (aka Octavia South).

    Posted by Brian S | 14 April 2009, 12:13 pm
  15. Did you do this so that I would love you? Mission accomplished.

    I walk under this scar every day, and I feel the impact it has on our poor neighborhoods.

    @eddo, FWIW the neighborhoods with the highest number of children are the TL and Bayview.

    The 5th St pedestrian bridge was supposed to be built by Catellus as a condition of the gold mine it was handed to develop Mission Bay. It’s not happening anymore because nobody is holding them to the agreement.

    I believe the HSR proposal has the caltrain tracks underground far enough back to allow streets to cross the current yard. That would let you go down King to Division and around the ShowPlace Square roundabout.

    I also think 16th street could use a streetcar line, and wonder if two lines so close together are worthwhile. However, the increase in connectivity this provides make it a good idea in its own right, which is why I have the connecting track in my own fantasy map:

    I’d LOVE to see your CF idea take on some momentum!

    Posted by Josh | 14 April 2009, 12:52 pm
  16. I was thinking more of an extension of Octavia Blvd, like this: (scroll down)

    Posted by Daniel | 14 April 2009, 3:29 pm
  17. Daniel, yes that briefly sums up the “Vision Blvd” idea that has been at least mentioned in the past. But since that version has already been discussed, the goal here was to take a somewhat different approach that renders less of an intrusion on the existing street network, and it depends on motorists realizing that they can use different paths to access 13th/Division. It goes without saying that several alternatives and their effects on traffic and travel patterns should be studied carefully to choose the best model. That linked version also preserves many freeway ramps running all the way to Bryant Street — ramps that we should at least investigate removing, because of their effect on blighting several blocks.

    Posted by Eric | 14 April 2009, 4:06 pm
  18. Great ideas Eric. If they are going to be taking the freeway down, do you envision some cut and cover trenching for a new BART line after or during the time when the freeway is coming down?

    Posted by The Overhead Wire | 14 April 2009, 4:51 pm
  19. I am suprised that you find the Octavia/Market St. plan such a success. While Hayes Vallye has certainly improved, the intense traffic congestion and the unsafe intersection that have been created show poor planning. It really would have made more sense to land the off-ramp north of Market.

    While a broad and elegant boulevard where Division is now is appealing, it just don’t see how that is feasible. Division currently carries a heavy traffic load and adding the central free load to it also would just create one long line of congestion.

    As is all too typical of these plans, there is really a disregard for vehicle traffic. The fact is that San Francisco is not an island and many residents need to get outside of San Francisco and many people need to get into San Francisco. While a portion of that movement can be handled via public transport, it is (realistictly) only a small portion of that movement. These freeways have been around for a long time and people have come to rely on them and the neighborhoods have adapted to them. Solutions like these seem more focused on promoting an anti-car ideology than actually meeting people’s needs.

    Posted by LWMission | 15 April 2009, 10:13 am
  20. Great idea! I agree that we need a boulevard connecting with Octavia, but that is a detail that should be decided during final planning and design. The question is: how can we get the city moving on this?

    Posted by Charles Siegel | 15 April 2009, 11:22 am
  21. LWMission: My post explicitly acknowledges that Octavia is heavily used, and is not perfect, but yes, I believe the net effect is positive. But we come from different perspectives on this, and we’re really asking different questions. While your focus is on accommodating existing needs, the focus of this post is to rethink the way the city looks, in order to shape what those transportation needs are. And there is the issue of mitigating the heavy burden borne by adjacent neighborhoods. Should saving drivers a few minutes trump the health and safety of those neighborhoods? Freeways may have been around for a long time (a few decades, anyway), but transit of course well predates freeways.

    Charles Siegel: Thanks for your comment. You might call it a boulevard, or another street, but what I initially had in mind was something similar to existing street connections from between north & south of Market. It’s an interesting detail of design to see how the new street would connect to the existing street network.

    That said, if we are looking for an opportunity to create a grand boulevard-like intersection with Market Street, another place that deserves our attention is Van Ness.

    Posted by Eric | 15 April 2009, 11:52 am
  22. As a local resident, bicyclist–and yes a driver!–I love Octavia. The transformation is our area is immense, and driving is honestly a breeze. More of the same please!

    LW Mission: People need to get into the city? Heck, dude, I’m the one who lives here, though I think the Western Neighborhoods argument is important. Neighborhoods have adapted to overhead freeways? You’re probably right, in which case you can have my freeway over your backyard! You’ll adapt!

    Posted by LowerHaighterLover | 15 April 2009, 11:52 am
  23. Well, a little historical truth for everyone here. Tom Ammiano & Chris Daly & Jim Meko & company sold out the neighborhood during the original project to tear down the freeway. There is a whole soma group that formed around pressing to tear it down, but they failed. The stated reasons for leaving the freeway up were many and specious, but the real reason was abject fear of gentrification pressure on an area that has been carved out for low income housing and services for marginal populations. In a nutshell, they want to keep the area blighted so that land values remain soft and parcels can be bought cheaply. Its the 21st century version of redlining. If you look at the density of non-profit run building in the area, its astonishing.

    Posted by Missionary | 15 April 2009, 12:33 pm
  24. I think Missionary overstates the veracity of his opinion (which is based on real and important evidence, don’t get me wrong). In any case I’d like to point out that the fight he refers to is over a decade old right now, and one important piece of info that we’ve learned since then is that you can close this stretch of freeway and the sky will not fall! There were no doomsday traffic jams during the demo and reconstruction of the market street offramp, people just used other streets (which collectively have a much larger traffic capacity anyway).

    If I can add one more comment, I’d say that one thing I love about this plan over the “Vision Blvd” plan is that it doesn’t carve this road out as an artery. We know from empirical and experimental evidence that streets designed to be traffic arteries actually impede traffic flow. When everybody thinks of Van Ness as the fastest way to get from A to B, everybody takes Van Ness and traffic ensues. When a diffuse and well-connected grid network provides many equally-desirable routes, traffic flows more freely. This is an observable phenomenon.

    Posted by Josh | 15 April 2009, 4:26 pm
  25. An important design issue will be to ensure that Vision, or whatever new name this street gets (changing it from “Division” would probably be a good thing), avoids to the extent possible the 19th Avenue freeway-within-the-city effect. If the heights do actually get as high as those depicted in the map, and if there is a streetcar (or maybe one day, even a BART line), what we’re really looking at is something closer to a second Market Street. Yes, good design is crucial.

    Re: Josh’s point, people might find this post from a few months back to be a useful cross-reference.

    Posted by Eric | 15 April 2009, 4:39 pm
  26. Interesting ideas. I have been thinking it would be useful to have a couple MUNI Metro lines pass to the south/west of the 4th and Townsend CalTrain station, spreading out toward Showplace Square, SOMA, SF Genereal, and the foot of Potrero Hill. The Division Street line would be a good one. You could probably do with a few less stops on the surface rail line (more like the Embarcadero or Third Street) since some stations could go midway between important cross-streets.

    Extending a couple more Metro lines would take some of the pressure off the turnback at the Embarcadero (which at least works adequately, compared to the stub-end terminal we had before), and create a branching structure on both ends of the system that deals with transit shortcomings for the central core of the city. However, the 4th and King bottleneck is a tricky spot to plan around, with or without the freeway off-ramp, and with or without the T subway extension. I’ve sketched a bunch of ideas, scribbled over them, and more or less given up. I’d like to see how some of the better minds on this forum would do it. How would you get the new and existing lines past the Caltrain station, have the option of terminating a line there (like the N does now) and have less than three separate light rail platforms? How would you ease rail traffic flow constraints at 4th and King? Could the junction be split up across a couple blocks? We’ve lost an opportunity to put a terminus or junction where the new condos stand at 3rd/4th/King/Townsend, but could King be widened by taking down part of the China Basin Annex offices and giving the rail junctions or termini a little more breathing room?

    I do agree that some sort of street connection needs to be maintained from Octavia to Division.

    Posted by Ben Pease | 16 April 2009, 8:53 am
  27. There are a few ways you could handle 4th & King, but my preferred option (and when I say “preferred,” I mean the one that looks prettiest on the back of a napkin) would be to run Eric’s D Line into Mission Bay, continue to terminate the N at the King Street platform, and relocate the T platform to the Townsend/King block. Needless to say you’d be compromising the auto connection between 4th & 280, but the Central Subway is already reducing the capacity of 4th.

    One of the few good things about the CS project is that it will eliminate transit turns through the intersection of 4th & King … at least until there’s enough demand at MB to extend the N. But if you could extend the short line T terminus to the turnback, and supplement that with streetcars … I don’t know. It’s a thought.

    Posted by Steve | 16 April 2009, 1:47 pm
  28. Re Steve’s recent comment, would the D line simply go to 4th and Townsend, or would it make a through connection with the E/N (Embarcadero) lines (like the K/T)? Or with the new or existing T?

    If it weren’t for the pesky (rising) sea level, shaky fill, and freeways overhead, you could do interesting things extending the N terminus by burrowing under* the Caltrain leads from 5th or 6th and King to pop up somewhere over by Potrero Hill. A tunnel under Potrero Hill the opposite direction from the old WP tunnel – over toward SF General, would be an interesting way to get heavy duty transit over to the east edge of the Mission.

    *Up and over Caltrain is trickier so long as the current freeway ramps restrict clearances, but there are certainly precedents on firmer ground for light rail nimbly leaping railroads (such as Sacramento’s single-track overpasses on the Folsom line crossing the old Western Pacific main line).

    Posted by Ben Pease | 16 April 2009, 5:17 pm
  29. Maybe this would even improve traffic…There’s always traffic heading towards the Bay Bridge that you have to wait for before getting onto the Skyway…

    Posted by Samir | 14 September 2009, 4:45 pm
  30. You shouldn’t knock down the central freeway!! You guys already got away with cancelling the construction of almost all of the planned sf freeways AND demolishing the embarcadero and part of the central freeway. This city already has an incomplete freeway system and traffic, destroying the central would just build up the traffic. and not everyone that comes into the city wants to ride the BART or MUNI, maybe they don’t want to park and ride and just want to drive on the freeway to get from one part of this 7x7mi square to the other. Think about that

    Posted by J.Z | 21 December 2009, 10:08 pm
  31. J.Z., the 1950s called. They want you to bring their time machine back. ;-)

    Posted by MikeOnBike | 22 December 2009, 9:12 am
  32. They should just put the Central Freeway underground like they did in Boston and extend it to the Golden Gate bridge. Traffic is SF is already awful and nobody likes that.

    Posted by Marty | 10 February 2013, 11:33 pm
  33. I think that removing part of the remaining Central Freeway is a great idea, but I think that it would be best if part of the freeway remains. I say that from I-80 to Folsom Street would be a reconstructed 6-lane viaduct and US 101/ I-80 interchange with an off-ramp at 11th Street and on-ramp at Harrison Street. The freeway would then come to an end at an at-grade intersection at Folsom Street. From there, a 6-lane tree lined boulevard would continue past Folsom. I would name this street an extension of Dubcoe Avenue. Where the boulevard would also meet an extension of Octavia Boulevard where the freeway currently comes down to an at-grade intersection. I think they should have the new freeway and boulevard be 6 lanes ( 3 on each side ) because there will be more traffic signals and slower traffic on the street, which may increase the traffic volume on the new roadway. I imagine that once this project is over, this new revived neighborhood could be another popular shopping/ business district in SF.

    Posted by Brenden Niller | 20 November 2015, 10:28 pm


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