In today’s Chronicle, there’s a great Letter to the Editor about the freeway revolt from Phillip Richardson, a San Francisco highway planner in the 1960s from Tiburon.
Thank you for the interesting article about the city taking back control of regional highways in its usual self-centered way (“Freeway Revolt set S.F.’s course,” Insight, Oct. 11).
The result transportation-wise is that there are congested streets – Oak, Fell, 19th Avenue and Lincoln Avenue – that would now be free of all through traffic and livable again. The two routes that you mention, Park-Panhandle and Golden Gate, were the only serious programs ever put forth by the state. They both were underground or depressed and would not have been noticed by city residents.
However, the Division of Highways was not set up to sell such a program, and the NIMBYs, as you call them, were totally ignorant of what they were contesting.
The result is serious regional highway disconnect and a quite reduced level of livability for the city.
Division of Highways planner
There’s so much good stuff to dissect here. Richardson’s core argument rests upon the belief that San Francisco’s freeway revolt was led by a group of “self centered” NIMBY residents “totally ignorant of what they were contesting.” Richardson argues that some of San Francisco’s busiest streets–such as the 19th Ave, Lincoln, and the Panhandle–would be “free of all traffic and livable again” with “underground or depressed [freeways that] would not have been noticed by residents.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Richardson fails to recognize his own self-centeredness as a suburban Marin driver, believing that San Francisco should completely change its cityscape to fit his desires. Maybe he should actually go to Hayes Valley or the Embarcadero and ask residents if freeways made their neighborhoods more livable (I suspect the answer will be a “HELL NO!”). The notion that residents would not even notice freeways is nonsense–imagine a depressed freeway in place of the Panhandle, or the surrounding traffic impacts of offramps and onramps along 19th Avenue. The current situation on Fell/Oak, 19th Ave, and Lincoln is nothing near ideal, but it still beats bulldozing victorians and businesses for a traffic aquaduct (a really big traffic sewer? I tried).
Richardson’s backwards logic is a true relic of the postwar freeway boom in which central cities were expected to bend over backwards for the desires of their suburban residents. If Richardson had his way, San Francisco would be split with freeways and even more gridlocked due to induced demand and insufficient capacity. The most important lesson we can learn from is the arrogance implicit in Richardson’s argument–his assumption of the infallibility of the freeway plan and his dismissal of local objections as ignorant and irrational. San Francisco’s freeway plan was not a fundamentally sound plan doomed by a poor marketing strategy; it was a selfish attempt by power-hungry suburbanites to fashion San Francisco into their own image at the expense of the city’s residents (especially the working class and Black populations). The Freeway Revolt was one of the most pivitol moments in San Francisco’s history and the history of urban planning as a whole. Without it, San Francisco would be an awful city to live in.