July 1, 2005
Where the Highway Ends
San Francisco’s new boulevard is part thoroughfare, part pathway, and part park.
A nearly endless stream of automobiles makes its way into San Francisco on mornings, evenings, and weekends. Tourists drive in from the airport, investment bankers commute to work, and Californians from outlying towns periodically drop by for the spa treatments and gourmet groceries they can’t get at home. Yet San Francisco has a long tradition of opposing highways. Inspired by Jane Jacobs’s fight against Robert Moses in New York, neighborhood associations, citizens’ groups, and enlightened city planners put a stop to a plan to bisect Golden Gate Park with an elevated freeway in the 1960s. Later activism prompted the city to stop construction on the elevated Central Freeway—one of the only freeways through town. And spurred by the irreparable damage of portions during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, the city has recently cleared remaining sections of it away.
In its place, San Francisco voters have decided to draw a line where the highway must simply end. At Market Street, the main drag that runs diagonally through the city, traffic from Interstate 80 will have to feed onto a surface road. As a result, five blocks of lowly Octavia Street—where the freeway used to roar overhead and the only visitors were the homeless looking for shelter from the rain—are about to become a grand six-lane boulevard.
When it officially opens this fall, Octavia Boulevard will include four central lanes of one-way high-speed traffic—two on either side of a planted median. At the edges, beyond two more leafy medians, another lane will accommodate parking and slow-moving traffic. New shops and homes are going up on the periphery. And at the north end, farthest from the freeway, a one-block park is replacing the high-speed lanes, forcing hurried drivers to merge with the grid by turning either east or west onto one-way Oak or Fell Streets, or slowing down and skirting the park. Because it must conduct aggressive highway traffic through a walking neighborhood, this “multiway boulevard” acts as two things at once: a quiet shady pedestrian street and a high-speed thoroughfare.
Octavia Boulevard is the culmination of two careers—those of urban planners Allan Jacobs and Elizabeth Macdonald. Jacobs first came upon the notion of a multiway boulevard by accident in the late 1980s, when as a consultant to the Howard Hughes Corporation development company, he proposed a multiway design—replicating a traditional form that had fallen out of favor. (Turn-of-the-century American street plans often incorporated multiway boulevards, but their popularity began to wane in the 1930s with the rise of “functional classification,” which categorized streets by traffic type.) The other Los Angeles planners flatly rejected the idea as being unsafe and chaotic, intermingling too many traffic patterns and types. Later, as a consultant in San Francisco (where he had been director of planning from 1967 until 1975), Jacobs proposed a similar idea and was again turned down for reasons of safety.
Jacobs couldn’t understand it. “People are sick of fast traffic through their communities,” he explains. “They’re looking for a more human answer, and this is it.” Exasperated, he decided to look abroad for guidance. Having already spent years sketching streets in the United States, Europe, and Asia (published in the celebrated 1995 book Great Streets), he decided to travel again.
At the time, Macdonald—a graduate student in city planning and urban design at Berkeley—was his research associate. The pair began studying and designing multiway boulevards in a handful of cities at home and abroad. (They published the resulting Boulevard Book in 2001.) The multiway boulevard, they learned, is a common form in those high-density European cities that began their lives in the age of horse-drawn carriages and foot traffic, and then had to find ways to accommodate the car. “According to American street-plan classifications, these arterial streets shouldn’t be considered livable by the people who reside there,” Jacobs says. “But they are local streets, carrying local traffic, so they should be considered livable.” In the end, Jacobs and Macdonald determined that these boulevards were pleasant, functional, and contrary to their reputation in America, not dangerous at all—just less rigid than typical American streets, with pedestrians and cars making instinctive, rath-er than enforced, room for one another.
This balance between density and efficiency is widely lauded by forward-minded urban planners. The European streets Jacobs and Macdonald studied achieve that balance through a kind of social contract. “If you go to Milan or Florence, you find places where there aren’t even sidewalks,” says José Luis Moscovich, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, with admiration. “The streets there are shared spaces, and yet you don’t see people getting massacred.” Jacobs and Macdonald revealed that multiway boulevards are the most formal iteration of that phenomenon.
The removal of part of San Francisco’s Central Freeway offered a five-block-long opportunity to bring their discovery home. After exploring the possibility of rebuilding an elevated portion above Octavia, the city drafted a proposition to create a surface road instead. Jacobs and Macdonald were hired to design an alternative in the vein of Paris’s Avenue Montaigne and Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia. City voters overwhelmingly endorsed that option on the ballots in 1999.
The voters’ wishes are part of a larger trend in San Francisco. The superblocks and roaring one-way avenues of urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s did terrible damage to the contiguity and vitality of many neighborhoods. The city’s General Plan, which established zoning guidelines in the middle of the century, highlights the need to preserve the neighborhood-centered character of the city, but the enthusiasm for the International Style at the time only served to cancel out that character. Now the damage is being repaired both at the polls and on drafting tables. Today’s city planners—almost all of whom endorse the boulevard idea—seem to feel that replacing the freeway with a community-friendly design like Octavia Boulevard is a natural solution, and that given the right conditions, similar examples will spread across town. “It’s like gene-splicing,” says Gabriel Metcalf, deputy director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a public policy and city-planning think tank. “Jacobs has inserted a certain type of urban DNA into the city. We’re hoping it replicates.”
Several things validate that optimism: major arteries across the city are ripe for reconsideration, much of the city’s planning decisions are made at the ballot box, and residents seem to be developing a habit of backing intelligent urban planning. There’s something about San Francisco that makes it possible for a new street type to find public support. Perhaps it’s the city’s unflagging enthusiasm for diversity—the boulevard’s grand entrance at Market Street is flanked on one side by the United States’ first building constructed expressly to be a gay and lesbian community center. Perhaps the gentrification brought on by the dot-com 1990s, ac-companied by chain restaurants and homogeneity, means people are ready for something different.
Whatever it is that has made this boulevard possible, the time is right. In cities across the country, the efforts of urban renewal to impose order on chaos have transformed pedestrian-friendly communities into a series of parking lots. Hopefully Octavia Boulevard will stand as an example of how a city can put things right. “The segregation of street types is a cultural phenomenon that speaks to a compulsive American need for order,” Moscovich says. “It’s deeply rooted in the kind of civilization this is—one without much tolerance for chaos. What we’re doing here is introducing a very well-designed, organic, and friendly chaos.”