San Francisco Embarcadero Freeway
Embarcadero, before and after. From flickr user Vision 63
Jim Veseley makes the Alaskan-Way Viaduct-Embarcadero connection. I made the same point in a letter in the P-I a couple of years ago, back when I lived in San Francisco. The Embarcadero Freeway ran on the San Francisco waterfront, carried exactly the same number of cars as the Alaskan Way viaduct and was replaced by a surface-transit option (sound familiar?). Here’s what I wrote then:

In 1989, the Loma Prieta Quake damaged San Francisco’s waterfront Embarcadero Freeway. Most politicians wanted a rebuild of the two-level structure, and the mayor at the time, Art Agnos, proposed a boulevard and a tunnel option. Twenty thousand signatures were collected to stop the demolition and the state refused to finance the tunnel option. Agnos scrapped the tunnel but went forward with the demolition anyway, and the unexpected happened.

San Franciscans found other ways to get to where they needed to go, and everyone now loves their highway-less waterfront. The Embarcadero has become a grand boulevard with beautiful squares and plazas, lined with trees and public art, and has had its historic streetcar brought back. The neighborhood has been massively revitalized.

No one misses the Embarcadero Freeway, even though it was the only freeway between the Golden Gate bridge and the Bay Bridge to the rest of the city. Before it was a concrete eyesore, and now it’s a beautiful grand bouvelvard, with parks and plazas, bike trails, and human activity. Think that won’t work in Seattle? Look at the picture above and tell me that isn’t the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

43 Replies to “Embarcadero Freeway = Alaskan Way Viaduct”

  1. Actually, the Embarcadero connection has been made numerous times by opponents of a rebuild of the viaduct ever since the debate began. It is an obvious example. Kind of funny that Vesely only just connected the dots, but then again that’s not really surprising. But if his observation helps influence the debate then all the better.

    1. I never was trying to say that I made the connection first. I just wanted to point back to what I wrote on the subject back then.

    2. Having lived in both cities I have to disagree! I would love a gateway through the city and living in West Seattle there is no good option to the viaduct. People want to be able to get to work and carry on with their lives not sit in traffic. I’d give up the Embarcadero for a freeway anyday…

  2. I have made this connection for years. Not only is the surface street/transit option the cheapest one but it is also the best possible option for the city of Seattle.

    1. You’d think in these economic times the surface street/transit solution would be a no-brainer. As much as I prefer a tunnel, I really expected a surface street/transit solution to rise to the top, so to speak, given the looming budget deficits. Go figure.

      1. Doing surface/transit doesn’t preclude doing a deep bore tunnel later if the funding is a available and the traffic warrants it.

        Mind you I think if surface/transit is implemented well we’ll find a freeway, tunnel or otherwise isn’t so needed.

  3. Thanks for the pictures! I had weak memories of the Embarcadero, and know the new Embarcadero very well. But I hadn’t seen the two next to each other. Wow.

  4. But it isn’t! Really! Honest!
    See the Embarcadero was really just a long on/off-ramp and didn’t really go anywhere. Besides Seattle has really bad traffic congestion!

    (not really, but just common protests when I try to make the comparison)

  5. I’ve been fighting Photoshop to illustrate a new alternative.

    Basically, if West Seattle and Ballard are demanding a bypass, we should build a bridge from Alki to Magnolia. A beautiful Golden Gate! High enough for boats and barges.

  6. An Elliott Bay Bridge will never work because a bridge is out of scale with the size of the harbor. Golden Gate bridges a comparatively small gap over a much larger body of water (and is perpendicular to the waterfront so that it’s not walling off the city). The same goes for the Bay Bridge. I can’t think of a single city that has built a bridge parallel to its entire waterfront on its harbor.

    The Embarcadero removal was the way to go, and Seattle needs to follow that example with the AWV.

      1. I haven’t heard that one. The tunnel that seems to be getting the most favor right now is a straight deep bore tunnel roughly from Republican and Aurora to 99 in the Stadium area. It would avoid the waterfront area completely.

  7. Just think how much we could revitalize First Hill and Capitol Hill and South Lake Union too if we got rid of I-5! It’s a huge double-decker monstrosity!

    My point being that having a “vital” waterfront doesn’t necessarily do anything for the city except let us feel good. Berlin doesn’t have a “vital” waterfront. Neither does Pittsburgh or Denver or a whole host of other cities. If we don’t have a “vital” waterfront, we can put effort into having “vital” neighborhoods.

    Whatever the hell “vital” means.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the surface transit option, for two reasons: reduced car capacity means more transit which is better for the environment, and it’s cheaper.

    A “vital” waterfront is a meaningless holy grail though. Outside of folks who live on Capitol Hill or downtown, few people care about a “vital” waterfront. Passage of Prop 1 though shows that we do care about transit and the environment, and by god we do care about cost.

    I really wish folks (particularly the Stranger) would stop flogging the “vital” waterfront thing to the near exclusion of everything else.

    1. I don’t care about a “vital” waterfront, I just don’t want to hear the rush of cars no matter where I am downtown, and have the city mared by a concrete monstrosity.

      And I don’t live in Capitol Hill so there.

    2. I don’t live downtown, but I feel the waterfront would be vastly improved by removing the viaduct. A wide boulevard could move traffic and still be attractive to pedestrians. See hugeasscity’s post.

    3. 21-25million people use the waterfront each year as an arrival/departure point or destination, and that’s with the Viaduct still there. Sounds pretty vital to me, especially if you consider the money they spend.

    4. Tut-tut,

      What’s wrong with ‘feeling good?’ It’s bad form to fetishize the one argument supporting an option you favor just because you dislike that single argument. When it comes to the flavor of a city, there are many shades and sources of ‘vitality,’ and as you point out yourself, there’s a lot to like about a surface/transit option. Including ‘vitality.’

  8. Thats because San Fran had other alternatives besides the freeway. it. Seattle lacks those alternatives. And the Embaco. Freeway served as an offramp into the city, not as a means to get through it.

    1. Really? Did you ever live or work there? Please spell out what those “alternatives” were.

      The Alaskan-Way Viaduct turns into a surface street and is not a freeway on either end. It’s a nice short cut, but screws up downtown traffic, because the lack of connections causes traffic to backup across the main downtown N/S arterials.

      BTW – the Golden Gate Bridge has over 39 million crossings a year, and all that traffic is dumped onto 2 main surface arterials in SF. I knew plenty of people who commuted daily across the GG bridge and down into Silicon Valley on a daily basis. Harder to do now, because of the traffic backups on the highways down the SF Penninsula.

      1. I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but as a Seattle native but one-time resident of San Fran and still a frequent visitor to that city, I have a lot of rambling thoughts on the situation.

        I support the surface + transit option for our own Viaduct, and there’s so much about San Fran’s transit infrastructure/mindset that I wish Seattle would copy. But even still, I don’t believe that the Viaduct = Embarcadero. They were similar in appearance only, being double-decked and next to the water, but that’s where the similarities end. In terms of function, they were completely different. IMO, the Seattle equivalent of the Embarcadero is the ramp that feeds from the I-90/1-5 interchange down to the stadiums.

        The Embarcadero was just planned as a bypass/connector between the two bridges. But only a mile of it was ever built. It extended from I-80 and ended at Broadway, about in front of their ferry terminal. The vast majority of what is San Fran’s current Embarcadero -from Broadway up to Pier 45- never once had a highway built over it and has always been a surface Blvd. (in fact, when the elevated part came down, they actually widened the street in many places further north). What stub of highway was built wound up serving as “feeder” from I-80 into downtown, where all traffic exited onto Broadway and then dispersed into the city grid. (Just imagine how different the discussion about our viaduct would be if it only started at Spokane St., ended at our ferry terminal and the rest was never built). So when the Embaracadero finally came down, it just replaced the Broadway entrance into downtown with the current Essex St. ramps that are now on I-80 (where the original Embarcadero once tied in) In Seattle, that’d be the equivalent of removing the 4th St. ramps, and just routing those wanting to get to downtown onto Dearborn instead. The amount of traffic that comes into San Fran on the Essex ramps is still the same as that which used the Embaracdero (in fact, it’s increased) it’s just entering at a different point.

        Additionally, once the decision was made to finally scrap the highway, San Fran had one major high-capacity transit alternative in place – BART, and it had been running for more than a decade (and won major public confidence and many new users when it performed magnificently in the ‘quake). The main users of the Embarcadero were commuters coming in on I-80 from the east bay and I-80/I-280 south into downtown, that mirrors BART’s main route. And San Fran had also revived it’s passenger ferry service to taxi people into downtown from East Bay and even Marin County.

        The highway portion of the Embarcadero never serviced cross-bridge commuters, or those coming from Golden Gate. (looking at a map, you see the connection between Marina Dr./Embarcadero has always been blocked by topography & Maritime Park) The main route into downtown/I-80 is the 101/Lombard/Van Ness corridor, or Hwy 1/Park Presido which serves as a by-pass to the west. Both of which are high-capacity 6 lane blvds., and frankly, IMO, are eyesores, not pedestrian friendly, and not the type of traffic we’d want running through the heart of downtown Seattle or the waterfront. (picture Auora Ave. north of the bridge to Northgate, and that’s basically what Lombard/Van Ness is like through SanFran.)

        Our viaduct is not only a feeder into downtown, it’s a by-pass through downtown. Sure, it’s just arterials on both ends already – but those are high traffic 6 lane roads that are already quasi-highways. You have freight moving between Harbor Island/Interbay. Commuters from West Seattle & the 509 corridor going to points on Aurora or into Ballard/Interbay. Residents of North Seattle headed down to the Marginal Way/Boeing/industrial areas. , etc. When the viaduct comes down, very few of those users will have alternatives. Even after Link is up and running, few of these areas are going to be serviced by high capacity mass transit. Link’s going through the Rainier Valley and then the UW side up to Northgate instead.

        With no high capacity transit alternative, I tend to believe that once the Viaduct comes down, Alaskan Way will look & function less like San Fran’s Embarcadero and more like Van Ness. And IMO, that’s not a desirable outcome. It just replaces one type of “wall” with another. Yeah, the Viaduct’s ugly & noisy, but I’d much rather walk/bike under that traffic than dart across multiple lanes of it, be caught in one of the pedestrian islands in the middle waiting for a signal while traffic whizzed by in both directions, or in a bike lane with it next to me. (I have plenty of experiences with all of that in San Fran, and it’s not pleasant)

        Like I said before, I support the surface + transit option right now. But mainly because it’s a quick fix and we need to get the existing viaduct down before it collapses. The absolute last thing I want to see happen is repeating the same mistake with an elevated structure. And the plan to get started on streetcar service on 1st and up Westlake is worth any sacrifice and should be priority #1. But as far as the traffic effects from the surface plan I have my worries and doubts – and I think that if we plan on magically recreating the Embarcadero simply by tearing it down, we’re going to be disappointed with the results. The traffic isn’t going to go away, and unlike San Fran, where it was all heading onto the surface grid anyway, we’re going to end up with Aurora Ave. on the water.

        IMO, the long-term fix for the mess is the tunnel. My personal ideal is that they bore under downtown – both as a replacement for Hwy 99 traffic, and an additional tunnel to be the downtown trunk of a 2nd light rail line that services Ballard/West Seattle (mirroring what the monorail’s Green Line was supposed to be) Heck, while you’re digging, just extend the tunnel extend under Mercer to connect with I-5 – put the Mercer Mess underground, let SLU become a ped-oriented district, and then that also provides a valuable entrance into the city for express buses coming from I-5 North & 520. Don’t just do this to cater to autos, make mass-transit integral to the plan. Finance as much as possible with tolls to make autos start paying for more of our transit infrastructure. While this is going to be the transit era, I personally feel the “car” will always be around in some form – just smaller, more efficient, and running on a variety of different and/or more sustainable fuels … so you have to continue to account for it in infrastructure planning.

        But I definitely don’t want to jeopardize our golden chance to get rid of an elevated structure worrying/arguing about a tunnel right now. Get started on the Blvd & transit, keep the tunnel on the table for the future … and if for some reason it tuns out we don’t need it, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

      2. The surface option would be three lanes each way, but with a city block seperating them. Better than most of the 4 lane streets downtown.

      3. While the San Franciscan Embarcadero seems lovely, I do not think that that should be our first priority at this time. With traffic congestion reaching an all time high, the city’s priority should be more focused on an effective new transportation system, rather than an aesthetically appealing Boulevard that rivels its Californian counterpart.

        I agree with you that the mass trasit system needs to be a primary objective in the plan to decrease traffic. With increase routes through downtown tunnels, as well as elevated parking fees that will ultimately inspire car/vanpooling, I think that the “beautiful” boulevard idea needs to be put on hold.

        In the place of the vaiduct, needs to be a simple, but effective route. We all know that roads, even the most basic, are incredibly expensive (a 2 mile road costing upwards of $3.4 billion (Williams-Derry). By constructing a road, in addition to paving bike/jogging routes, opening/builing shops, and planting vegetation, the construction of the Embarcadero-esque boulevard is going to cost taxpayers billions.

        The goal of the present needs to be the destruction of the unsafe viaduct. However, rather than embarking on an immense project, a simple, yet effective road needs to be constucted, one that will get people to work. With our failing economy, I think that it would be ridiculous to spend our precious tax dollars on aesthetically-pleasing boulevards and jogging/biking trails, when we should be spending it on our universities.

  9. The Embarcadero is a glorified jogging trail — let’s not pretend it’s the be-all, end-all of waterfronts. The last thing I’d want is for Alaskan Way to turn into the Embarcadero.

    And, to echo King Rat above, can we stop insisting that a “vital” waterfront is absolutely critical to the city’s ongoing success? And that that “vital” waterfront can’t be any of the miles and miles of waterfront on all sides of the city — it has to be a one-mile stretch downtown?

    Surface/transit, fine, but let’s talk about real transit, not a streetcar from Pioneer Square to Belltown. And let’s stop placing made-up importance on the waterfront.

    1. One afternoon I heard the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Radiohead live and free in concert while walking down the Embarcadero. I’ve spent hours buying wonderful fresh produce at the Embarcadero’s farmer’s market. I kissed my girlfriend (now wife) on new years under fireworks there.

      Glorified jogging trail? Maybe. But if so, I love glorified jogging trails.

      1. One more thing: When all of this happened I lived in the Presidio – right next to the Golden Gate Bridge that the Embarcadero used to connect to. Without the Embarcadero Freeway how did I get to this area? I must have found another way.

      2. The Embarcadero never connected with Golden Gate. As a street, it has always ended at Pier 45. Maritime Park has always been a natural barrier between connecting Marina Blvd. & Embarcadero. The Freeway portion, when standing, only extended from I-80 to Broadway, never further north than that. The elevated structure on the water front was about 6 city blocks long

        Here’s a 1975 map that shows the extent of the Embarcadero Freeway (480 in upper right side):

        Hwy 101 (Lombard & Van Ness) and Hwy. 1 have always been the main routes that connect Golden Gate with the rest of San Fran. And while I appreciate that they never became freeways, I also don’t think they’re the types of high-traffic arterials I’d want running along the waterfront here in Seattle.

        I’m a huge fan of the current Embarcadero and love what San Fran’s done down there. But I honestly think there’s a difference in the function it served as a feeder into downtown San Fran and how our Viaduct works as a bypass around downtown.

      3. Jake must have forgotten about the Broadway tunnel and Bay St. I never had trouble using the Embarcadero to connect to GG bridge.

      4. The ferry terminal building there is awesome, plus I have gone on so many great dates.

        You think it’s a glorified jogging trail? Fine. If the tearing down the freeway turned the embarcadero from a hell-hole no-man’s land into a great jogging trail, imagine what could it do with our waterfront.

    2. There is no “made-up importance” on the waterfront, it is an engine that generates millions (if not billions) of dollars in tax revenue. It’s irresponsible to say that one side of a city’s CBD is unimportant, especially when it helps bring in millions of visitors.

      You can reroute a few thousand West Seattle residents, but rerouting tourism doesn’t really work. Tourists don’t really want to go to Ballard or Leschi, do they?

      1. I’ve visited SF many times, and each time I give the Embarcadero one more chance. Each time, I see people jogging, and not a whole lot else. A few coffee shops, I suppose.

        AJ, the waterfront in question is the waterfront with Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, some arcade, Argosy, and a few touristy seafood restaurants. Vital economic engine my ass. Tourists come to Ballard, Alki, etc., all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it myself from time to time, but the AWV debate needs to be about transportation, not about whether the chosen alternative results in one more spot for office workers and lazy tourists to hang out for an hour.

      2. Ok, you want it to be about transportation. So lets go with a 10 lane surface freeway instead. I mean the waterfront isn’t that important and we need to move people through the city. Hell while we’re at it why don’t we widen I-5, build a 8 lane 520 bridge, and bring back the RH Thompson expressway? After all we have to keep those cars moving!

  10. In his opinion piece, Vesely misses an important difference between the Embarcadero and the proposed Seattle waterfront – parking. The Embarcadero has several large surface parking lots in areas that Seattle proposes to become a wide Seawall sidewalk plaza. The economy of Seattle’s Waterfront District requires a certain amount of surface parking nearby to function as does the Embarcadero.

    The need for roadway and parking access cannot be ignored. Yet, the proposed couplet completely eliminates separate road access and creates a most likely insufficient amount of surface parking. Further, thru-traffic mixing with motorists looking to park adds to the predictable traffic nightmare so many people (outside DOT planning bureaus) find obvious.

    The problem with the Deep-Bore tunnel isn’t that it has only two lanes in each direction. It’s shortcoming is that it doesn’t serve Ballard-bound traffic. This most expensive Deep-Bore tunnel is a less effective thru-highway than the other tunnel options. It does have the advantage over the other tunnel options in that does not require digging an enormous trench along Alaskan Way.

    This Deep-Bore tunnel idea is a ruse. It’s proposed because the DOT department heads can no longer pretend (without further offending the public) that the surface boulevard, even with six lanes, can handle the expected traffic.

    The elevated replacement Scenario ‘D’ pillars create a safety hazard, ‘blind spots’ between northbound traffic, side street traffic and pedestrians all along the waterfront. In the Lower Belltown section, well, the reason that area is such a dive is partly because of the elevated’s impact, including its safety hazard for pedestrians and motorists.

    Because the AWV replacement is based on safety, DOT chiefs is obligated to promote the safest option, which in my opinion is a combination of Scenarios ‘H’ and ‘G’. To cut some cost, Scenario ‘H’ could be chosen with the caveat that the elements of Scenario ‘G’ for Lower Belltown and the Stadium Area be constructed at a later date.

  11. It is now publically obvious that the viaduct needs to come down. Growing increasingly unsafe and unstable, we need to stop talking and start acting. However, with the declining economy, the options are significanlty more limited now than ever.

    First, I think our measures need to be gradual at first. Rather than completely shutting down and demolishing the viaduct at once, the gradual closure of the infrastructure would be most effective. It would give drivers the time to find alternative routes, and restrict the sudden influx of 110,000 daily cars on other roads.

    While I agree with the street + transit plan, the city’s financial restrictions will prohibit any great rapid transportation system in the viaducts place. Thousands of drivers will be forced to find alternative routes, which will further clog the already congested Seattle streets. Thus, I think that restructuring the mass transit system will prevent further traffic, as well as allow for a slow creation for the viaduct alternative.

    In todays economy, the enhancement of Seattle’s mass transit systems will be more accepted than ever. By adding more routes through the Alaskan viadcut area will enable drivers traveling to their jobs a faster alternative, in addition to saving people money by enjoying the mass transit systems. Adding more routes and allowing buses to travel through downtown tunnels will reach more areas, and save drivers hundreds of dollars In addition, increase the desire to van/carpool by increasing parking taxes.

    By enhancing Seattle’s mass transit system, the quick construction of a new Alaskan way infrastructure will not be necessary. It will give the city the time and financial planning to create the best alternative, one that will improve and enhance the city.

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