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California Freeway Legacy

Mar 19, 2012

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner, VIA Architecture
Monday, December 30, 1940 California’s first modern freeway, the “Arroyo Seco,” was born. The event initiated the population’s full embrace of limited access freeways and expressways in a building boom. A year after the passage of Eisenhower’s 1956 Interstate Highway and Defense Act, the California Division of Highways proposed construction of a vast system; 12,250 miles of controlled access highways would serve every city with a population greater than 5,000. In the next decade the dream was made possible by a large infusion of Federal cash (in California, the federal burden clocked in at 91% percent of the costs for designated Interstate Highway mileage), top down planning and few environmental controls. Infrastructure investment throughout the fifties was an extension of post-depression economic development intended to stave off recession, as well as providing one face of the coin for access to the Modern Suburban American Dream.

1958 Bay Area Freeway-Expressway plans (courtesy Erik Fischer Flicker Photo Stream)

Sixty years later, cruising around the State, we alternatively take this infrastructure for granted while also being astounded at the scale of change accomplished in such a short time. Here in Oakland, at the landing of the Bay Bridge’s eastern shore, four highways converge in one of the Nation’s largest distribution systems, completed in the late 1950s. Arguably the zenith of California highway building, it is known locally as “The Maze.”

Oakland’s approach to the Bridge in 1936 – note the pedestrians on the on ramp. (courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

2012, the Maze’s elevated freeway routes and a BART train

Highways in Oakland, the port and the Bay as seen from above (Courtesy bats Flickr Photo Stream)

Of course, while they offered new mobility, freeways came at the expense of the health and aesthetic form of a neighborhood. Urban communities were routinely demolished, and concrete barriers entrenched dividing lines that still affect both today’s crime rates and real estate price points.  In West Oakland alone there are 54 Acres of empty space under its freeways; some used for parking, but most is overgrown or used for illegal dumping. Looking back one can almost see the large flows of our Nation’s capital dollars flowing out of the urbanized and industrial urban centers (where labor was strong) and redistributed into greenfield, suburban landscapes where districts could define their own terms with their surroundings.

The freeway system, followed quickly by BART, shuttled people past the rooftops of minority neighborhoods and into new areas that could afford to ignore perceived “urban problems.” In Alameda, multifamily housing was outlawed in the City’s 1973 charter.

City Center… linking Federal Programs for Job Opportunities and Economic Development, May, 1967. Shows the Cypress expressway completed in 1957. The expressway fell down in the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake and was subsequently moved. (courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

Census 2010 population distribution of the Bay Area (Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents.)(courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

Fast forward to today. The last freeway was built in 1991; very few are now proposed. California’s suburban expansion is, arguably, complete. We are now saddled with a strongly anti-tax population that has scaled back its ability to invest in infrastructure, while simultaneously, the cost of infrastructure construction has risen.

High Speed Rail (HSR) is emblematic of this new reality. Despite its real value as a visionary solution to congestion on the 1-5 corridor, it again is representative of a broad  re-distribution of wealth– both federal and state capital back once again into our urban centers. HSR has been using rational planning arguments to battle against what is mostly emotional and fear based, and an entrenched anti-urban position. For many, it is the recognition that those “urban problems” must be shared more broadly. The project is in stalemate, trapped by both the courts and the environmental processes, and may yet be either litigated or legislated out of existence, or return in some scaled-down form.

Transbay terminal downtown San Francisco

The result for the near future is arguably a focus on smaller scale, urban and multi-modal corridor development. These are a broad range of interventions that are less threatening and can have immediate benefit on surrounding populace in safety health and aesthetics. I’ve seen many of these homegrown, community-led conversations throughout northern California, and increasingly in Los Angeles County with a focus on urban-scaled mobility and affordable interventions. While they lack the monumental appeal of a highway program or HSR, the conversations here in the East Bay focus on bridging gaps, rebuilding, and even reintroducing portions of the older systems, such as the East Bay Key system.

Key System Street Car Route 1926

This year, the City of Oakland is initiating a study (for yes, the third time) to look into the feasibility and potential economic development opportunities that would result from a streetcar line connecting Jack London Square with Oakland’s Uptown and MacArthur BART. A $300,000 grant from CalTrans will pay for an updated study. Similarly, AC Transit is on route to construct the Bay Area’s first real BRT along Telegraph Avenue (another of the Key System routes).

Many around our region are in agreement that dollars should be spent where they will benefit the greatest number of people, such as improving those areas that are already fully serviced by good transportation infrastructure and/or mass transit.  However, consensus building takes time, and it has become an increasingly desperate reflection of our times. It’s not a comfortable outcome for everyone, including both those who will see their share of investments shrink, and those who are fighting for a bigger share.

October 2012, Occupy Oakland encampment