The Failed Promise of Urban Freeways

7 thoughts on “The Failed Promise of Urban Freeways”

  1. As a landscape architect for the San Francisco’s Dept. of Public Works – Bureau of Engineering, I was personally involved in the design of Octavia Boulevard/Patricia’s Green, and what we we referred to as the Central Freeway Replacement Ancillary Projects. I appreciate your post-occupancy assessment of the ancillary projects, which were developed with extensive community involvement.

    At the time I left the Bay Area in 2009, the McCoppin Hub was intended to be a community garden with controlled access for neighborhood residents. I learned through my contact with former DPW colleagues that the program for the Hub had been revised to provide access for food trucks flanking a sloping public plaza. I was concerned with how well this approach would work, especially given the context. My thought at that time was, if food trucks were desired, perhaps they could be accommodated along the curb on Valencia Street by restricting public parking for certain periods of the day. Call it a variation on the “parklet” concept that has become so popular in San Francisco. Another Mission project I worked on, Parque Ninos Unidos, often had a food truck parked alongside the park on Treat Street.

    In any event, the McCoppin Hub is a cautionary example of how successful pop-up uses, which seem to thrive on messy vitality and simple frameworks unconcerned with image, must be carefully considered when translated into a high-end design.

    1. Great comment. I think there are institutional and professional biases in favor of pouring concrete and installing bells and whistles. Architects, engineers, and city officials would have trouble justifying their salaries if they announced that the food trucks on a vacant parking lot were perfect and nothing else needed to be done. I mean… how many billable hours is that, really?

      I spoke with one of the food truck guys a while back and he said what the trucks could really use were utility connections, trash cans, maybe some covered areas for tables for when it rains, and some everyday housekeeping type stuff.

      I’m not opposed to high end designs in public parks. McCoppin was just the wrong venue and application. Do you think the city learned from this experience? Did they actually learn the correct lesson?

      1. Agreed. The Hub is a very difficult design problem. I would hope that the designers reviewed their concept with the food vendors. Based on your conversation, the built project left things out. Another issue that constrained the project was the need to make the food trucks fully accessible, resulting in the path switchbacks that take up much of the space.

        The design profession is often guilty of gilding the lily. More cost usually means more fees, and an expensive project looks good in the resume. Public officials use projects as largesse to boost their political status, make speeches at the openings, then effectively disappear.

        When designing public facilities, elegant, enduring designs focussed on diverse uses are often the best approach, although there are exceptions. But the exceptions must have a lovable quality transcending the designer’s ego. In San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts comes to mind. Ironically, it was a glorious temporary pop-up for the 1915 Pan American Exposition that San Franciscans insisted be kept, at considerable cost.

  2. I think unfortunately it’s a zero sum game in car vs human design. It’s really awesome zipping into the City from 280 South but a total disaster at street level. One possible compromise is wide boulevards with generous setbacks so street life can continue somewhat but drivers get where they’re going somewhat fast.

    But what about the dead zones we do have? I like your thoughts about how cities need space for a little creative or even illegal activity. How about converting some of those parking lots / homeless encampments to artist studios, maker workshops, etc?

    1. I don’t like the zero sum interpretation. Instead I prefer the concept of the transect. On the wide spectrum of city to suburb to countryside different systems work better in each location.

      As a city dweller I know that when I go out to the suburbs or countryside I am obliged to drive. I must adapt to the landscape. I will be profoundly disappointed if I try to get from Point A to Point B on transit in suburbia. Renting a car for the day works just fine.

      Suburbanites need to understand that when they enter the city they need to leave the car behind and take a train, bus, or bicycle – or tolerate the pain of traffic congestion and expensive parking. The city needs to concentrate on being vibrant and walkable. There are far better and more profitable uses for the land consumed by urban freeways.

      Your “wide boulevards with generous setbacks” can work in select locations (I’ve seen it work on some streets in Paris for example), but generally I’m opposed to any environment than isn’t truly comfortable for humans. Making the city car friendly is a losing deal even for the cars since it will never be as good as the suburban arrangement. In the same way traffic calming designs along the strip mall and big box arterials of the suburbs is an unwanted infringement on drivers and actually does very little to help third class pedestrians in the miserable context of sprawl anyway.

      Let the city do what the city does well. Let the suburbs do what the suburbs do well. Of course, if the suburbs go broke trying to maintain all those massive roadways on the limited tax base of drive-thru burger joints and schmaltzy tract homes… that’s a problem for the suburbs to sort out in their own fashion.

  3. The park failure is instructive. It might seem like a nice park would draw people, but who wants to go a park right next to an urban freeway? And of course the food trucks had to relocate during construction and because of network effect no individual food truck will move back first so they all stay in the new place. The upgrade might have worked if done incrementally.

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