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Only 24 percent of jobs in the region are accessible by transit in 90 minutes or less by a typical resident — and that number drops to 12 percent in the suburbs.

San Francisco provides a path to a city’s waterfront revitalization

As Chicago begins a long process to reconstruct North Lake Shore Drive, one of our city’s most iconic streets, the Active Transportation Alliance and a coalition of 15 civic organizations in the city of Chicago are calling for a bold vision to better meet the needs of everyone who uses the lakefront. 

Next week Active Trans will partner with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to give a lunchtime lecture about our vision to improve transit along the lakefront, build a people-friendly roadway, and provide better access to our parks.

Leading up to that event, we’re working with guest blogger Ian Adams to share a series of stories of how other cities are rethinking their waterfronts. Please enjoy these examples from other cities, which we hope offer inspiration for how Chicago could better tap our lakefront’s full potential and transform our waterfront into a more people-friendly place.

San Francisco provides a path to a city's waterfront revitalization

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The Embarcadero Freeway in 1978
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The Embarcadero, after the removal of the freeway
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The Embarcadero, after the removal of the freeway

Last year, while visiting the Bay area for work, I went for a jog in downtown San Francisco. My natural aversion to climbing steep hills led me to the Embarcadero area along the waterfront. As I took in the view of the Bay Bridge, little did I know that an elevated freeway once ran directly over where I stood.

Since the Embarcadero freeway was torn down in 1991, the surrounding area has improved dramatically. The transformation of the Embarcadero area has created a space that is more vibrant and people friendly. It's incorporated other forms of transportation and increased property values.

As Chicago begins the difficult process to reconstruct North Lake Shore Drive, San Francisco offers some interesting food for thought about how a city can re-examine waterfront freeways to create a more people-friendly and connected city. Could something like this be an option for Chicago?

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay area and badly damaged the Embarcadero freeway. This urban freeway had long been unpopular with residents: In 1959, before construction was even complete, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the construction of other similar freeways.

The high cost of rebuilding the elevated highway after its partial collapse only added to this opposition. As a result, San Francisco removed this section of freeway and redeveloped the street underneath, connecting it to the street grid.

Some residents were concerned about what this freeway removal would do to traffic congestion, and predicted gridlock and chaos. These dire predictions never materialized. Following the earthquake, the freeway was closed due to damage. Traffic patterns adjusted.

Today, multiple lanes of vehicle traffic flow in both directions in addition to trolley lines, bike lanes and large pedestrian-friendly areas. When I visited the area on a weekday morning, traffic flowed freely down the Embarcadero. Palm trees now line the wide pedestrian promenades that flank the street.

Revitalization plans have also led to dramatic changes and stimulated mixed-use development.

The Embarcadero freeway removal was a great improvement for this area of the city and helped pave the way to a friendly, more attractive waterfront. San Francisco created a people-friendly place while still providing a major thoroughfare for car traffic. Chicago would be well served by looking at San Francisco’s path as it considers the transition of Lake Shore Drive from a highway to a friendlier, more accommodating boulevard.

This is a guest blog by Ian Adams. Ian is a volunteer with the Active Transportation Alliance.