Interstate 480 California


Interstate 480, better known as the Embarcadero Freeway, connected Interstate 80 (San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge) with downtown San Francisco via a double-decked freeway that followed today's Embarcadero. The only section that was constructed opened in 1959, and it was signed as Interstate 480 between 1959 and 1965. There is a movie from the mid-1960s that even featured an Interstate 480 shield on a sign bridge on the top deck (westbound) of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. That sign bridge is still in place today, but it is covered with a newer reflective sign just prior to the Fremont Street off-ramp.

With such a grand start, there with even grander plans for the ultimate route of Interstate 480. There were plans, according to a 1964 official map of California, to have Interstate 480 continue northwest past the Broadway exit to meet U.S. 101 and Interstate 280 near the Golden Gate Bridge. The freeway would have continued along the Embarcadero until around Lombard Street, then follow Lombard Street and Richardson Street west to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. There would have been a major interchange at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting Interstate 480 to northbound U.S. 101 and southbound Interstate 280.

At that time, Interstate 280 was proposed to follow California 1 on a corridor roughly parallel to Seventh Avenue and Park Presidio Boulevard. Some maps even showed Interstate 480 as the designation of the unconstructed section of Interstate 280 between the Golden Gate Bridge approach and the current Interstate 280/California 82 interchange.

However, such grandiose plans never came to pass. A freeway revolt in the mid-1960s caused most freeway construction within the city to grind to a halt, and the northern end of Interstate 280 was shifted toward the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Interstate 480 was downgraded to California 480 because the Embarcadero Freeway was truncated at the Sansome Street/Battery Street couplet near Broadway in 1965. However, the majority of the freeway was never built due to opposition from the San Francisco City Council and many residents of the "City by the Bay."

One of several double-decked freeways in the San Francisco Bay Area (others included parts of U.S. 101/Central Freeway and the old Interstate 880/Cypress Viaduct that collapsed in 1989; today, only Interstate 280 remains double decked for a short stretch northeast of U.S. 101), the upper deck carried southbound California 480, and the lower deck carried northbound traffic. Featured in a segment of the acclaimed 1983 movie Koyaanisqatsi, the Embarcadero Freeway was seen as an enigma, exemplifying the concept of "world gone mad." The segment featured a complete tour of the northbound freeway from the Bay Bridge north to Broadway at a high film speed. You can experience the ride along northbound California 480 in a series of video captures at Embarcadero Freeway (Mark Furqueron).

The California 480 freeway obstructed views of the bay from the city, and its two levels dominated the skyline of the city as seen from the bay and Yerba Buena Island. People complained about the look of the structure as it changed the look of the freeway. Although it served a key function in moving traffic through downtown, it came at a price of cutting off the city from its bay, and it also left the waterfront largely ignored. The San Francisco city council worked to get the freeway condemned, with an action in 1985 helping to move in that direction. The freeway did not close until 1989, when the Loma Prieta Earthquake made the structure unsafe for use.

Although some think that the Embarcadero Freeway collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, in actuality California 480 only suffered minor damage. However, the cost to retrofit the structure would be enormous. In addition, the 1985 vote of the city council had indicated that the stub freeway should be removed to restore and redevelop the waterfront. So, within two years, California 480 was removed. The state took action in 1991 by tearing down the freeway and beginning the process to remove the structure. As a result of redevelopment efforts along the former freeway corridor, a tree-lined boulevard, light rail, and walkway reside today where the freeway used to be, offering a much more pleasant bayside view.

The Fremont Street exit from westbound Interstate 80 is the only surviving section of the Interstate 480 (California 480) freeway; the former ramp connecting eastbound Interstate 80 to northbound Interstate 480 is blocked from use. Interstate 480 basically consisted of a series of ramps, including ramps to First Street/Fremont Street, Mission Street/Main Street, and Battery Street/Broadway along northbound. Onramps joined southbound Interstate 480 from Sansome Street/Broadway and Mission Street/Beale Street.

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Southern Terminus - Interstate 80 - San Francisco, California
Perspective from Interstate 80 west
Traveling west on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the first exit along Interstate 80 upon reaching the peninsula is Fremont Street. This exit is the original ramp to the former Interstate 480/California 480 Embarcadero Freeway. Photo taken 11/26/04.
This sign bridge, which is the first to feature exits into downtown San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, indicates that the first exit is for Fremont Street. The nonreflective, button copy sign for Fremont Street covers up a backlit, light green sign underneath. That light green sign used to display: Interstate 480 Embarcadero Freeway. It was covered up for California 480, then Fremont Street after the freeway was removed in 1991. Photo taken 11/26/04.
Westbound Interstate 80/Bay Bridge reaches the Fremont Street exit, which was under construction at the time this photo was taken. This ramp looped from Interstate 80 to the north, then northeast back toward the bay. The freeway again turned north upon reaching the Embarcadero. Photo taken 11/26/04.
Northern Terminus - Sansome Street/Battery Street couplet and Broadway - San Francisco, California

Page Updated May 24, 2005.

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State California
Mileage Approx. 1 mile
Cities San Francisco
Junctions I-80
Source: Rand McNally 1960 Road Atlas