In the city of the future, the one that I want to live in, hardly anyone gets around in a private automobile. Public transit is fast, efficient, ubiquitous and free. Taxis – real taxis, with unionized drivers, not Ubers – using electric vehicles fill in the gaps and help people with mobility issues get to their destinations. It’s easy and safe to ride a bike most places.
That is not the city we live in today. In fact, in the COVID era, we are going in the other direction – Muni is close to collapse, taxi permit holders are desperate and facing bankruptcy, Uber is finding new ways to screw its drivers, and safety-conscious people who can afford it are getting around town in their cars.
That is, when they get around. COVID has decreased all types of travel; people whose jobs allow it work from home, and they shop online or in local stores. With less traffic, and more incentive for people to get outside, the SFMTA has closed or partially closed streets all over town – and has shut down JFK Drive to cars every day.
That used to be just a Sunday thing. Now, the roadway that’s one of the major routes through the park is filled with kids running around, people riding bikes, roller skaters, dancers … it’s festive and fun, and safe.
And the MTA and Rec-Park are moving, pretty much on their own, to make the road closure permanent.
Five years ago, I would have been entirely on their side. But post-COVID San Francisco is going to be a very different place, and deciding what to do with roads and parks – and most important, public transportation – needs to be a thoughtful process with lots of community input.
That, Sup. Shamann Walton told me, has not happened. “These were closed-door decisions,” he said. “There were hidden conversations. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Walton is the president of the Board of Supervisors. Nobody at MTA or Rec-Park contacted him to explain what was going on. That seems like a pretty serious problem.
The MTA, he told me, “says they want to have these discussions, but they seem to have already made their decisions.”
Walton calls the decision “recreational redlining.” It’s pretty difficult for people from Southeast San Francisco to get to the park on public transit. It’s expensive — $33 a day – to park in the museum parking lot.
There are lots of other parking spaces – about 5,000, all over the park. And plenty of other roads are open. People from the Southeast aren’t the only ones who drive – it’s hard to get the barbecue grill, the picnic blankets, the balls and the bats and the volleyball nets all on the bus with you. If your kids are young, they aren’t riding their bikes all the way to the park (unless they live right next door).
Other than the young tech workers with their expensive bikes (who are among the most vocal advocates of keeping the road closure permanent) odds are pretty good that most of the families who are now enjoying the car-free stretch drove and parked somewhere.
It’s only 300 parking spaces, and it works fine on Sundays. But Walton says there’s more to it than the bikes v. cars. “This was tone deaf,” he told me. “They don’t have Muni up and running, and they are spending all this time and effort on something that has no benefits for the people I represent.”
The racial issues in SF parks policy are nothing new. I have spent a lot of time in Golden Gate Park, and these days I spend a lot of time in McLaren Park, and the difference is obvious: Far, far more resources have gone into making GGP a gem. McLaren is almost the same size, and is a beautiful space, on a hilltop with great views — but historically it has been an afterthought in the park system.
Everyone know GGP is a “crown jewel” in the city’s parks. Why can’t McLaren be a crown jewel, too, a destination for people from all over town (and the region) that happens to be accessible to people who live in the Southeast? Nobody talks about putting a Ferris Wheel or an arboretum in McLaren Park.
“They continue to neglect parks like McLaren,” Walton told me.
(There is, by the way, a closed road in McLaren where kids can bike and roller skate, and nobody at the Chron has made a big deal out of it. I wonder if Heather Knight has even gone there.)
The opposition to JFK road closures has come primarily from the DeYoung Museum trustees, who don’t want to make it any harder for people to get to the place. They were the ones who pushed for the underground (expensive) parking lot.
There’s also the Academy of Sciences – and according to academy figures, about 80 percent of their (pre-COVID) visitors are from out of San Francisco, 60 percent from the Bay Area. For the next year, at least, I am going to guess, families with kids aren’t going to be riding BART into the city to visit the academy. Nobody from Marin or the Peninsula will.
Still, the Academy says it isn’t against JFK road closures – as long as the process is well planned and everyone is at the table.
Matt Brezina, a tech angel investor, led a rally in front of the Academy today; it was, one observer told me, “a high-end electric bike convention.” The fact that the tech bros are a key part of this movement creates a certain degree of community distrust.
As does, frankly, Rec-Park.
The Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council has not taken a position on the issue, its president, Lisa Awbrey, told me. “But our concern has to do with racial justice and limited access for people with disabilities. Besides, the way Rec-Park handles things has not given us a lot of confidence.”
Bruce Wolfe, a Haight resident and an outspoken activist for sunshine and disability rights, told me:
“There was no public process. The level of transportation access for people with disabilities was always poor, and if they are going to do this there has to be some sort of drop-off access.”
There’s a much larger issue here:
San Francisco is going to have to transform its entire public transit system in the next two years – and I don’t think Muni is even close to discussing reality.
The entire Muni system is designed to get people from residential areas to downtown. Two years from now, it’s entirely possible that downtown will have 20 million square feet of empty space, and that jobs and transportation needs will be far more spread out across the city.
Muni’s light rail can’t meet those needs (in fact, the folks in Bayview Hunters Point are so unhappy with the T-Third that they fought to get the 15 bus line back). The trolley coaches have limited flexibility. Five years from now, the city may need an entirely different fleet of battery-power buses that go on totally different routes.
One of them could take people from Bayview Hunters Point to Golden Gate Park.
But it doesn’t exist now.
And Muni planning needs to take into account communities that have been underserved for decades.
Maybe there are good solutions that will work not just right now but permanently. Making the garage free to San Franciscans. Providing easier, more effective shuttles (I’m thinking maybe golf carts paged by cell phone and radio) to get seniors and disabled people around the area. Maybe taxis – real taxis, not Ubers – get the rights to drive people with mobility issues into the park. The Academy may need some financial support as we figure out how this is all going to work.
But that’s the point: We have to figure out how this is all going to work.
I get that people don’t want to see a sudden end to car-free JFK Drive; neither do I. So maybe Rec-Park and MTA could extend it a year, while we all work out the post-COVID city. It’s going to be a lot of work.
I know a lot of tech workers hate public process; they want to move fast and break things. But that’s not how things work in San Francisco – and for the most part, that’s a good thing.