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Saturday, October 16, 2021

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News + PoliticsTransportationAppeal seeks to block reopening of the Great Highway to cars

Appeal seeks to block reopening of the Great Highway to cars

But neighborhood residents say closure has just driven heavy traffic into local streets that can't handle it.


Urban planning activists Brian Coyne and Scott Feeney filed Aug. 9 for an immediate appeal to block the August 16 reopening of the Upper Great Highway to car traffic.

The appeal said that the reopening of the Upper Great Highway falls under definition of a “project” under the California Environmental Quality Act. They say the highway’s reopening will introduce more automobile traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, requiring an environmental review under state law, and ask that the reopening of the Upper Great Highway to cars be postponed until after the Board of Supervisors return from recess and have the opportunity to vote on the CEQA appeal.

The Great Highway closure has been popular—but has also driven traffic in to the surrounding neighborhoods. Photo from city’s report.

Coyne, a Political Science lecturer at Stanford and an avid bicyclist, also said he believes that the re-motorization of the Upper Great Highway, done by the Mayor’s Office with support from Supervisors Gordon Mar, who represents the district containing the closed stretch of the Upper Great Highway, Connie Chan, and Myrna Melgar, flies in the face of an ongoing public process led by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Parks and Recreation Department which seeks to determine whether the public wants the Great Highway to maintain four traffic lanes, none, or somewhere in-between, after the COVID emergency health order is lifted.

“This is the Mayor unilaterally cutting short the process of public engagement,” Coyne said.

Mar said the process of deciding the road’s future is still ongoing, and the reopening is a modification of temporary modified use of the Great Highway as a pedestrian open space during the pandemic.

“This decision to reopen the Great Highway to vehicles on weekdays is really an adjustment to the emergency, temporary use of the Great Highway during the pandemic,” Mar said. “The public planning process to develop a proposal on the use of the Great Highway after the lifting of the health order is ongoing, and will move towards a consideration by the Board of Supervisors later this year.”

The closure of the Great Highway to vehicle traffic in order to give pedestrians more open space to socially distance, ushered in by Mar in April 2020, has proven to be widely popular (at least, for people who don’t live nearby). It was the second most-visited recreational space in the city, edged out only by Golden Gate Park, and attracting more than 126,000 visitors each month.

The mayor’s rationale for reopening the Great Highway to car traffic is that families will need to have access to drive their kids to school as the academic year begins as a means to mitigate issues with congestion on residential streets in the Sunset as well as Sunset Boulevard and 19th Avenue.

“Having the Great Highway closed on weekends and holidays will make sure that residents and visitors still can enjoy this incredible space, while recognizing the needs of our families and residents who need to get to school and work during the week as we reopen,” Breed said in an August 5 press release.

Mar said that he supports Breed’s decision, saying that it is necessary to mitigate ongoing issues with traffic congestion in other parts of the Sunset caused by the Great Highway’s continued closure to cars as traffic nears pre-pandemic levels.

“Right now is a time when we need to look at a compromise for the use of the Great Highway that will allow us to maintain the recreational benefits of the Great Highway while also relieving the significant traffic impacts as traffic increases on our city streets,” Mar said.

But opposition to the road closure is strong in the nearby neighborhoods.

Since the highway has been closed, once-quiet residential streets in the Sunset have become high-volume traffic corridors those north-south travelers. According to the Great Highway Concepts Evaluation Report, 86 percent of Upper Great Highway traffic were people traveling from the Richmond or Sunset towards the South Bay.

Steven Hill, an Outer Sunset resident who has lived on Lincoln Way since the late 1990s, said that traffic that was previously confined to the Upper Great Highway now drives past his house, sometimes not stopping at stop signs and driving at unsafe speeds.

“I moved out here because it was slower and quieter…now it’s like a freeway out there at this point,” Hill said. “There’s a stop sign at 44th and Lincoln, many drivers don’t even stop there, they just slow down a little bit, look, and zoom right through. And there’s a children’s playground right there.

“And there’s all of these hot-rodders that used to go down Great Highway, those three-wheeled vehicles, there was that long stretch, they now go up and down Lincoln Way, I can hear them.”

Hill added that the appeal’s notion that the closure of the Great Highway reduced carbon emissions from vehicles is incorrect, saying that the motorist simply took different roads, mainly Sunset Boulevard, 19th Avenue, and other residential roads in the Sunset.

“It’s like squeezing a balloon, it just pops out somewhere else,” Hill said.

The findings from the CTA’s Great Highway Concepts Evaluation Report concurred with Hill’s experience, estimating that if the Great Highway were permanently closed, as many San Franciscans support, 60 to 70 percent of traffic would be diverted onto Sunset Boulevard and the remainder would likely use residential streets or 19th Avenue, as well as streets in Golden Gate Park, including Chain of Lakes and MLK.

Others like Hill who oppose the permanent closure of the Great Highway to vehicle traffic have created a petition with more than 11,000 signatures calling on the city to reopen the Great Highway to vehicle traffic permanently, saying that the closure diverts traffic deeper into the Sunset, increasing congestion in residential areas.

At this point, although the appeal has been filed, its future is unclear, Coyne said.

First, there is a possibility that the appeal will be struck down outright for procedural reasons, as it is not immediately clear if the mayor’s announcement, which was made through a press release, counts as an official order, and therefore whether it is eligible to be appealed through CEQA. Secondly, the Great Highway reopens Monday, leaving only one business day for the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors to make the determination whether the CEQA appeal is legal—and even if the clerk concurs with Coyne, the timing may just be too tight.

“I’m not optimistic at this point that the appeal will have time to go through, even if the clerk does accept that argument,” Coyne said. 

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  1. One of the more balanced articles re the Great Highway. This CEQA appeal should have been filed BEFORE the Great Highway was closed to cars. THAT was a project. Returning it to it’s original use as a highway is not a project. It’s undoing a project that did not undergo public comment, hearings, environmental impact report, etc etc in the first place. Had it been more thoughtful with the appropriate infrastructure changes needed to accommodate 18,000 diverted cars/day there would not be this controversy today.

  2. 🚘 Regarding your subhead about what “neighborhood residents say,” well first of all, that should be SOME residents (not even most of them). But #ProTip, you know you can check that against SWITRS data, right? It’s generally a good idea when doing this journalism stuff to check opinions against available evidence before giving them such prominence.

    SWITRS data does not support this opinion, by the way.

  3. Drove it this morning to take my kid to soccer practice next to San Mateo border. Thank god. It felt so good to have beaten the elitist progressive white movement at their own game. Warning to those looking for battle ahead. We are ready and we will not allow you to ruin San Francisco and turn it into Berkeley.

  4. What’s the deal with livability advocates choosing to die on the hill of these vanity marquee livability projects, JFK and Great Highway?

    All things being equal, these projects would be fine. But with cycling increasingly dangerous in town, where most cyclists ride, all things are not equal.

    Yet these marquee vanity projects continue to get centered, hill after hill to die on.

  5. It cracks me up to read comments about how supposedly few pedestrians and cyclists use the Great Highway. As a former SF cab driver of 20+ years, the highway was always wide open and devoid but all of a few cars—even at rush hour. Bring back the closure!

  6. Close the Great at 6am Saturday to 6pm Sunday. That’s the only time more than a handful of pedestrians and bikers use it.

  7. In addition, the photo in the article was photoshopped. There are NOT nearly that many ppl who use the UGH. False reporting.

  8. To not reopen the Upper Great Hwy permanently causes San Francisco County to continue to contribute negatively to climate change and global warming. Vehicles including Mack trucks have been forced to find open surface streets to get to their destination. They regularly sit in stop and go traffic, vehicles idling, and taking an enormous amount of time to travel from point A to point B. Neighborhood streets weren’t built for Mac trucks.

    As it stand now, the Upper Great Hwy will still remain closed from Friday afternoon until Monday morning and on holidays, during which time all of the impacts of diverting thousands of cars into a quiet, residential neighborhood, and traffic congestion in Golden Gate Park will continue. This is ridiculous when SF has some 75 parks not counting NPS space. Cars and trucks are and will continue to clog quiet streets; increasing risk to pedestrian and traffic safety; greenhouse gas emissions due to drivers spending more time in their cars while they detour around the Great Highway does and will increase; and emergency vehicle response will be slowed, when a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Closing the upper Great Hwy also turns away tourists and tax paying SF residents from being able to enjoy this part of San Francisco. It appears that tourist revenue is no longer valued in this city.

    Additionally, as you know, there are plans to replace this temporary Emergency Order with a pilot program that could again completely close the Great Highway for two more years, continuing the problems that have plagued the Western part of San Francisco for over a year. And this pilot program will be conducted without an Environmental Impact Report as mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act.

  9. If the Mayor is cutting short the process for public engagement, where was this “engagement” when the road was closed? This closure was TEMPORARY and there was no public process for all the people that live on this side of the city and are directly affected by the closure, let alone mitigation efforts for the 20K cars that use this road per day. Mitigation efforts were thrown together by SFMTA to deal with the onslaught of issues that ensued. The Sunset residential streets are inundated with traffic, people now DRIVE to the Great Highway to ride on it. The road is being re-opened to cars, but that doesn’t mean it’s closed to bicycles. Share the road, use the existing path. End the mess that was created with this closure and deal with the compromise instead of being a cry-baby because your precious bike route is being returned to it’s original state.

  10. How can returning something to its original use be considered a project? Seems to me creating a
    Pilot project is something that would need a CEQA which they have not done.

  11. Thanks to Garrett Leahy for the balanced reporting on this issue of reopening the GH to auto traffic on weekdays. Most of the coverage I´ve seen on this matter has been quite biased against reopening the road to auto traffic, which was its original use. (Chronicle writer Heather Knight is particularly biased in her coverage, making her articles opinion pieces, at best.)

    We need to start learning how to compromise more here in San Francisco and share the space. The current zero-sum game approach is divisive, inflammatory and pits citizen against citizen. Let´s adopt some better hippy vibes and attitudes and Right Relations. Share the GH: car free on the weekends and open to auto traffic on the weekdays for those who need to get their kids to school and drive to and for work (not everyone is lucky enough to have a well-paying job where they can work from home).

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