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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.

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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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