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News + PoliticsCars, bikes—and equity—as supes consider road closure in Golden Gate Park

Cars, bikes—and equity—as supes consider road closure in Golden Gate Park

Plus: Is the board ready to end single-family housing in San Francisco? That's The Agenda for April 25-May 1


The long, long saga of cars on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park will come to a head Tuesday/26 when the Board of Supes, sitting as the County Transportation Authority, will consider whether to adopt a measure closing the road to cars permanently.

We’ve been talking about this for about half a century. It’s not as simple as it sounds.

When the city agreed to close the road on Sundays, way back in 1967, it created a great recreation opportunity. Both my kids learned to ride bikes on JFK Drive on Sundays. Thousands and thousands of San Franciscans have taken advantage of the car-free day, and when the weather is nice, it’s really festive: People dance, and roller skate, and walk, and run, and ride.

Photo of Skatin’ Place in Golden Gate Park by Lucas Thornton

And almost as soon as the Sunday closures became a big hit, people started talking about Saturdays. Back in the 1990s, when the late Warren Hellman was leading a campaign to build an underground garage for the rebuilt DeYoung Museum, activist pushed for a deal: You want a garage to bring in cars for rich people who want a convenient way to get to parties at the museum? Give us Saturday road closures.

That never happened.

And then the Pandemic hit, and the city closed both JFK and the Great Highway, as well as a lot of other city streets, to give everyone a place to go outside, where the chances of infection were lower. This, again, was widely popular, at first.

Now the idea that road closures might be permanent, we’re seeing some serious political disagreement, and at times it’s gotten really nasty. I ran two opeds about the Great Highway closure, one in favor and one against; because I gave both sides a forum, people on Twitter literally accused me of selling out to the Petroleum Industry (and asked if 48hills got money from oil companies; um, no).

But it’s not just environmentalists against people who want to drive everywhere and ruin the planet. Sup. Shamann Walton has taken the position that the permanent closure of JFK Drive is “recreational redlining.”

Not everyone can get to the park on the bus or ride a bike. (I admit: When my kids were little, we would (gasp) drive to the park with the bikes in a rack on the back, as many other people did and do. It’s not safe for a six-year-old just learning to balance to ride through city streets.)  Public transit from Southeast San Francisco to Golden Gate Park is limited, and it takes forever. People with mobility issues aren’t all on board with the road closures, either.

So at Walton’s urging, the Transportation Authority spent $200,000 on a “Equity Study.” The agency did two focus groups, with a total of ten participants; conducted a phone and email survey of 310 people; and did an on-site “intercept” survey on several weekends in the park and collected 422 responses.

You can read the entire report here.

The results show that, both before and after the Pandemic closures, about 65 percent of the people using the park were white or Asian. Less than 20 percent were Black or Latino.

That, not surprisingly, corresponds to the population characteristics of the neighborhoods closest to the park, where people can walk or safely ride bikes to get to JFK Drive.

Only about ten percent of the people in district 10 go to Golden Gate Park on a regular basis. But 51 percent of them would like to spend more time there.

Why don’t they? Muni service is inadequate or too slow, so it takes too long to get there. The parking garage is too expensive ($33 a day), and with the road closed, it’s too hard to get around and find parking.

Only nine percent of the D10 residents said they eschewed GGP  because they enjoy the parks closer to where they live.

From the focus groups:

Individuals from District 10 and District 11 expressed that the closure significantly impacted the ability for seniors to travel to the eastern portion of GGP. Several participants of the focus group were seniors and highlighted the need for accessibility improvements for those who are elderly or have mobility challenges because of the less direct access to destinations from parking and loading areas, particularly the museums and events along JFK Drive itself.

Individuals from District 10 and District 11 emphasized that the closure of JFK Drive limited their ability to drive and park in free spaces near attractions, necessitating them to pay for the garage, which they saw as unaffordable.

“I think it proves,” Walton told me, “what we have always known, that the park is not accessible to all of San Francisco.”

The Equity Report still concludes that closing the road would improve conditions over pre-Covid days, because there will be more shuttles and the 29 Muni line will be improved. It also touts “demand-based pricing” at the garage, which it claims

would increase parking availability during the busiest times by encouraging parking turnover to reduce temporal barriers. However, dynamic pricing may increase parking costs for some by increasing the cost of parking during the busiest times, adding economic barriers.

In other words, on nice days and weekends it will cost even more to park.

None of this is to say that closing the road is a bad idea, or that cars aren’t wrecking the planet, or that we all have to move toward a world with different types of transportation. But there are clearly important equity issues here, and I think sometimes the folks who are healthy, young, live near the park and have nice bikes and love to ride overlook that—as so many San Franciscans overlook the role of poverty, income inequality, and class in so many political debates.

That hearing starts at 9am.

A measure that would end single-family housing in San Francisco—and by the admission of city planners and some of its supporters, would mean the demolition of existing housing—is back before the Land Use and Transportation Committee Monday/25.

The measure would fulfill a longtime Yimby goal—but it far from clear whether it would create much of any affordable housing. It’s been amended a bunch and continued several times, but if the committee approves it this week, it will soon be at the full board.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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