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News + PoliticsOpinionOpinion: Closing JFK Drive and the Great Highway was a big mistake

Opinion: Closing JFK Drive and the Great Highway was a big mistake

The post-pandemic reasons for closure are disingenuous and make for bad public policy.

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Editor’s note: This site doesn’t take positions on candidates and ballot measures, but we do welcome opinions. We are publishing two different perspectives on the future of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway, and this is one. You can see the dissenting view here.

In a “multi-everything city” like San Francisco, land-use issues are the toughest of challenges. How does a city of more than 800,000 people equitably share the urban-scape? Adding to the list of bitter division around housing and homelessness we can add pandemic-driven street closures, including the Great Highway, JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, and nearly 30 streets around the city to through-automobile traffic.

Mayor London Breed held a press conference on April 27, 2020 announcing the closure of JFK Drive saying it would last “through the course of this Stay-At-Home order. And I want to be clear,” she said, “After this Stay-At-Home order has expired, that will no longer be the case.” (see this link, and go to the 9:35 mark)

A deal was made with all San Franciscans – temporarily give up driving on these streets during this deadly pandemic, so that your fellow San Franciscans will have more open spaces to recreate and to allow 6 feet of social distancing. 

Most people in the City of St. Francis trusted their leaders and were happy to comply. And yet, less than a year later, when Mayor Breed lifted her Stay-at-Home order on January 25, 2021, she did not reopen any streets. And as the impacts of the pandemic slowly lifted, once most people were vaccinated and back to work, school, shopping, working out in gyms and fitness centers, with lots of places to recreate and bicycle, the only thing that remained closed was the pandemic-shuttered streets. 

That’s when city officials and their allies in the SF Bicycle Coalition revealed their real agenda—they want these streets closed permanently for the exclusive use of bicyclists. The vast majority of San Franciscans, those who use their automobiles to commute to work, take their children to soccer practice, drive to doctors’ appointments and the Veterans Administration Hospital, had been tricked. US Census figures show that, pre-pandemic, the percent of San Franciscans who bike to work was in low single digits and declining. Yet these public streets have been turned over exclusively for the private use of a small number of individuals, the vast majority of them men, according to the SF Chronicle. 

But the new post-pandemic reasons for closure are disingenuous and make for bad public policy.

Reason #1. Get people out of their cars to reduce carbon emissions.

I couldn’t agree more. But closing streets without providing better transportation options, such as a well-functioning public transit system, will never accomplish that. In fact, it makes the situation worse. For example, on the weekends, pre-pandemic, 40,000 cars used the Great Highway. Now when the Great Highway is closed, those cars instead are traveling through the Sunset neighborhood, usually backed up in congested traffic. I know, because they go right by my house. Hot rodders speed up Lincoln Way as it becomes the new Great Highway, not even pausing at the Stop sign at the Children’s playground at 45th Ave. We’ve had one fatal accident close by, plus other mishaps. 

In addition, cars are clogged in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Chain of Lakes Drive, smack through the middle of Golden Gate Park (see the photos). Instead of travelling a few short miles from north to south on the Great Highway, cars now wind through the neighborhood. Closing roads only adds to the miles traveled and carbon emitted. Rerouting traffic has been like squeezing a balloon: you squeeze it in one place, it pops out somewhere else. Bizarrely, San Francisco has tried to create a “park” out of a highway, and turned an actual park into a highway.

From the air: Cars on Great Highway backed up but no bicyclists or walkers using the empty space beyond the locked gate.

Bumper to bumper traffic inside Golden Gate Park  — this park has been turned into a highway, and a highway into a park

Closing JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park also does nothing to get people out of their cars. It just makes it harder for disabled and partially abled people, the elderly and families with children who are trying to access the museums, the Conservatory of Flowers, the gardens and other highlights along this stretch, to use the amenities that their taxes have paid for. 

The real solution to getting people out of their cars is to massively increase public transportation. But neither Mayor Breed, SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin nor the Board of Supervisors have done anything toward that goal. Tumlin has still not even restored all the bus lines that were cut during the pandemic. 

Reason #2. Climate change is eroding the westside cliffs and the Great Highway Extension is a contributing factor and must be closed.

This would be alarming, if true. But there is no data or science to support this claim. Look through any of the various reports, including the Ocean Beach Master Plan, the Ocean Beach Climate Change Adaptation Project, or from the Army Corps of Engineers. No reports have established that the presence of a road there is in any way contributing to coastal erosion, either now or in the future. The roadway sits at the top of a massive 75-foot escarpment, and while there has been some erosion there, downtown SF is in much greater threat of flooding than this roadway. Yet no one is proposing shutting down the Embarcadero. Instead, the Great Highway Extension is scheduled to be replaced by a parking lot and bicycle path, and the existing sewage treatment plant will be maintained there. If coastal erosion is such a threat to the Great Highway Extension, why is it not also a threat to the treatment plant, or a bicycle path and a parking lot?

The answer: politics. This is another example where the usual city agencies have manipulated fake facts to create a “conventional wisdom” that is not supported by the science. And it is being done without any consideration of the impact on the working people from the west side. Seven days a week, the Great Highway Extension is an important throughway for commuters and people wanting to recreate south of the city. I know a teacher who works at a school in Burlingame and bought their home in the Richmond because they could commute using the Great Highway Extension route. This permanent road closure is being rammed through, just like they did during the pandemic with the other streets. Who will speak up for these workers? 

Reason #3. These road closures are popular recreation spots for bicyclists.

I ride my bicycle. I can understand those who want more room to do it. But why shut down JFK Drive, the most important arterial in Golden Gate Park, which is needed by disabled, partially abled and elderly folks and families with children to access its popular attractions and events such as “Winter Lights”? There are other streets in the park that could be closed for bicyclists. The bus system bringing people to the park is slow and infrequent. Try packing your kids with their baseball equipment and picnic baskets to the park on a bus. When did the compassionate “City of St. Francis” become so coldhearted towards these vulnerable and challenged individuals and families (which includes my partially disabled wife)? 

The same with the Great Highway. Why select a highway used by 40,000 weekend drivers when another less-used street in the Outer Sunset could have been commandeered for this purpose?

In addition, these closures are not as popular as the fake data from SFMTA and Rec and Park would have you believe. Using the power of public records requests, we found a treasure trove of emails showing how these agencies grotesquely manipulated usage data. For example, SFMTA’s own data showed that in 2021, as people became vaccinated and the pandemic lifted, usage of the Great Highway plummeted by 57 percent. They hid this data, yet this significant drop-off was confirmed by a second independent study of anonymized cell phone data.

Anyone who actually lives in the Outer Sunset understands why: The foggy, windy, chilly climate near the beach is often nasty for bicycling and walking. As people who live along the Great Highway can attest, on most days when the Great Highway is closed to autos few bicyclists and pedestrians use it – locals refer to it as the Great Nobody. Their usage pales in comparison to 40,000 vehicles per weekend. 

Reason #4. SF needs a “managed retreat” from the coast to deal with sand build up and migrating sand dunes.

I’ve lived in the Outer Sunset for 25 years, and occasional sand buildup on the Great Highway has always needed attention. But only since Rec and Park started manipulating its campaign for this new “park” has it suddenly been a “problem.” In the past, the Department of Public Works cleaned off the sand from the road. Sometimes it took a few days. This year, it took over two months. Coincidence? 

I grew up on the East Coast, where we had snow every year. Sometimes the snow lasted for weeks and months. The snowplows didn’t wait until the end of the winter to plow the roads. City government plowed the roads every day. Yet in pathetically political San Francisco, despite a $13 billion budget, now suddenly there wasn’t enough funds to remove sand from a highway used by tens of thousands of commuters Monday through Friday?

That’s politics, folks. Not data or science.

Compromises are still possible – how to get to win-win

The real tragedy here is that a number of compromises are possible. 

1. Redesign the Great Highway.

A redesign of the four automobile lanes, two wide natural lane dividers and existing bike and pedestrian paths would allow the creation of a shared use area that can accommodate all the various transportation modes. It will cost some money, but the Biden administration passed a much-heralded infrastructure bill that makes billions of dollars available for such improvements. SF does infrastructure improvement all the time, so why not here? Because this is a political landgrab by the bike lobby special interest. 

Or, more simply, pick another street in the Outer Sunset such as 45th Avenue. If a street is to be closed permanently for bicyclists, then why not pick one that has less traffic and isn’t an important thoroughfare for tens of thousands of people? 

2. Redesign the Great Highway Extension.

This also could be redesigned by moving the roadway closer to the sewerage treatment plant and having only a single lane north and southbound. Another possible redesign would be to reroute the highway so that it connects to the access road that currently runs just south of the San Francisco Zoo and intersects with Herbst Road, close to the Pomeroy Rehabilitation Center. Why haven’t either of these two options been considered? Politics. 

3. Close alternative streets instead of John F. Kennedy Drive.

I strongly support having more places in the park for bicyclists. But it was a terrible choice to pick the busiest street with so many amenities enjoyed by physically-challenged people who will never be able to bicycle. Nancy Pelosi Drive, Bowling Green Drive and the western part of JFK Drive (rather than the eastern part) would be much better choices that respect the rights of vulnerable San Franciscans. 

I have been involved in SF politics for nearly 30 years, and I proposed these compromises to everyone I know in City Hall. I have never seen such a pathetic lack of leadership over what should be a solvable win-win problem. This bitterness and polarization was not necessary. If San Francisco can’t solve this, what hope is there to solve the really big issues?  But Rec and Park, certain supervisors and the Bicycle Coalition were not interested in finding win-win solutions. Neither Mayor Breed nor the Board of Supervisors showed any leadership. They let city agencies and self-interested NGOs run over everyday, working San Franciscans.

So what do we do now? Only by passing Proposition I can we start the compromise process. It’s time to “hit reset” on all of these street closures to pre-pandemic conditions, then initiate an honest attempt to address the needs of all stakeholders.

Is anyone in City Hall willing to step up? 

Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is a 25 year resident of the Outer Sunset and the author of seven books of political nonfiction.

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

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