After being car-free for months, the Upper Great Highway — which has become a promenade for outdoor recreation and civic activism — could very well open up to cars again after the same San Francisco supervisor who catalyzed its closure raised concerns that the uptick in traffic along nearby roadways has created "unsafe" conditions.
San Francisco’s Slow Streets Program has been lauded by locals and pedestrian activists alike as a silver lining of the pandemic (though that turn of phrase still feels a bit brazen given the current panorama). Many of these corridors have been erected along roads that Vision Zero, a nonprofit that seeks to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries nationwide, included in part of its High Injury Network. Though the two-plus-mile stretch of the Great Highway, known by many as the "Upper Great Highway," isn't particularly prone to pedestrian injuries, it's become something of a balm for denizens of the city to frequent — walking, cycling, marching, and running along the beachside. (The sheer size of the roadway, too, makes it incredibly easy to practice proper social distancing.)
But as SFGate's deputy managing editor Fiona Lee reported before the weekend, the cherished Slow Streets passage could come to an end.
I sent a letter to SFMTA calling for urgent traffic calming and pedestrian safety work in the Outer Avenues.— Gordon Mar (@D4GordonMar) November 13, 2020
We did a traffic count with @sfcta showing over 5,000 daily vehicles on Lower Great Highway, a narrow residential road, with a high % of cars driving at unsafe speeds. pic.twitter.com/JN9b1JAPoc
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar announced Friday via Twitter that he had sent a letter to SFMTA earlier in the week requesting "urgent traffic calming and pedestrian safety work in the Outer Avenues." Alas, the letter — which cited a joint San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) finding that 5,000 vehicles were driving down Lower Great Highway daily at "unsafe speeds” — prompted a discussion to reopen the Upper Great Highway in an attempt to mitigate hazardous traffic along nearby roadways.
In that letter, Mar describes how "tens of thousands of San Franciscans" have come to enjoy the new public space, enjoying the outdoors and finding respite from their indoor dwellings; Mar also acknowledged that the Slow Streets corridor had been the site of BLM marches (on of which was organized by his office) and is large enough to support social distancing.
However, Mar describes that SFMTA's lack of adequate "mitigation or diversion" plans has ultimately put people's safety at risk.
"If we cannot achieve these steps [to divert and mitigate traffic along the Great Highway], we cannot responsibly keep this closure in place until we have effectively planned to do so in a way that keeps our neighborhood safe," Mar capped in his request to SFMTA. "It may well be possible to make the Great Highway a park or promenade, with planning and public input. But we cannot sacrifice safety for recreation, and I cannot continue to support the temporary closure of the Great Highway if we cannot make it safe for my constituents in the near-term."
We need the Lower Great Highway Pedestrian Improvement Plan implemented yesterday.— Gordon Mar (@D4GordonMar) November 13, 2020
We need an actual mitigation plan, and traffic counts to measure its effectiveness.
We need to work on safety as urgently as we worked on Slow Streets & opening the Great Highway to people.
Per SFGate, Mar's legislative, Edward Wright, told the media outlet that the requests in the letter were "not anything new" and have been brought up for months now by his office; the demands were asked after denizens of the city, who live in his district, complained about the traffic conditions.
(As someone who frequents the car-free roadway four times a week to run, I can attest to those concerns. In conjunction with the construction along 47th Avenue, a worrying amount of traffic has been funneled to otherwise sleepy neighborhood streets — at the expense of pedestrian safety. And there appears to have been little in the way to solve that problem by SFMTA... aside from the odd traffic sign and fallen orange cone.)
"We’d like to see that continue," Wright said over the phone. "But to see it continue, we need to see it be safe," adding that Mar is hoping the SFMTA will respond to rectifying the issue with the hast and attention it deserves. A spokesperson from the agency had confirmed that they had received Mar's letter and plan to "[respond] to him and to his constituents" with more detail.
Though coronavirus vaccines, including the one from Pfizer, appear to be on the visible horizon, it's worth noting we're far from out of the woods yet. Indoor dining in San Francisco has shuttered again; gyms in Contra Costa County have closed; COVID-19 cases continue to peak across the region.
And we need thoughtful planning and robust public input to decide the future of this public space in the long term.— Gordon Mar (@D4GordonMar) November 13, 2020
I’m committed to that, and hope you join us next Saturday for our virtual town hall on the future of the Great Highway: https://t.co/xeHypzRWTy
This "new normal" is mercurial and ever-changing — but these car-free streets (and parklets) have emerged as beloved niceties that people continue to enjoy en masse.
Mar's office is holding a virtual town hall about the Great Highway and its future on November 21 at 10 a.m., which anyone can attend. Should you find SF’s Slow Streets Program laudable and worthy of continuing in a post-pandemic world, make sure to show your support for them via emailing the SFMTA board of directors; Walk San Francisco has a formatted email where all you have to do is plug your information and "sign."
Image: Courtesy of SFist/ Matt Charnock, taken in August of this year.