A new report from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department strongly recommends that the city make JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park permanently free of vehicle traffic, and following a hearing on the proposal Thursday, the ball is in the Board of Supervisors' court.
In case you hadn't heard, there's been a fair amount of background drama happening over the issue of car-free streets in SF that were made car-free at the start of the pandemic, and now there are battles between residents who want them to stay that way, and residents and businesses that want the cars to move freely again.
Things heated up first over the reopening of the Great Highway to vehicle traffic on weekdays, which happened in August 2021. Supervisor Gordon Mar, who represents the Outer Sunset, advocated for this hybrid approach, in which the roadway would remain closed to vehicles on weekends, satisfying the demands of cyclists, joggers, and walkers who have gotten used to using the oceanside road for exercise.
Sections of JFK Drive and MLK Drive, both in Golden Gate Park, have remained closed to cars, and this became the subject of a lawsuit along with the Great Highway's weekend closures. Among the chief complaints is that closing the roads gravely impacts disabled residents' access to parts of Golden Gate Park. Last month, a judge ruled against the plaintiffs in that suit, saying that the city was within its rights to keep the roads closed.
Now, a 29-page report from Rec & Parks lays out justifications for keeping JFK Drive permanently closed to vehicle traffic between Kezar Drive (near Stanyan) and Transverse Drive, with the western half of the road remaining open to cars. And the department recommends keeping a portion of MLK Drive at the western end of the park closed to vehicles as well.
The department notes in the report that these road closures are in line with the master plan of Golden Gate Park, which prioritizes the minimization of vehicle traffic, as well as the SFMTA's Strategic Plan and the city's Transit First initiative. The closures would also help meet four objectives in the Rec & Parks Department's own Strategic Plan, which seeks to promote the health and well being of bicyclists and pedestrians.
As the Chronicle notes, via the new report, closing this segment of JFK Drive would result in the loss of 1,000 free park spaces in the park, including 26 blue-zone spaces for people with disabilities. The parks department proposes replacing these with new blue-zone spaces on MLK Drive near the museums and the Botanical Garden, for a net gain of two blue-zone spaces. There would remain about 5,000 parking spaces in the park at large.
The report cites little impact to vehicular access to the park from the street closures — and, the department notes, "Pre-COVID, 75% of the vehicles on JFK Drive neither started nor stopped in the park, indicating that they were using the park road for driving purposes, not for park access."
And, the department says, between April 2020 and September 2021, some seven million people took strolling, biking, rolling, or jogging trips on JFK Drive, a 36% increase from the pre-pandemic period, when a section of the street would only be closed to cars on weekend days.
One objector to a permanently car-free JFK Drive is the deYoung Museum, and board of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Chronicle columnist Heather Knight made a stink about this in early January, vowing not to renew her membership to the museums in protest of their spending $55,000 to lobby supervisors to reopen JFK Drive to cars.
Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond District, has publicly supported a compromise approach, referring to the permanent car-free option as a "winners-take-all approach." One solution may simply involve making improvements to the underground Music Concourse garage, which serves the deYoung and Academy of Sciences. It's not clear what improvements are needed to make things more equitable for disabled people, but Chan suggested this could require a ballot initiative if it involves taxpayer dollars.
Only three supervisors have said they would support a permanent car-free change for JFK Drive — Rafael Mandelman, Dean Preston, and Matt Haney — and the Board of Supervisors has not yet said when they will be taking up the issue.
As the Chronicle reports, the process will start after a public hearing on Thursday with Rec & Parks and the SFMTA to formally present the findings in the new report.
Photo via WalkSF.org