The current status quo of the Great Highway being car-free on weekends and holidays is now set in stone, or until the end of 2025 at least, as the SF Board of Supervisors voted on a three-year extension of the program.
In San Francisco, our divisive pandemic-era culture wars have not been over masks and vaccines. Our knock-down, drag-out arguments have been over whether or not to let cars back onto streets that we made car-free — or Slow Streets — once COVID-19 hit. And one of the most contentious of those car-free areas has been the Great Highway. Some 16 months after the Great Highway along Ocean Beach was established as entirely car-free, that neighborhood’s supervisor Gordon Mar called for the weekend-and-holiday-only car-free compromise, which Mayor London Breed put in place pretty much by executive decree in August 2021. Since then, Supervisor Mar has been trying to make that arrangement permanent.
And at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, he kind of got that wish. The supervisors voted 9-2 to keep the Great Highway free of cars on weekends and holidays through the end of 2025 as a three-year pilot program, with only supervisors Connie Chan and Myrna Melgar voting against the measure.
We did it: the Great Highway will stay car-free on Friday afternoons, weekends, and holidays for at least three years.— Gordon Mar 馬兆明 (@D4GordonMar) December 7, 2022
Today we voted to imagine a better future for our western waterfront. We found common ground on a contentious issue, and took a meaningful step forward. pic.twitter.com/FrvBJdM1OG
“This legislation probably gives no one exactly what they want,” Mar said Tuesday, before the vote. “It's a genuine compromise reflecting years of outreach and input, and it strikes a careful balance.” He said that when that stretch of highway is car-free, it’s “a space where kids learn to ride their bike, where historic civic actions never seen before in the Sunset take place, where neighbors meet neighbors and feel and express joy and community and togetherness.”
“And yes, where people can safely walk or bike or roll without getting killed by cars.”
This is my comment on the Great Highway.— Erika Hall (@mulegirl) November 29, 2022
[Video: Beautiful car-free paved path next to Ocean Beach. View looking across the breakers towards the Marin Headlands] pic.twitter.com/0yLeFo2XtM
This does not keep cars off the whole, entire Great Highway on cars and weekends. As has been the case for a while, the car-free weekend status applies only to the “Upper Great Highway,” defined as the stretch “between Lincoln Way and Sloat Boulevard.” The legislation spells out “vehicular restrictions to apply only between Fridays at noon and Mondays at 6 a.m., and on holidays."
And certainly this is a cup-of-warm-spit kind of compromise for those who love car-free streets. But even just weekend and holidays car-free streets has generated enormous anger in the Sunset and surrounding neighborhoods. “Besides the recalls that happened this past year,” Supervisor Melgar said, “this has been the most contentious issue on the west side.”
Melgar argued that the west side is less served by public transit, so not being able to drive on the Great Highway is more of a burden for those residents. “I have been hearing about folks who need to get to the VA hospital, both staff and patients, for whom there’s really very little choice but to use the Great Highway,” she said. “And then it's closed on Friday at Noon, when the hospital is still open.”
Great Highway Park is a place where families go to let their kids roam and roll free and, critically, safe of the dangers of vehicle traffic.— Great Highway Park (@GreatHwyPark) July 17, 2022
Some people choose to intentionally endanger these families by driving their car on Great Highway Park when it is closed to traffic. pic.twitter.com/G37KwKkZRN
So Melgar introduced an amendment to kill off that Friday at noon thing, and instead start the car-free status on Saturdays at 6 a.m. instead of Fridays at noon. “The noon closure was not a consensus,” Supervisor Chan said, adding in surprisingly pointed fashion, “It was determined according to Supervisor Mar. Supervisor Mar I guess decided that.”
But that amendment failed 8-3, and the Friday noon schedule remains in place.
In a City Hall coincidence, this argument was happening at the very same time as an SFMTA meeting debating the status of the similarly contentious Slow Streets program. And as you see above, where the matching merch (and little chapeau!) says “Open Lake Street,” the car advocates are fond of saying that we “open” a street when we allow cars, and we “close” it when we don’t. And yes, the cars on the Great Highway advocates also called their movement Open the Great Highway.
Supervisor Dean Preston had choice words for that choice of wording. “Prohibiting or limiting private automobile use on a road is not ‘closing’ that road,” Preston said. “In many ways, it's opening it for greater community use.”
Image: @SafeStreetRebel via Twitter