Golden Gate Park

Advocates Call for a Car-Free JFK Drive in GG Park

By Emily Huston 

As thousands lap up a brilliant Sunday morning on John F Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, the street transforms into a scene unlike any other in San Francisco. Bikers – who dominate in this multimodal paradise – pedal on long-bellied cargo bikes, city seven-speeds, plastic tricycles, e-bikes, tandems and low-lying recumbents. 

Young bikers enjoy Car-Free Sundays on JFK Drive. March 22, 2020. Photo by Emily Huston.

Others lay claim to the road too. A skateboarder crouches low on his deck to pick up a buddy’s cap that blew off in the wind. Kids swerve across lanes of traffic and joggers stop in the middle of the road to mop their brow just because they can. For a day, this cypress-lined boulevard in Golden Gate Park privileges a forgivingly unhurried flow of traffic, becoming a diverse transportation ecosystem in stark contrast with the network of streets surrounding it designed for the car. 

As it stands now, the eastern half of JFK Drive is closed to vehicle traffic every Sunday, certain holidays and Saturdays from April through September. During the park’s 150th anniversary year, there is a grassroots movement to make the entire three-mile length of this popular thoroughfare car-free every day of the week. 

Matt Brezina, a transportation activist with People Protected Bike Lanes, and Dave Alexander and Olivia Gamboa with the newly-formed Richmond Family Transportation Network are organizing to rally community members behind the mantra “Car Free JFK”

Speaking to a crowd of 150 at a Jan. 26 group bike ride, carrying his daughter in his arms, Brezina says he is working “to move our society away from fossil fuels and make the world safe for little people like the one I have in my hand.” 

Brezina passes the microphone over to Alexander, who is also joined by his children. To the tinkling approval of bike bells, Alexander says today’s kick-off ride down the length of JFK Drive “is about access to a safe car-free space where seniors, kids, bike commuters, and families can enjoy the crown jewel of the Rec. and Park system.” 

As the mass of people on bikes heads west past the Conservatory of Flowers, a line of joggers and one lone scooter form the caboose. A bevy of political support also came on two wheels. 

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin rides an e-folding bike. Four-year-old Lucas rocks a Tyrannosaurus rex helmet seated in the back of his dad Assemblymember David Chiu’s lime cargo bike. Assemblymember Phil Ting is pedaling solo. Sen. Scott Wiener steers his BayWheels rental towards the front of the pack. 

Sen. Scott Wiener (second from left in white helmet) and executive director of the SF Bike Coalition, Brian Wedenmeier (second from right on the green bike) attend a group bike ride for a car-free JFK Drive. They were among the approximately 100 people who came out to show their support. Jan. 26, 2020. Photo by Emily Huston. 

“It was fantastic, even though my e-bike did run out of juice on the way back. I got quite a work out” Wiener said. He’s been an adamant supporter of a car-free JFK Drive, back when it was being extended to Saturdays on the ballot as Prop. F in the November 2000 San Francisco election. 

Although that proposition lost by a slim margin, seven years later the SF Bicycle Coalition won car-free “Healthy Saturdays,” which closed off the eastern half of JFK Drive from April to September. 

“Car-free Sundays have been around on JFK Drive since the late 1960s. And we’ve been working throughout our almost 50-year history to expand that space in the park,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition.

Neighbors in favor of car-free streets argue JFK Drive – which is also on the City’s Vision Zero High Injury Network – is currently used as a de facto shortcut for commuters.

“Folks in the know don’t want to take Fulton, Lincoln, or Stanyan so they take JFK and they cut through. So you see this huge backlog of congestion during the morning and evening commutes,” Alexander said. “You’re breathing exhaust while you’re biking, while you’re walking. It really defeats the purpose of having this park.”  

Golden Gate Park also plays home to many popular attractions, including the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences on Music Concourse Drive. 

Helena Nordstrom, associate director of communications for the de Young Museum, agrees that while it’s important to deter commuter through-traffic within Golden Gate Park, it’s also necessary to provide free street parking for employees, as well as family groups, elderly people, and people with disabilities. 

“Essential employees of the de Young – including security officers, engineers, collections care staff – must access the de Young to secure the building and the city’s art collection and they need to park,” Nordstrom writes via email. 

Any progress on bike and pedestrian safety infrastructure can grind to a halt at the sticky subject of parking. The Music Concourse parking garage is one such thorn that pricks everyone’s fingers in the conversation. 

The city-operated underground garage directly serves both the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences via elevator. Although the garage is currently closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, even when open it is “prohibitively expensive for daily parking on a museum worker’s salary,” Nordstrom said. 

Jay Bain, the District 1 representative on the SFMTA Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee, balks at the idea of portioning precious green space to store private vehicles when the 800-car Music Concourse garage typically sits underused or empty. 

He points out that spots on JFK Drive represent “a fraction of all the available curb space and road space in the park.” Anyone could still park for free on Martin Luther King Drive, Kezar Drive, Fulton Street or Lincoln Way. 

“When you look at (street) parking in Golden Gate Park, it’s basically free parking for hours on end,” he adds. “Every car could be three or four people on bicycles or walking who could use that space much more socially with less of an impact on the environment.” 

Alexander’s neighborhood group, the Richmond Family Transportation Network, has been brainstorming with Walk SF, the SF Bicycle Coalition, and People Protected to ensure Golden Gate Park remains accessible to everyone. 

For those who gather to picnic at Lindley Meadow near 34th Avenue, Alexander suggests offering weekend car permits for load-in at 8-10 a.m. and load-out at 4-6 p.m. To better serve seniors and people with disabilities, he stresses the need to add more frequent service to the Golden Gate Park free shuttle. He also encourages adding more ADA parking spots around the California Academy of Sciences on Music Concourse Drive. 

All parties reiterate the need for key stakeholders to meet, but a compromise will not come easy.

“I feel like we’re at the beginning of the conversation … and it’s a little bit of a hot potato,” Bain said.  

The de Young Museum as well as the California Academy of Sciences have organized to form the Westside Transportation and Accessibility Coalition, which includes neighborhood and merchant interest groups surrounding the park. They’re pushing for a traffic study. 

To Alexander, that translates to “let’s postpone this.” He’s keen to work out pragmatic approaches that best serve all ages and all types of park users. 

“We’re not nuts, right?” he says with a dry laugh. “We’re not like, ‘There needs to be a bike lane on every street in San Francisco and all SUVs must perish’… Let’s have a conversation. Let me hear what your needs are.” 

Wiedenmeier agrees, saying the SF Bicycle Coalition has been in over two years of discussions with Rec. and Park, the Botanical Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. He adds, “I’m hopeful that we can come up with a solution that can be supported by everyone.

“When we think about car-free spaces and the benefits that have – especially right now in a time when we’re all isolating – there are limited areas for folks to get socially distant outdoor recreation. That space is more important than ever,” Wiedenmeier said.

After Mayor London Breed ordered San Franciscans to shelter in place, Walk SF capitalized on the momentum from the resulting uptick in Golden Gate Park visitors seeking government-approved exercise. As walkers and joggers in narrow sidewalks tried to keep six feet from one another in accordance with the mayor’s directive, many were forced into the roads. Some were squeezed onto the edge of vehicle traffic. 

In a petition, Walk SF got more than 500 San Franciscans to email Breed, Rec. and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, as well as park commissioners calling for the extension of car-free JFK Drive to seven days a week for the duration of the crisis. 

Despite popular support, Rec. and Park declined to move on the idea. In a tweet, they stated the Department of Health advised against closing JFK Drive “over concerns that it would invite gathering.” 

The agency’s admission that cars limit too many people from visiting Golden Gate Park baffled many safe streets advocates. 

Jean Walsh, most recently the senior public affairs manager for Lime’s bikeshare program, tweeted in response: “The thing is, they’re worried that once the shelter in place order is lifted we are going to want to keep it that way. (Pssst they’re not wrong.)” 

The community gunning for a car-free JFK may have legislative support from Sacramento, but they still seek buy-in from local leadership. Mayor Breed, Phil Ginsburg and the Board of Supervisors will need to put the cause on their shoulders to push SFMTA towards change. 

The crowds who choose to bike, walk, rollerblade and jog on JFK Drive each weekend advertise the horizontal appeal of car-free streets. 

“I’m not a spiritual person particularly, but the time and place where that is, is on a Sunday morning in Golden Gate Park riding my bike on JFK Drive,” Wiedenmeier said. “That’s my church. It has people of all ages and backgrounds. People are always in a good mood when they’re out there. You can hear the birds. You can breathe the fresh air and smell the cypress and eucalyptus. To me, it’s the best of San Francisco.”

JFK Drive serves as a road map to Golden Gate Park’s greatest hits, with 13 million people visiting each year. Without cars, the space reverts to a community gathering space. 

“We talk all the time about what’s wrong with our city. This is what’s right,” Wiedenmeier continues. “And it’s something we can grow and expand.” 

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