Upper Great Highway

Sunset Residents Debate Best Use of Upper Great Highway

By Jonathan Farrell

To allow plenty of space for people to socially distance and get some outdoor exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic, Upper Great Highway  from Sloat Boulevard to Lincoln Way has been closed for months to vehicular traffic. 

Great Highway photo Emily SB 12-20The Upper Great Highway has been closed to motor vehicles for months to allow space for people to get outdoor exercise during the pandemic, with room for social distancing. Sunset District residents are debating whether to keep it closed or reopen the roadway to car traffic. Photo by Emily Huston.

When an online petition was posted on Facebook in November to permanently close Upper Great Highway and turn it into a park and open space, threads of comments went back and forth on the social media platform.

 Many opposed the idea, noting that traffic issues on nearby neighborhood streets would only increase if Upper Great Highway were to be closed permanently. Supporters saw a new opportunity for a car-free area for pedestrians, bicyclists, strollers, wheelchairs and more.

 To address the issue, District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar scheduled a virtual town hall meeting on the topic on Nov. 21. More than 500 people took part in the meeting.

 Most of what was presented highlighted the complexity of the Upper Great Highway issue and the various entities involved.

 Zach Snow, a resident who lives near the Upper Great Highway,  issued a statement before the meeting on behalf of The Great Highway Park Initiative/District 4 Residents for a Great Highway Park.

“To be clear, this petition reflects that many neighbors and San Francisco residents support the idea of a park, along with traffic and safety improvements,” Snow stated. “We hope it encourages the necessary research and outreach process by the City to implement it.”

“This initiative did not motivate for the initial closure of the highway to cars; it was closed to cars in late February/early March 2020 for sand removal,” Snow continued. “And it remains closed to cars due to COVID at the City’s behest.” Mar and his office confirmed this.

In fact, Upper Great Highway is frequently closed to remove sand that accumulates along the roadway and, as all of Ocean Beach is vulnerable to erosion, wind and coastal weather conditions. 

 It was noted by officials at the Saturday Zoom meeting that, on average, Upper Great Highway is closed at least 27 times during the year for removal of sand, flooding during rains and trash clean up. 

Upper Great Highway has been a north/south thoroughfare along Ocean Beach for decades. Some long-standing residents and natives of the area see the idea of making it a park as absurd. Sunset resident  Bonnie McGregor responded to news of the idea via Facebook by calling it “simply ridiculous” and “stunningly foolish.” 

Benjamin Grant is a planning expert. He addressed the complexity of the issue. Over the past 10 years, Grant has worked with San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a local nonprofit think tank and planning advisory organization, to put together an extensive study as part of The Ocean Beach Master Plan.  

“The Great Highway is under many jurisdictions,” Grant said. “People sometimes have the impression that the Great Highway is part of Caltrans and the California State Highway system. It is not. Actually, the land is owned by the City through the Rec. and Park Department. The road and any traffic issues are operated by San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA) and maintained by the Department of Public Works (SFDPW).”

Other entities concerned with Upper Great Highway are the San Francisco County Transit Authority (SFCTA) and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). The SFPUC oversees the maintenance of a sewage treatment facility at the south end of Ocean Beach.

At the meeting, Senior Transportation Planner Camille Guiriba gave a sense of how much Great Highway is utilized. 

“Based on data collection from Sept. 19 to Nov. 17, the average usage by bicyclists and pedestrians is about 6,600 per weekend day, “Guiriba said. Our colleagues at the Rec. and Park Department are continuing these counts during the temporary closure and monitoring how the usage is impacted by factors such as weather, air quality, etcetera. We do not have recreation usage counts prior to COVID.” 

According to Guiriba, prior to the pandemic. there were about 18,800 daily vehicle trips on the Upper Great Highway. Residents on the Lower Great Highway have reported increased volumes on their street,” she said. 

Guiriba was not able to say how many complaints were received from residents about increased traffic and speeding in the area. “That’s a question for SFMTA,” she noted. 

SFMTA did not reply to a request for details about the complaints. 

“As of now, the petition-proposal calls for very modest changes to the actual infrastructure, in the interest of simplicity and keeping capital expenses associated with the park low,” Snow said. “It would also call for Rec. and Park to maintain it. Rec. and Park already maintains the path next to the Great Highway, so this would not seem to be a tremendous change.”

While Mar initially sees the positive potentials in utilizing Upper Great Highway as a park/open space, he also has reservations. On Nov. 10, in a two-page letter to SFMTA officials, he expressed the need for “an urgent and comprehensive plan to mitigate the traffic impacts upon the Outer-Sunset.” 

He also wrote in the letter, “the pace of our bureaucracy is failing … over seven months of conversations with SFMTA staff, as well as community meetings … none have proven successful.

Mar calls for a traffic mitigation plan in writing, with clear timetables for implementation. 

“If steps are not achieved, then we cannot reasonably keep this closure in place until we have effectively planned in way that keeps our neighborhood safe,” he said. 

Sunset residents like Brian Lee see permanent closure as irresponsible urban management. As he posted at length on Facebook. 

“The issue at hand is the coming construction on 19th Avenue,” Lee said. “The ensuing congestion will put more pressure on surrounding roads.”

Even with the complexities involved, some supporters like Snow see it as win/win. 

“There’s definitely something special about the Great Highway that is drawing so many people to it, both from the neighborhood and from the wider city,” he said.

10 replies »

  1. Complete gridlock southbound on Grt Hwy. Traffic was backed up bumper to bumper from Fulton to Lincoln around 5:00pm Friday night 12-5-20. As I drove up east on Fulton traffic was backed up at 43rd Ave heading South to 41st Ave. The joke is over!! Half an hour to go across the park which is only a half mile wide making the pandemic even worse! SFMTA has created a dangerous crowded situation for all of us residents on the west end of Golden Gate Park both in the Richmond and Sunset districts. With Golden Gate Park, Lake Merced, Playgrounds all over the place and 6 miles of open beach there is plenty of open space. It’s Sunday 12-6 at 3:00pm and there is hardly anyone playing on the empty Grt Hwy while automobile traffic on the Lower Grt Hwy is building. SFMTA is out of touch. They don’t even have the money to maintain all of these closures including empty slow streets. There are so many roadblocks now to the point of making the outer Sunset a rat maze. Now they are laying off bus drivers due to a lack of funds while telling us to use their inefficient Muni system. People are tired of this mess! Open the Great Highway!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a long time Sunset resident on the western part of the city I am not alone in a believing most in City Hall do not understand the Avenues. All they think is our beach is cold and we hold Outerlands. We have the park, beach and the trails by the Great highway already. The great highway was not closed frequently. It was closed 2 days per month more like 6 percent. It is used north south for commuting. Notice they would not give vehicle number usage before the pandemic. 19th Avenue construction will cause a mess for years. We cannot continue to have it closed if we open up in 2021. This is a safety issue. People will be hurt as motorists speed on side street thru our residential neighborhood. There is already enough recreation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • not arguing merits of keeping the great highway closed or reopening to cars, as i think there are pros and cons for both sides, although one main issue that would need to be addressed is alternative routes if it was to remain closed (and yes, i agree w/ you that traffic would flow to side streets and would tend to speed and possibly even roll through stops unless strictly enforced to prevent those even more dangerous violations).
      but the article said the great highway was closed at least 27 days a year; your statement of 2x/month comes out to 24 days which is right about the same since your estimate isn’t exact (as there isn’t just a fixed monthly closure schedule but will occur at times due to flooding and sand/wind/erosion reasons), so i’m sure the district supervisors representing the outer sunset are aware of the issues. but yeah, other than saying you guys are all pretty much in agreement on the number of closure days in previous regular years, i agree that there needs to be a mitigation strategy. sunset blvd is just over 10 blocks away and then another 18 blocks to park presidio/19th ave. what are the numbers on traffic and congestion along those routes, as well as the side streets between the great highway and sunset?
      have they considered compromising and keeping the ocean side (south bound) closed to cars while reopening the inner/north bound side to 2 way vehicle traffic so that it’s 1 lane in each direction instead of a divided road with 2 lanes in each direction? i’m not sure the answer isn’t completely reversing the closure and reopening to the previous normal state of a divided 4 lane road, but i would opine that the *minimum* acceptable resolution involves opening at least 1/2 of the great highway to vehicles as a 2 lane road. bare minimum.
      an equivalent comparison in a different part of the city would be if bush and pine streets were closed to cars and east/west traffic would all need to take california st, turk/golden gate or other side streets with stop signs on each block. does the city think that residents in those areas would think that’s a good idea?


  3. I have lived in the Sunset on 47th Ave since 1968. The increase in traffic into a residential neighborhood from a 4 lane highway it is not only irresponsible it could be proven to be criminally negligent. Have you looked at the accident statistics in the Sunset pre-closure of the UGH? What about the accident statistics after closure? A SFPD vehicle just hit two bicyclists on Sunset Blvd and Vicente day before yesterday partly in due to increased traffic from UGH and now construction on 19th Ave. Someone will die because of this. I just hope the Mayor and board of Supervisors will go to the God damn funeral or funerals. All should be voted out. Oh yeah what about evacuation routes in a emergency or disaster? What the hell is their plan for that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stop the madness. Closure of Upper
      Great Hwy seriously impacts the
      avenues with increased traffic thus
      public safety is not addressed.

      Surfers & other beach goers are at
      risk, especially on weekends dealing
      with parking along lower great Hwy
      due to great traffic congestion


  4. Residents want the Great Highway opened NOW. What began as a TEMPORARY measure is being pushed into permanence without vote or input from residents, all for the benefit of residents of D4. This is a vital roadway that was used by 17,000 drivers per day. As things open up and return to normal, so does the amount of cars. Living on adjacent streets and trying to get home is a logistical nightmare. The emergency orders have been lifted, it is time to open the GH NOW. https://www.change.org/openthegreathighway.


    • Let’s hsve some courtesy & respect
      for the tax paying property owners,
      that the high volume of traffic through
      peaceful lower GH is not acceptable!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “Zach Snow, a resident who lives near the Upper Great Highway, issued a statement before the meeting on behalf of The Great Highway Park Initiative/District 4 Residents for a Great Highway Park.” Have any reporters looked into the financial stake that Zach Snow – a wealthy, part-time resident of SF who owns two adjacent homes on GH – has in keeping the GH closed? Has anyone looked into the role he is playing in the efforts to keep the GH closed? There is a paucity of information available, and I suspect that is intentional.


  6. There is not a paucity of space for recreation in the sunset or Richmond. Turning it into a park wont curb climate change, increase bicycle transportation or improve a great neighborhood appreciably. While the negatives of continuing this closure are very obvious and don’t really need an expensive study to quantify. The SFMTA knows this. Park and Rec knows this. SFCTA too.
    Please make the right decision by the hurting masses, not cater to a privileged few or a symbolic attack on cars. Drivers are just people, not the devil.


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