Golden Gate Park

Advocates Argue For and Against Car-Free JFK Drive in GG Park

By Thomas K. Pendergast

For more than a year, the public has been enjoying a car-free experience along John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, from the eastern entrance of the park to Crossover Drive. But when the pandemic restrictions are finally lifted, they might face a choice of keeping it this way or not. 

Yet, even as they wait for a study expected to be released this month, interested parties are already lining up. Some people are in favor of banning cars from that section of JFK Dr. permanently. Others are calling for the return of the roadway to cars, and the parking spaces that come with them. 

Hundreds of people gathered in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, March 11 to support a permanently car-free JFK Drive. Photo by Emily Huston.

On the side of opening the roadway to motor vehicles are many westside residents who have had their north-south route restricted by the road closures, as well as San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai, representatives of the de Young Museum, and some residents of the Bayview and Excelsior districts who say this is an issue of equity and is a de-facto exclusive policy. 

In the other camp are local westside residents organized to keep the cars out of that section of the park. That group includes the SF Bicycle Coalition, WalkSF, District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney and District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston. Other groups are also on board with keeping the area car free because they say this stretch of roadway is on the City’s list of dangerous streets for pedestrians, thus is primarily an issue of public safety. 

Dr. Olivia Gage Gamboa of the advocacy group Kid Safe Golden Gate Park likes the open space. 

“We believe that we need more ‘people first’ space in our City,”  Dr. Gamboa said. “We need more space where kids can be safe to play and be kids. We believe that a park is for people, and they need to be places where people are safe to walk, run, ride their bikes, play and enjoy the space without any fear of cars or getting hurt.”

Many years before COVID-19, there was a movement for banning cars in this part of the park. The pandemic shifted the reality of the situation dramatically.

“Recently, before the pandemic, there were many people coming together to push for this issue,” Dr. Gamboa said. “I think the pandemic gave us this unique opportunity that people got to see what it was like without cars and I think the success speaks for itself. We’ve seen that the use of that area has increased significantly.” 

David Alexander of the Richmond Family Transportation Network also supports keeping this section of JFK Drive car free. 

“It’s only 1.5 miles of asphalt that we’re advocating for, and there’s plenty of parking in Golden Gate Park,” Alexander said. “It’s an urban oasis and adding cars to the mix where people are getting injured, it should not be a long-term plan for the City.”

This stretch of road is included in the City’s “Vision Zero: High Injury Network,” which collectively represents 13% of San Francisco streets, but accounts for 75% of fatal and severe traffic injuries. 

Walton, however, calls the plan to extend the car ban permanently “recreational redlining” and “segregationist.” He represents District 10, which includes the Bayview, Dogpatch, Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, Sunnydale, Little Hollywood and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods. Among other things, he also called for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to reopen JFK Drive to cars “immediately to ensure the people of San Francisco can visit Golden Gate Park regardless of their zip code or physical ability.” 

More recently, Walton initiated a process to create a “racial and economic equity study” of the issue. 

The phrase “recreational redlining” apparently resonates with Pi Ra, the transit justice director of the advocacy group Senior and Disability Action.

“I agree. I definitely agree with that, and a lot of us agree with that,” Ra said. “They have to make sure it’s accessible for seniors and people with disabilities. You got to make it so that it’s accessible for people coming from outside the City. So, there are a number of things that have to be done simultaneously or before they close down JFK (to cars) permanently.” 

This part of Golden Gate Park lies within Supervisor, Connie Chan’s District 1. She said that she understands it is much more difficult for people from other parts of town to get to this park without a car.

But on the other hand, “people are really enjoying biking and walking,” Chan said. “We needed it really badly during the pandemic, and I think that gives people a new vision about what life can be. I think it has given a lot of us some food for thought during the pandemic. What does recreation really mean? And what does it mean to have a walkable and bikeable neighborhood? I think that it is a worthwhile conversation to be had. 

“I do always believe that parks, in general, are for people,” Chan continued. “They’re not for cars. However, Golden Gate Park is unique. I believe if we work harder, we can reach a compromise. We can make a solution happen.” 

District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai represents the Excelsior and Crocker Amazon neighborhoods. He thinks the problem with the current approach is it is too piecemeal and needs to be more holistic to include the rest of the park. 

“The entire park needs to be studied. I don’t think we should be dissecting (the park) or making decisions based on emotion or people’s desire,” Safai said. “And then many of the decisions that were made during this pandemic have been designed to create space on a temporary basis…. 

“But when you’re looking at a park of this magnitude, you have thousands and thousands of people visiting,” he said. “It’s also a transit desert. It’s very isolated; with a lot of families of color, how are they getting to the park? Often, they are taking cars and they don’t have the luxury or the ability to get there by foot or by bike. So that needs to be also part of the consideration, as well as the disabled community.”

Safai spoke against closing the street without serious consideration of whom it would affect.

“To completely shut it down without taking a holistic approach, I think is the wrong approach.,” he said. “We can’t dismiss where people are. We can’t dismiss people that are senior or disabled. We can’t dismiss people that still rely on cars. We can’t dismiss working people that can’t afford to pay a certain price for parking access, let alone ticket access. I think we need to approach this in understanding things through an equity lens. I think that’s really important in a really broad sense.” 

Whether or not it is as comprehensive as what Safai has in mind, nevertheless there is an analysis called the Sustainable Travel Study expected to be made public this month. 

Kelly Groth, legislative aide to Supervisor Connie Chan, was part of a working group which contributed to the study. She said they looked at multiple factors impacting the situation, including the big picture of how people circulate within the park 

“Issues like improving the park shuttle, ADA parking access and improving the paths, way-finding and accessibility,” Groth said. “There’s still the bigger picture of what the future of the road closures in Golden Gate Park will look like, which SFMTA and Rec. and Park are creating a study for now.”

5 replies »

  1. Also don’t forget the out of town visitors like myself who has a disability placard. There is so much room in the park, why restrict this area? I am a native who grew up using the park. I know what it means to you. However, there are ways to have your space and let the public still have access to the museums and that area.

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  2. Also don’t forget the out of town visitors like myself who has a disability placard. There is so much room in the park, why restrict this area? I am a native who grew up using the park. I know what it means to you. However, there are ways to have your space and let the public still have access to the museums and that area.

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  3. GG Park is a multi-use park, including tennis courts, museums, lawn bowling, soccer fields, casting ponds, stables, frisbee golf, etc. It’s not a state park or national park dedicated to preserving natural areas for hiking/camping. Now that there is the newly renovated tennis center, how will visiting teams coming for USTA matches get there and park? Hosting teams provide refreshments to visiting teams, difficult to do without cars to lug ice chests, food, equipment. Getting to the museums with children and elderly family members also similarly difficult. After taking my housebound 90 yo neighbor for her COVID vaccine, I thought she would enjoy a drive through the park but that’s not doable for the eastern park any more (no, even though she lives 3 blocks away from the western edge of the park she’s not going to walk or bicycle there as some closure advocates have told people that live close to the park to do). People say to use the underground parking structure which is very very expensive but not all families can afford it. I have memberships to all of the museums at GG Park because I believe in supporting them, but it’s going to be much less likely for me to actually visit them from the Outer Richmond since I’m not comfortable riding buses during the pandemic and the verbal and physical assaults that have recently risen with anti-Asian hate crimes. Back when I owned a bicycle I would ride from my home to the museums without problems sharing the road with cars but have given away my bike with aging and an injured knee. In the past on Sunday closures I would take my young daughter for skating and bicycling on JFK but didn’t think I needed that amenity 7 days a week, 24 hours/day. It’s time for the decision makers to realize that many people can’t walk or bicycle everywhere and mixed use of roads INCLUDES cars.

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    • It will be interesting to see how many businesses & institutions suffer because people can’t access them due to car restrictions! Ludicrous!

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  4. Car Free JFK Drive in GG Park:

    Accessible to All or just to Able Bodied and Financially Able? Where we are today was a result of a potential lawsuit in 2006 by the Coalition for Park Access and a negotiating meeting all night long at City Hall with the Coalition, then Mayor Gavin Newsom, Park and Recreation representatives, Healthy Saturdays Supporters, and the Mayor’s Disability Council. As former CEO for The Arc of San Francisco Advocacy Organization and a member of the Coalition supporting ADA accessibility in the park, I stayed up all night until an accessibility commitment was reached. A shuttle would ensure that seniors and people with disabilities could still access the Conservatory of Flowers and other park sites when JFK Drive is closed to cars. Let there be no reneging on that commitment now! Just as important is the equity question that has been raised about parking affordability and access for San Franciscans with limited incomes. Let us make Golden Gate Park accessible to everybody, from every part of the Bay Area, with or without disabilities!

    Tim Hornbecker,
    Resident of the Sunset, senior, parent of a son with disabilities, Community Organizer

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