Golden Gate Park

Commission Reports on Pros and Cons of Car-Free JFK Drive

By Thomas K. Pendergast

The controversy about keeping Golden Gate Park’s John F. Kennedy Drive car-free east of Transverse Drive after the pandemic ends is shifting into overdrive. A new study might help steer the debate. 

Cars have been banned from that section of the roadway since last April in response to the need for social distancing during the pandemic to give pedestrians, bicyclists, skaters and others not using a car more room to safely get fresh air and exercise. 

As it stands now, 120 days after San Francisco’s COVID-19 emergency order is lifted, that part of JFK Drive will be opened up to cars again on  weekdays, unless city officials make the ban on cars permanent. 

Cigie Coronel, 21, of San Francisco said she is in favor of keeping JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park closed to motor vehicles. “This place has become a place many of us have come to enjoy throughout the pandemic,” she said. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

Last month, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), a commission made up of the members of the SF Board of Supervisors, released a draft report called “Golden Gate Park Stakeholder Working Group and Action Framework,” which gives the public facts and figures to contemplate while coming to a decision. 

The report’s ultimate goal is “to build consensus around values and needs which will inform subsequent park access planning as well as the long-term operations of JFK Drive starting with a “list of needs” to identify key efforts going forward. This report does not make a recommendation about whether or not JFK Drive should remain car-free, nor does it propose specific designs for park access improvements. 

The report focuses on: 

• Access for key groups, including children and youths, seniors, people with disabilities, communities of color, and park volunteers; 

• Clear way-finding signage for pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles; Improved signage for access to park shuttles; 

• Safe access from adjacent neighborhoods; 

• Improved parking management; 

• Support for tourism; 

• And clear communications and decision making processes.

But it is the elimination of a total 549 parking spaces that has some people calling to put the brakes on the plan. 

Of particular concern to the disabled community is that the redesign plan  includes the elimination of 26 blue ADA parking spaces, although recently five new ADA parking spaces were installed along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at the entrance to the Music Concourse and another five at the intersection with Nancy Pelosi Drive, with ongoing efforts to provide three more such spaces there where it dead-ends into JFK Drive adjacent to the new Tennis Center. 

According to the report, prior to the pandemic, there were 2,988 parking spaces available east of Transverse Drive and 2,680 parking spaces available west of Transverse Drive, for a total of 5,668 spaces. 

Yet another concern is accidents involving cars along that stretch of JFK Drive, which is among the 13% of roadways throughout the City that are part of the Vision Zero High Injury Network. Collectively, these streets contribute to 75% of accidents involving cars. 

According to the report, between 2014 and 2019 there were 30 collisions along JFK Drive east of Transverse Drive and 91 throughout the park.

But some – like Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, who represents District 10 across town in the Bayview District – see this as an equity issue. They say getting from that area to the park is much more difficult on a bicycle or by bus than from other parts of town, so eliminating parking could affect those San Franciscans more than others. 

At an SFCTA meeting on May 11, Walton made his perspective clear. 

“I’m concerned about what’s happening while we do all these studies,” Walton said. “It just seems like people are OK with and comfortable with who is accessing JFK Drive right now and who is not. And right now, we really have an environment reflective of the 1950s South. So, no matter which data you try and manipulate, RPD (Recreation and Park Department) and the MTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) are OK with that?

“I just don’t understand that,” he said. “It makes me sick to my stomach, the segregation that is still existing in San Francisco, specific to JFK Drive today. And the fact that folks are OK with that and let’s just research and study while JFK Drive looks like 1950s South; that’s a problem.” 

On March 23, Walton requested an equity and economic impact analysis of proposed designs for JFK Drive and that process has begun. 

Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who represents District 7 which includes parts of the Inner Sunset, expressed her reservations about the report.

“There were some things that were missing, for me, in this data,” Melgar said. “One was race. I think that sometimes we use a neighborhood as a proxy and for me that’s not good enough. I think that we need to really invest the resources into getting that data….

“It is not the same to spend an hour on the bus versus a walk across the street or just take a light rail,” she said. “It’s significant, particularly for families … to the choices that you make.”

She also brought up the soccer fields at the western end of the park and mentioned that the permanent closure of the Upper Great Highway is also under consideration, which would make access from areas south of the park more difficult. 

“Kids from across town use those soccer fields,” she explained. “If we close the section at the bottom permanently, you can only access it with all those soccer balls from the top. I’m having a hard time seeing how people would access those fields if it’s closed to traffic. I want to make sure they’re accessible, particularly to kids in the Mission and the Bayview and Ingleside.”

Similar concerns are likely why District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who represents a district at the south end of the City, called for a comprehensive traffic study of the entire park, not just along JFK Drive.

“I think it would make for a better analysis, if we were looking at this in its entirety,” Safai said. “We definitely need to approach this with care.” 

District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district borders the park on the east side and who supports making the current situation permanent, brought up the safety issue of cars colliding with pedestrians and bicycles. 

He asked SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin if there is data showing how many vehicles travel through the park, not to the park. Tumlin responded that before the pandemic on the eastern section of JFK Drive about three-quarters of cars are cutting through the park, at an average of 8,000 cars per day.  

“I think that has to inform our discussion,” Preston said. “I think there are very real concerns about access that we are all working to address, but I don’t think we need to accommodate using our parks as mini freeways to get quicker than they could get on Fulton  or Lincoln from point A out to the ocean. To me, that’s not a legitimate public interest there that we need to accommodate. 

“While there’s no data on it, I would hazard to guess that it’s far more likely that a lot of the dangerous high-speed travel is probably not folks looking for a picnic spot in their car but is probably folks who are zipping through the park,” he said.

The park mostly lies in the jurisdiction of District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan.

“We know it’s really a city park and a world park,” Chan said. “People come from all over the world to visit Golden Gate Park. 

“I really want to encourage my colleagues and constituents to reject the false choice of either close it or open it. I think that we can do better. I just want to remind everyone this is just the beginning of a community conversation and I look forward to it.” 

South of the park is the Sunset, represented by District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar. 

“Our streets are a network, and the changes that have been made in the last year – reactively, urgently and without public process – affect the entire network,” Mar said. “And the frustration many are feeling about these changes isn’t about a single street. It’s about the cumulative disruptions on travel patterns when JFK Drive is closed at the same time as the Great Highway, at the same time as miles of Slow Streets, and at the same time as major construction on 19th Avenue and Taraval.”

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