Westside residents push back against tone-deaf politicians
Closure of the Great Highway has INCREASED carbon emissions and hurt working people — but a compromise is possible.
By Steven Hill
Many residents of the west side – the Sunset and Richmond districts – are mad as heck at their elected officials. Those “representatives” went back on their word regarding the closure of the Great Highway and other streets in Golden Gate Park and our neighborhoods, and have created havoc for the working people of the west side. Residents from Districts 1 and 4 have collected more than 13,400 signatures opposing the closure, which will soon be debated at the Board of Supervisors.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar pushed to shut down the Great Highway and other streets to create a place for people to recreate. That policy had widespread support from Districts 1, 4 and 7, the neighborhoods most affected, since many people suddenly were working from home instead of commuting to work.
But following widespread vaccinations and re-opening of the economy, people began returning to their physical workplaces. As traffic and congestion increased to pre-pandemic levels, westside residents discovered that their elected representatives and city agencies like the Recreation and Parks Department and Municipal Transit Authority had pulled a fast one.
With their ally the SF Bicycle Coalition, they initiated a permanent shutdown of the Great Highway and other streets. They used the pretext of an immediate crisis – a virus pandemic — to ram through a completely unrelated land use policy, now insisting this was necessary to fight climate change.
Besides being sneaky and relying on fake, manufactured data, there is another major problem with this plan – the Great Highway closure actually is far worse for climate change.
Pre-pandemic,18,000 drivers used the Great Highway every day (20,000 on the weekend, over a half a million drivers per month). These are working people, parents, families, the elderly and partially abled, who need to commute from the Richmond and Sunset Districts and other places to their jobs, doctors appointments, to the VA, take their kids to school, to the grocery store and more. When the Great Highway is closed, all those thousands of cars are diverted directly into the Sunset neighborhood. Once quiet streets suddenly were bursting with thousands of angry and frustrated drivers, loudly racing up and down Lincoln Way (past my house!) at frantic rates of speed, not fully stopping at Stop signs.
They also have been commuting through the middle of Golden Gate Park (Chain of Lakes and Crossover Drives) in bumper to bumper traffic, violating Park and Rec’s own master plan to protect the Park from non-park traffic. People’s autos have been stuck in spillover congestion on Sunset Boulevard and 19th Avenue, and delivery trucks and big rigs that once used the Great Highway have been rushing along the surface streets of the Sunset neighborhood, right outside people’s front doors, creating unprecedented traffic and noise. Hot rodders and motorcycles that used to show off along the long stretch of the Great Highway now race through surface streets.
Commuters are taking 20-30 minutes longer each way, which means more carbon emissions. Any climate expert knows that stop-and-go traffic is worse for the environment. Thousands of working people drive significant distances that are not conducive to riding a bicycle, walking, or taking SF’s spotty public transportation (which has still not been restored to full service from cutbacks during the pandemic).
The real solution is to get people out of their cars by massively increasing public transportation. So what has the Board of Supervisors done toward that goal? Precious little. I have lived in a number of cities, and San Francisco has one of the worst public transportation systems for a city its size. Look at any Muni map, and see the vast blocks of under-served areas on the west side.
Besides these everyday impacts, what has aroused westsiders’ outrage is the blatant way in which city agencies have used bogus research and biased presentations to ram through their agenda. No environmental impact reports been made of the various proposed closure options, a fact that the Sierra Club has criticized. No attempt has been made to assess the impact on those 18,000 drivers and their families.
One report by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority claimed that 52% of Sunset residents are actually in favor of closing the Great Highway to vehicles. Buried deep in the report was its methodology, which revealed the survey had been distributed through its website, by email, and social media – not through modern methods of professional sampling or phone calls. How many regular people pay attention to the SFCTA website, or are on its email list or social media feeds? Only a small handful of professionals, including advocacy groups like the Bicycle Coalition. Their members participated as a self-selected audience, resulting in a “captured” survey which nevertheless has been widely reported in the media as proof of the policy’s popularity.
Meanwhile, city agencies and the media have ignored that residents from Districts 4 and 1 have collected over 13,400 signatures opposing the closure (link to the petition). During leafleting and visibility pickets at key intersections, 80 to 90% of motorists stuck in traffic give a thumbs up or honk their horn in support.
While the closure was popular during the pandemic, recently the Great Highway has seen shrinking use by bicyclists and pedestrians – yet the agencies have tried to hide that fact. A public records (Sunshine Ordinance) request submitted to Rec and Park (which the agency stonewalled for nearly 2 months), found that Great Highway usage has declined dramatically, by over half. From a peak of 144,000 users per month from October 2020 through January 2021, that number plummeted to 109,000 in March 2021, and then to 62,000 in May 2021, a decline of 57%. This significant drop-off was confirmed by a second study of anonymized cell phone data.
Anyone who actually lives on the west side understands why: the foggy, windy, chilly climate near the beach is often nasty for bicycling and walking. On most days, the Great Highway is so devoid of bicyclists and pedestrians that locals derisively refer to the roadway as the Great Nobody. But even if the bicyclists/pedestrians had maintained peak usage, that pales in comparison to the 18,000 vehicles per day/550,000 per month (and with many autos having more than one passenger, the number likely reaches three quarters of a million per month traveling north-south on the Great Highway). Where are all of those people supposed to go, if the Great Highway is permanently closed, as some Supervisors, agencies and organizations have proposed?
In essence, what this misguided land use policy is trying to do is to take a major north-south thoroughfare used by 18,000 commuters every day — and all hours of the day — and turn it over exclusively to a handful of bicyclists and some pedestrians who mostly use it seasonally, and not at night, in the early morning or even in the middle of most inclement days.
Fortunately, a real compromise is possible. Mayor London Breed’s short-term solution allows auto traffic Monday through Thursday and half of Friday. It’s a start, but it makes no sense that the Great Highway is closed to automobile traffic all Sunday night until 6 AM on Monday morning, since there are few bicyclists/pedestrians during the nighttime hours. And the Friday noontime closure should be extended until later on Friday, to allow commuters to get home for their weekend.
Also, to reduce bumper to bumper traffic through the heart of Golden Gate Park, it is crucial to reopen Martin Luther King Drive. Since the pandemic, closures of MLK Drive and 41st Avenue have cut off three out of five of the exits from the Park. Now, with traffic flows back to normal, these continuing closures are contributing greatly to congested traffic and increased carbon emissions. I live across the street and have never had problems biking and walking on MLK Drive, since it is a wide street with low traffic when all exits to the park are open.
Longer term, a redesign of the four lanes, berms and existing bike lane of the Great Highway would allow a shared use area that can accommodate all the various needs. It will cost some money, but San Francisco has a budget of $13 billion and can afford it since it will result in a win-win.
Like many other coastal cities, San Francisco will need to make some tough choices over climate mitigation. With such a spotty public transportation system, automobiles are not disappearing anytime soon. San Francisco badly needs an honest attempt to address the needs of all stakeholders, and to reach consensus over climate and transportation policies that allow for multiple use and sharing of the urban ecosystem.
Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is a 25 year resident of the Outer Sunset, and the architect of San Francisco’s ranked choice voting system and public financing of campaigns.