Commentary

Commentary: Westside Residents Push Back Against Tone-Deaf Politicians

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.

12 replies »

  1. This is the same article published in 48 Hills and whose author is labeled a Progressive. Wrong. He is nothing more than a Shill for the oil industry and other industries destroying the environment. Disgraceful. I get it. The Entitled motorists love this industry lackey

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    • If you’re so concerned about the environment, can you please explain how moving cars OFF the Great Highway and onto streets in front of houses, through densely populated neighborhoods, STOPPING AT EVERY BLOCK is BETTER? Drivers are still driving cars. Using Sloat & UGH to the outer Richmond takes me 15 mins one way and can be done on a single charge round trip- NO GAS! Not so with alternative routes, stuck in traffic. And by the way, I charge my car using solar!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This opinion piece actually has real raw data obtained from the SF Park and Rec itself instead of the distorted “data” presented by the SF Parks and Rec department regarding usage of the Great Highway for recreation (and confirmed by a separate study using cell phone data). The author also did not include the additional obscured results from the D4 mobility study where they tout 53% approval for closure but don’t state the survey only had a total of 2700 respondents, meaning only 1537 people supported full closure. That is in contrast to over 13,000 signatures to the Open the Great Highway petition on Change.org. The D4 survey also never mentions that Richmond district residents (the actual users of the GH for transit) who responded were 75% in favor cars using the Great Highway in some format (timed closure, lane narrowing, full use). Now that it has partially re-opened to cars, bicyclists are obstructing traffic in a temper tantrum display of “taking back what’s ours”, seriously disrupting the commute of drivers trying to get home, pick up their children from school, etc. They are regularly taking over both lanes of traffic in both directions and riding below the speed limit blocking hundreds of cars behind them. They ignored calls by the lone police car to move to the side. This illegal action deserves enforcement of CVC 21202 with citation of the bicyclists who fail to move to the side once passing any hindrances on the road. The “shills” are the bicycle advocates who claim closing the Great Highway at this time is bad for the environment. What’s bad is diverting 18,000 vehicles/day and forcing them to double their commute time, thus doubling carbon emissions to the point where even the Sierra Club says the GH should not be fully closed without first obtaining an Environmental Impact Report which would assess overall carbon emissions.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with your comments and prefer a 24/7 open Great Highway as there is plenty of open space around the area to recreate and S.F. Park & Rec needs to better maintain the available paths on the east and west side of the UGH. But, that would not be what Phil Ginsburg and Jeff Tumlin wants as they are puppets for the Bicycle Coalition and real estate developers.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Local supervisors need to know that the bicycle coalition is transient. Most DONT reside in their district. This will not blow over. Want to stay in office? Then listen to your constituents.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The people who want to close the great highway are being selfish there are more than enough trails for people to share hike and bike without closing one the main arteries through the sunset.
    This is causing huge traffic problems throughout the sunset.

    Please city council and mayor Breed, open the great highway taxpayers use to get to work and back. San Francisco does not need more quality of life problems.

    STOP LISTENING FRINGE GROUPS, and do the right thing

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cars do not disappear when the Great Highway is closed. Traffic analyses contracted by SFMTA from Fehr & Peers show that the cars are diverted to Lower Great Highway, 45th/46th, Sunset, Lincolns, etc. all of which are routes that require more Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) from those 18,000-20,000 cars per days. Back-of-the-enveloped calculation shows that means dozens of metric tons of greenhouse gases more than before. More VMT means more pollution and more accidents. Steve Hill is advocating against greenhouse gases, Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with the author of this well researched and clearly presented article that the facts prove diverting 18,000 vehicles daily from driving nonstop between Lincoln & Sloat on the Great Highway when it’s closed onto the surface streets to stop and go at populated intersections, sit idling in gridlock, create air and noise pollution closer to residential homes is a greater danger to our lungs, safety and environment than reopening the highway and keeping the vehicles at a steadily moving distance. Thank you, Steven Hill. SF Rec&Park with Phil Ginsburg at the helm, and the transportation agencies are cherry-picking data, withholding information from the public until formal legal proceedings require them to produce it, and have political ties and allegiance to the wealthy well-connected Bicycle Coalition, with many members holding City positions. It’s good to understand what’s really going on.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You say that the closing had wide spread support from D7. Funny I live in D7 and no one ever asked me. I wouldn’t have supported it at that time either because I know how these guys operate. Open the great highway already.

    Like

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