letter to the editor

Letter to the Editor: Reasons Why Upper Great Highway Should Be Open to Cars


Those who view the weekday re-opening of the Great Highway as a change for the worse completely ignore the fallout of the decision to close the Great Highway in the first place. 

There was no public input other than a limited District 4 mobility study that has been used repeatedly to justify its closure. There were 3989 respondents, of whom 53% overall supported a full promenade. That means only 2114 supported closure versus more than 13,000 people who signed the change.org Open the Great Highway petition. They failed to also note that 75% of Richmond District residents supported some form of cars on the Great Highway (full 4 lane, timed closure, two way roadway/promenade). The study itself was flawed in its methodology, sampling size and composition, and limited language access.

When the Great Highway was closed, the 18,000 vehicles/day that used it were diverted to adjacent streets, to the dismay of residents who complained of semi-trucks and motorbike brigades parading yards from their front door. The touted alternate routes that were “only five minutes away” in reality were Sunset Boulevard, which dumped cars into GG Park and Chain of Lakes, and 19th Avenue, which is undergoing two years of construction and has its own blinking yellow signs saying “use alternate routes” just when the City REMOVED one of those alternative routes.   

The SF Recreation and Park Master Plan for GG Park states that thoroughfares such as Kezar, Crossover, Stanyan, Park Presidio, and THE GREAT HIGHWAY are necessary to keep non-park traffic out of the park. Chain of Lakes was specifically cited as needing to be kept as a naturalized park road and not a commuter road, which is what it became with the closure of the Great Highway. 

The subsequent traffic studies presented at the July SFCTA hearing showed the prolonged wait times and queuing distances at Chain of Lakes, Lincoln and 36th Avenue, Lincoln and 41st Avenue, Crossover, Sloat, etc. as a result of the Great Highway closure. They recommended various infrastructure improvements to mitigate those chokepoints. 

The Ocean Beach Master Plan recommended managed retreat and narrowing the Great Highway with many infrastructure improvements to enable that. NONE of these infrastructures are currently in place to support narrowing, much less complete closure

 Claims that closing the Great Highway was necessary for safety reasons are false.  Traffic safety information regarding vehicle collision deaths shows none on the GH since 2005. The Great Highway is designed for safety – timed lights that limit traffic to 30 mph, a median to prevent head on collisions, controlled pedestrian crosswalks, and no cross-traffic intersections.  There is a safe paved walking pathway totally separated from the Great Highway, and a shoulder for bicyclists. 

Traffic diverted from Great Highway is being sent to roads that are already identified in Vision Zero studies as high collision streets – 19th Avenue, Sunset Boulevard, Lincoln Way and Fulton. So, removing a low-risk corridor and replacing it with high-risk streets does not promote bicycle/pedestrian safety. 

Claims that the Great Highway was the second most used open space in SF are also false. That claim by Rec. and Park failed to include federally controlled land, (including Ocean Beach itself, Crissy Field and the Presidio) with higher recreational use than the Great Highway.  The western side of SF is not a recreational desert:  there’s Ocean Beach, Lake Merced, the paved walking path, GG Park, Lands End, Sutro Park. In fact, Great Highway has been showing steadily declining recreational use based on the final SFCTA report and Rec. and Park raw data (average daily bike and pedestrian weekday use fell from December/January weekday high of 4,600 and weekend high of 6,500 down to May averages of 1,700 weekdays and 2,500 weekends).

 This means that using even the most generous numbers, for every one recreational user, more than four vehicles – mostly doing essential activities – were diverted to other city streets, generating more CO2 emissions as they idled in traffic and had to take more circuitous routes. The Sierra Club has stated that before the Great Highway is closed again, there should be an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to study the overall greenhouse emissions and human intrusion onto protected dunes and habitat.

The Great Highway was closed for “temporary” pandemic reasons. It makes no sense to keep it closed without implementing traffic mitigation and before the EIR.  Returning the Great Highway to its original use as a safe, efficient traffic artery that bypasses residential neighborhoods and protects GG Park was the correct decision. 

Christina Shih

16 replies »

  1. Absolutely correct on all points. The Bike Lobby, including the Bike Coalition which states that they “deserve” having the highway all to themselves, are entitled, arrogant, privileged and selfish people who have consistently ignored the obvious harm done to thousands of residents of the Sunset and the Richmond, and to working people who need to daily commute to their work and take care of the needs of modern daily living, like grocery shopping, picking up children, etc. These bike fanatics want Exclusive Use all for themselves of a needed community traffic resource. This is undemocratic and unfair. One must ask, why are all the city agencies and the media, including Heather Knight, pandering to these selfish people? What is the political payoff? Why are the needs of an entire two districts and working commuters less important than the desires of privileged mostly white affluent young male bikers who want their own personal bike way a few times a week?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are other solutions that need to be explored so that a fair and just resolution to this issue can be resolved. The bike path can be widened. The path on the west side of the highway can be paved. There are creative solutions, using in part the Ocean Beach Master Plan of 2012 as a guide. Just giving this extremely needed highway over to the bike lobby is grossly unfair and just wrong. Cars, walkers, and bikers can co-exist. We need some creative thinking so that all members of the community are considered, not just the few.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice pointing out all the BS that our “city” agencies are putting out. One more they flat out lied at the meeting when they said the counters were buried in sand and were not tracking the people, but when cell phone data was checked it corresponded to the decrease in usage. Usage was down a good 60% and Park and Wreck didn’t want to push those numbers since they didn’t fit their agenda. Back in the 60’s we use to say never trust the man well I guess that still true today.


  3. Thank you!! The rich tech money along with developer money want to force the families out of the city and build multi level condos. This free space is a con job! Get rid of the mom and pop stores and restaurants and replace them with food trucks. It’s a potential gold mine for them. The poor sheep that believe all this is for the good are only being led to the slaughter house. They want it to be like Santa Monica!


    • You are exactly right Tony. The pro=developer rot begins with Scott Weiner Senate Bill 9 and permeates the entire city government. The modest income middle class in the Sunset cannot pad the wallets of the political class, so they get the shaft. This highway should have never been closed. It was to be “temporary” they said. Its just for pandemic recreation, they said. Now the bait and switch is almost complete. Grossly unfair to an entire district and to working people who can’t work from home like affluent techies with expensive spandex and multi-thousand dollar bikes who want their personal Bikeway for their exclusive use.. They even yell at the poor walkers, “Get Out of the Way! Go walk on the Bike Path!” These entitled selfish bikers deserve nothing.


  4. Thank you, Christina, for this very accurate summary. One more time for the people in the back — Closing the Great Highway is worse for climate change, not better. All this closure does is create a mess for people living on this side of the city. If you do not live in Sunset/Richmond Districts, sit down and shut the hell up. I don’t care if you live in Glen Park and want a nice, flat space to recreationally ride your bicycle, people need to get on with their daily lives without a 40 minute detour to do it.


  5. I agree 100% with all points made in this beautifully written article and for all reasons stated I support the full 24/7 reopening of the Great Highway and the implementation of an Environmental Impact Report as is normally required before any closure of a coastal road, as has been urged by the Sierra Club.


  6. Because I want it isn’t a valid reason. The author misses the forest for the trees. Literally she has no concern for the City environment. Her sole interest is the fastest speed to commute through the City on a barren “sacrifice zone highway.

    The Great Highway as a freeway for cars is a legacy of the same SF vision as the Embarcadero Freeway. A vision that people should reside in sprawling bedroom communities far away from from work/entertainment/buying activities. With ever increasing separation distances as population increases.The Great Highway was intended and is still a conduit for commuters, in both directions.

    The City can no longer cater to that lifestyle because it’s increasingly destructive of environmental sustainability, social harmony, and the well being of families and children. That’s what makes SF a place where residents can thrive. They’re impossible to attain when residents are endangered and beset by speeding commuter cars.


    • Well Michael Nader I guess the Sierra Club isn’t pro environment either. They sent a letter to the SFCTA, Parks and Rec, BOS, etc stating the need for an Environmental Impact Report before permanent closure of the GH because of the false assumption that closing the GH is better for the environment.

      Transcript of their letter:

      Sierra Club (founded 1842)
      San Francisco Group, SF Bay Chapter
      Serving San Francisco County

      Date: July 27, 2021

      To: SF Municipal Transportation Authority Board (SFMTA)
      SF Recreation and Park Commission (SFRPC)

      Re: Upper Great Highway – Need for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) evaluating the five Pilot Project options

      The Sierra Club has been following the public process for the future of the Upper Great Highway. We do not as yet have a position on this project. We understand that the City will soon be choosing one of five options for a Pilot Project, which would run for up to two years. This would be in addition to the over 16 months that the Highway has already been closed to car traffic. However, to date there has been no environmental analysis of either the past 16 months’ impact or of the five proposed options and their potential impacts.

      It is tempting to look at the Upper Great Highway as an isolated roadway. On the contrary, the Upper Great Highway is just one piece in the overall ecosystem that includes Ocean Beach, the dunes between the Upper and Lower Great Highway, the Lower Great Highway, parts of the Outer Sunset and Golden Gate Park. The City’s five options may have both negative and positive impacts on these areas. We are asking that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) be written that takes into account both the individual and the cumulative impacts on all of these areas.

      The purpose of performing a CEQA review is, “to inform decision makers and the public about the potential environmental impacts of proposed projects, and to reduce these environmental impacts to the extent feasible.” Some areas that should be covered in an EIR are:

      • What will be the net increase or decrease in greenhouse gases caused by eliminating cars and increasing bicycle use on the Upper Great Highway vs causing an increase in stop and go traffic through the neighborhoods?
      • What sill be the impacts of the increase in human encroachment with increased use and unregulated crossings on the dune habitat on both sides of the Upper Great Highway vs the impacts of the lack of cars on wildlife fatalities?
      • The western end of Golden Gate Park is designated to be the wildest section of the Park and provides a sylvan respite for humans. What will be the impact of the increase in the amount of rerouted traffic through Chain of Lakes Drive, the possible introduction of urban style traffic lights, and the possibility of channeling of heavy traffic on to Martin Luther King Drive within the Park?
      • The Recreation and Park Department has already proposed introducing a skatepark, food trucks and entertainment to the Upper Great Highway. What activities will be installed or supported in each option and what will be the impacts of each of those activities?
      • What will be the increase in artificial lighting and what will be the impact on both wildlife and Dark Skies?

      These are not all of the possible impacts – a Notice of Preparation and a Scoping Session would bring the various issues that should be covered in an environmental review.

      Evaluating environmental damage after a Pilot Project has been in place for two years – or in this case a potential total over over 3 years – is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. There, the Sierra Club requests that there be an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as soon as possible and before a Pilot Project is selected and implemented.


      Becky Evans, Chair
      SF Group Executive Committee

      cc: Board of Supervisors
      Department of Recreation and Park
      Planning Commission
      Planning Department
      California Coastal Commission


  7. SFMTA’s own data and simulations (that they fail to publicize) show that closing the GH will increase greenhouse gases because diverted traffic means more Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT). There is nothing pro-environment about it. Back-of-the-envelope suggests several dozen metric tonnes of CO2 every day, never mind all the other pollutants.

    More VMT is correlated with more accidents, especially since those 18,500 vehicles are being shifted from possibly the safest roadway in the city onto streets the city itself designates as unsafe.

    18,500 cars on the avenues means more pollution at our doorsteps rather than at a safe distance.

    None of that has to do environmental sustainability, social harmony, or well being.

    Follow the science.


  8. An excellent letter by Ms Shih. She summarized the lengths to which SF Parks & Recreation went to justify what seems to be their preference. This is either just poor study management or a deliberate strategy to push through an unpopular action.

    This is in addition to their poorly designed survey of who was in favor or reopening JFK drive, which was posted on their website. It allowed multiple voting by the same person without tracking. Let’s hope all this is due to covid-induced incompetence and not malfeasance.

    SFP&R has a civil duty to consider all affected groups. If they do not, then they are no better than the SFUSD Board of Ed elected officials who pushed through policies which they skewed to favor their own preferences. Their biased action of trying to destroy the murals at George Washington High School has been reversed by the courts.

    Perhaps a legal action can be filed to prevent SFP&RD from implementing the GH permanent closure. There should be an independent unbiased survey and the following of all legally mandated environmental review procedures before closing GH forever to autos.


  9. Christine, the Sierra Club isn’t a validation to carry your car-centric society vision. Your and their assumption that commuter car traffic is immutable, unchanging in the face of changes in road design is simply false and irrational. Commuter traffic is supported and abetted by particular road designs that cater to it. Similarly, commuter traffic is discouraged by road designs that don’t cater to it. Encouraging and subsidizing that traffic is why the Great Highway was initiated at a time when car dependent lifestyle was promoted as progress. Now we know what was considered a good at that time is unsustainable when scaled to the level it has become. Closing the Great Highway to car traffic will discourage and reduce that traffic to result in less total greenhouse gas emissions. Car emissions will be reduced through fewer car dependent lifestyles, fewer car miles driven, and vehicle design that create less life cycle emissions. Already, California is phasing out new gas powered car sales. Long distance commuting as a way-of life is being phased out as well.


    • Hello Michael,

      I agree that we need to change, but I believe Christina Shih was not advocating that we go back to a car-centric society. She was pointing out that SFP&R did not do a thorough study of the environmental effects of rerouting cars to smaller traffic roads as well as noting the traffic jams and pollution caused by that rerouting.

      We really need to be address changing from a heavily fossil fuel-dependent society. Unfortunately, we still have a car-centric way of traveling right now and need to solve how to deal with that in the most environmental way.

      Just keeping roads like GH closed will exacerbate air pollution because traffic does not go away just because the GH is closed. I am experiencing much heavier traffic now that some restrictions have been lifted and it will only get worse if that added traffic is shuttled to smaller roads.

      In cities like NY, there are many more travelling choices than we have here. I lived there both in NYC itself (stupid to have a car) and in Nyack, a smaller town (must have a car). I used the trains and subways to get to and around Manhattan but I had to have a car to get food, go to the dentist, get to social venues and work, all within Rockland, the suburban county I lived in.

      I called the Rockland bus system “secret” because there weren’t any bus stop signs in town for the first 20 years I lived there — you just had to observe where a bus might stop. You had be there when it happened to come by and see it stop to let someone off. It’s finally better now with a bus that takes commuters to the train across the river and real bust stop areas with posted schedules.

      We need multi-available transport in SF and to and from surrounding areas. BART was created as part of a car-centric society and is not that usable for city residents. A master plan needs to be created that moves us from car-centric transportation to safe and easily available public transportation, within reasonable walking distance of residential areas.

      I believe all groups want to have a better life for themselves and their children.We should be using our energies to make that happen sooner rather than later, and that means holding elected officials to account and by being flexible and proactive to find solutions instead of keeping to our corners.


    • You are ignoring the fact that the traffic will not diminish until there are alternatives to car travel for working people. There is no reliable, efficient, and plentiful transit system in the Sunset District. People will not get out of there cars until the transit system is adequate, and Bart comes out here, which may be never. The drivers just have to find other paths through the Sunset, on residential streets and on overcrowded alternatives through routes. Keeping cars off the GH just increases pollution and makes neighborhoods more dangerous. Perhaps your argument works in other situations but not for the Sunset and thr GH


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