Upper Great Highway

Bicyclists’ Social Disobedience on UGH Riles Some, Inspires Others

By Thomas K. Pendergast

After more than a year of being closed to motor vehicles during the pandemic, when the Upper Great Highway was opened to cars again on weekdays last August, some saw this as a reasonable compromise.

But a couple of dozen bicyclists who felt blindsided by the decision felt like they had been sold out, betrayed. 

Bicyclists begin their ‘Slow Ride’ on the Upper Great Highway on Nov. 4 to protest the return of cars to the roadway. Photo by Michael Durand.

So, they improvised a protest by driving their bicycles on the Upper Great Highway from Lincoln Way to Sloat Boulevard and then back again, taking up both lanes in either direction to intentionally slow down traffic. 

“I would go to the Great Highway when it was a 24/7 park during the pandemic pretty much every day after work. It was probably my favorite space in the City,” Adam Egelman said. “It was a really beautiful space … a really special place for me personally. So I was really devastated when they opened it back up to cars on weekdays.” 

He knew some people he had met through advocating for safe streets. And they were all connected through Twitter. So, they soon got together to protest the compromise, meeting at the Murphy Windmill near the western edge of Golden Gate Park.

“We didn’t really know what we were going to specifically do but we knew that we wanted to do something,” Egelman said. “Enough people showed up where we felt safe enough to do a slow ride.”

Egelman said it takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour for the round trip, at 20-30 minutes each way. He said their group is only loosely organized with no hierarchy to speak of, as most decisions are made by consensus. 

Peter Griffith lives off of Great Highway and he remembers that day as well, but he recalls it quite differently. He called the police at Taraval Station to report the bicyclists but nothing happened, so he hasn’t called back. 

“The cops know they should bust them. They should be giving them tickets. And as soon as they enter, the (police) should close the gate and then arrest them,” Griffith said. “The first time I yelled at them. I told the cops ‘why aren’t you arresting them?’ This is like stopping traffic on the Bay Bridge, or stopping traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead, (police are) just kissing their assess and letting them do whatever they want in my neighborhood.”

But Egelman disagrees. 

“It is definitely not expressly illegal,” he said. “And, if anything, it is in a grey area that allows police to use their discretion because we are not stopping traffic completely and we’re going around five miles per hour and we don’t intend on doing this forever. It’s a one-lap ordeal and it’s a protest with a clear message.”

He said it is also safer for them to take up two lanes at a time rather than just one lane, as cars passing are sometimes driven very aggressively. 

“I’m personally am not the biggest supporter of policing but I think having a police escort is better than getting run over by an SUV,” Egelman said.

During these protests, however, Judi Gorski wasn’t exactly thrilled with either the protesters or police when she got stuck in traffic behind them.

“I was in it two different times and it took me 30 minutes to get from Lincoln to Sloat,” Gorski said. 

She doesn’t know how long it normally takes her to go that stretch of road but the traffic lights are set for traffic at 35 m.p.h. 

“I literally was only able to drive two miles per hour. I could not go faster than two miles an hour. I was stuck at every single traffic light and the timed traffic lights are every two blocks …. And they blocked both the lanes and they have police protection, in between the bicycles and the cars are the police.”

Emails and telephone calls seeking comment from the SFPD on why they chose this approach were not returned as of press time. 

“I personally don’t want to call the cops and there are a lot of people in the group that share that opinion,” said protester Brett Bertocci. “When we show up to gather before the rides sometimes we see a cop there, sometimes we don’t and that’s about all we know.”

“A lot of this is motivated by seeing the way that cars dominate our city and the way they, frankly, to me ruin a lot of parts of it. The great walkway should be this beautiful oceanfront park, but instead we’re now, five days a week, cramming it full of cars,” Bertocci said.

“I think they’re not necessarily helping themselves. I think there are a lot of people that are opposing what they’re doing,” said Richmond District resident Jean Barrish. “I think what they’re doing is illegal, creating a danger and should be stopped. If they insist on committing civil disobedience … if they are going to engage in illegal activity, then they have to be willing to pay the consequences.”

Anthony Ryan said he is prepared to do just that. 

“The fact is the point of protests is that you inconvenience people to get attention,” Ryan said. “San Francisco has a history of protests and I think we’re part of that. Part of living here is tolerating protests. I don’t think that the convenience of driving down one road supersedes that. To me it’s a free-speech issue.”

He says they went into this with the understanding that they might get arrested but so far the police haven’t done that. Although it seems unlikely that will happen at this point, he wouldn’t necessarily consider it a bad thing if it did. 

“I think it would probably be good for us, in a way, because we’ll probably get some more press coverage and that’s kind of the whole point.” 

That might depend on what one considers “good” about press coverage. Outer Sunset resident Alyse Ceirante isn’t happy with the protesters, based on everything she’s seen so far.

“They don’t care what they’re doing to the people. They don’t care,” Ceirante said of bicycle-riding protesters. “These people aren’t real to them; they’re evil cars. And this is what we’ve been up against the entire time. Nobody’s looking at the people in the cars; they’re just looking at the cars. The whole thing has been extremely frustrating for a lot of people.”

Protester Parker Day, however, sees this as part of a larger issue. 

“This is kind of bigger than one person making just one trip,” Day said. “It’s a protest for a big change to the ocean promenade of San Francisco and the climate emergency. I can’t stress enough, we need better transit, biking, walking, park space and we’re advocating for that. And if we didn’t inconvenience anyone, I’m not sure anyone would notice.”

Patricia Arack lives off of Great Highway and she sure noticed. 

“The bike people want exclusive use of this highway, 24/7, forever,” Arack said. “They feel that they have a divine right to this highway and screw the residents who have to deal with the consequences forever. It’s just so unfair.

“That highway has to be shared. It’s too vital to people going in and out of San Francisco,” she said. “Sunset Boulevard and 19th Avenue are not big enough. They don’t have the capacity to handle all the traffic. It’s just a nightmare.”


23 replies »

  1. THe highway needs to remain open 24/7. The bike easily ride alongside cars everyday while I drive to and from work as they have done forever.. But now on Fridays at 4:00pm teachers, Veterans, school children, parents, healthcare workers now need to maneuver through the city streets. It’s a mess. The locals are sick of this childish behavior. They need to be arrested.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I live in the Outer Sunset and love the Great Walkway. I fully support these rides and opening it for people instead of cars. 19th and Sunset are more than capable to handle the amount of cars on the Great Highway with little to no extra travel time. Why should we have to give up such a beautiful ocean view to those in cars? There is plenty of accessible entrances to the Great Walkway and any emergency vehicle that needs to use it still can. It might even be faster because they won’t be stuck behind all the cars.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Clearly you don’t try to cross the city N-S including crossing GG Park or wouldn’t say “little to no extra travel time”. As a Richmond district resident there’s clearly huge backups on Chain of Lakes since MLK is closed in the park as well whenever the GH is closed. Just read the accounts of people TRAPPED on the GH because of these obstructionists – late to work, unable to respond to a famiy member who called for help with a medical problem.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Great Highway is always car-accessible north of Lincoln, ie, to cross GG Park, not sure what you’re talking about; you do not need to cross at Chain of Lakes. All of this is about making UGH *south* of GGP people-centric. Also, I have never in my life seen Sunset Blvd over capacity. Have you been on basically any arterial anywhere else in the city?

        Like

    • It does increase travel time when the UGH is closed. That is blatantly false. And the poor people living on the avenues in the 40s south of Lincoln are experiencing a lot more traffic on what used to be calm residential streets.

      Liked by 4 people

      • I’d agree there is marginally more traffic, but traffic is incredibly low still…especially for a major metropolitan city. The benefit far outweighs the issue for our family.

        Like

  3. I love the Great Walkway! We’re in a climate crisis and a pandemic, and we need to be making more room for people, not cars, especially in the most beautiful parts of our city. As a motorist myself, I’m more than okay with concessions like these. It’s really not that hard to use Sunset or 19th, and those streets are nowhere near full capacity even when the walkway is closed to car traffic.

    Plus, the Walkway brings in tons of new people to Sunset & Richmond businesses who otherwise might’ve just zoomed through or stayed in GGP instead of taking the time to walk further down the coast.

    More pedestrian-oriented, kid friendly spaces in SF please! 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I live on 46th Ave near Vicente and I support these rides. I think it was a shame what Gordon Mar did to run traffic back on GHW without consulting the neighborhood. All just to appease a very vocal cranky minority.

    As a parent we don’t have enough safe spaces for our children to play. The great highway should become a permanent park.

    Some people just can’t handle change for the better.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I raised a child in SF and there were PLENTY of spaces for children to play. Even with the GH open the SF Park and Rec claims there’s a park within 10 minutes of most San Franciscans. Throw in school playgrounds and Ocean Beach itself there is no recreation desert in the western parts of SF.

      Liked by 5 people

  5. Its really wild how one side you have people trying to create a gorgeous park on a magnificent coastline that is accessible to everyone while other you have what appear to be very selfish drivists who cannot imagine taking an alternative route or having their motorized la-z-boys held up by a minute. I commend the cyclists and am delighted by their advocacy.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi I’m a person who participated in the rides. I’d like to offer some context that’s not quite captured by the article. For every bystander who was there to yell at us, there were 2-3 who were cheering us on.
    As for the drivers we inconvenienced, most didn’t want to look at us, some yelled something about our privilege—maybe it is a privilege to be able to find some time to stick up for the earth, for future generations, and for ourselves, cyclists who feel threatened by distracted and careless drivers on a daily basis—and others actually rolled down their windows to nod or cheer in approval! Was it sarcasm? Maybe from a few, but certainly not ubiquitous. I challenge each of you who feels inconvenienced to find that level of humility within yourself. If you must pollute our beautiful earth on a daily basis, it’s not going to come without an occasional delay. Accept it. Just as we will accept the backlash of our activism. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Nzerner wrote “They (bicyclists) need to be arrested.” For what? Expressing their constitutional right to free speech. Typical attitude from The Entitled whose position from Day One of The Great Walkway is “My Way and No Other Way. Now Get Out of the Way.” Sorry. We will prevail.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. The writer of this article sidesteps what the real issue is here: not only do we have a police force who won’t make a move because they’re too cowardly to do what they’re supposed to do (besides refusing to make comments in this article, they’ve already stated to callers who have complained about these protests that “they’ve received instructions from higher-ups not to do anything”), we also have a Mayor who doesn’t have the ethics or the integrity to do her job and address the situation despite many, many complaints to her office. An email I sent to Supervisor Chan’s office resulted in a response assuring me “we’re just trying to keep the situation safe” (apparently by providing these bike riders who are regularly obstructing traffic speeds an actual police escort to enable and protect them!). And we all know about Mar, who got this whole ball rolling. These are all more examples of just how low not only our city government has sunk, but our police force as well. You can be sure, however, that if the division continues, tempers flare and something serious happens from this situation, everyone I’ve listed above will all be scrambling to avoid responsibility and will be looking for ways to blame each other.

    Despite Mr. Day’s dramatic cry of climate change and concerns about the “ocean promenade” in this article, his group isn’t fooling anyone: the reality is they thought they could take over a temporary, illegally-closed thoroughfare that was built for cars and make it their permanent play space, and when they learned they couldn’t, they’ve subjected us all to a series of self-absorbed tantrums (“It’s definitely not EXPRESSSLY illegal,” Egleman states, lol). And out of all the many opportunities to protest serious climate change in our state or in our country, these “heroes” have chosen a TWO-MILE highway where vehicles drive at 30mph! Really effective, guys.

    I originally felt the weekend closure was a fair compromise, but I now agree with the comment above that it’s time to open the highway to traffic 24/7 the way it always was. I’ve lost all consideration for a group who think they should be able to trample over the rights of other people trying to get to their jobs in the city or go home to their families at night, while ignoring the bike lanes, grinning and flashing passive-aggressive peace signs because they so desperately seek the attention they probably can’t get anywhere else.

    Again, I think this all boils down to really being about our city. I grew up in San Francisco and I’ve never seen such outrageously poor leadership as I have here in the last five years. It’s high time we vote these timid, cowardly people out of their positions and replace them with individuals who have some actual integrity and common sense. Despite the incredible amount of homelessness that continues to get worse as well as the crime we’re now experiencing in San Francisco, our public servants can’t even stop a small group of people from obstructing and slowing traffic to a crawl on a highway every week. It’s truly pitiful.

    Liked by 5 people

  9. As I look at this photo I see immature bike riders riding bikes with no lights or helmets. Here you have a group of clowns advocating a safe place to ride their bikes yet I see some of them with no lights and no helmets? Even SFBC advocates helmets and lights at night. Btw…It’s also required by law for children to wear helmets as I still see many without. What is challenging for me to understand is why people want to go to the beach, and not go to the beach?? Why would you want your kids to play on asphalt instead of sand at the beach? I look out now at the dunes and see bald spots of sand where there was once ice plant and beach grass, habitats for birds and other animals. Much of it now destroyed because people want to play on the highway. Now these same advocates want food trucks to take business away from our local merchants. All the lawns and grass to play on in Golden Gate Park sounds better to me. This is a highway, not a walkway. There is a walkway on each side of the highway, along with the six miles of sand to walk on. There is a park or playground within a 10 minute walk of most any residence in the entire city. If you need more space I suggest you explore the city more. Go to the SF Park and Rec website and learn about all the parks and playgrounds in the city. There are over 200 of them! If you can’t name more than 20, you don’t know the city! The Great Highway is there for a purpose. To move people north and south and keep traffic off the surface streets. That’s why we have highways and freeways. Oh, and during the week when the highway was closed there was hardly anyone out there. It’s cold out at the beach! If not for a draught and unusually warmer weather it’s normally freezing and raining, but I guess a lot of people new to the city don’t realize this. And no, we don’t want San Francisco to become Los Angeles!!

    Liked by 6 people

  10. The cyclists should stop these ridiculous protests, and also stop blowing through the stop signs and lights at either end of the Great Highway as a group. They should be ticketed for their behavior. The Great Highway is a major thoroughfare for the Western neighborhoods, and it should not be impeded.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. “The bike people want exclusive use of this highway, 24/7, forever,” Arack said. “They feel that they have a divine right to this highway and screw the residents who have to deal with the consequences forever. It’s just so unfair.”

    After decades of killing mass transit, rearranging all our infrastructure around personal cars, and drivers conquering essentially every public space and making it completely unsafe to walk or bike anywhere … complaints like this are just hilarious.

    I’m so happy to see public thoroughfares in SF that _aren’t_ dedicated solely to allowing gas-guzzlers to move everywhere they want, as fast as humanly possible, paying no regard to public safety whatsoever. Viva la Great Walkway!

    Liked by 2 people

    • The highway was never “dedicated solely to gas guzzlers.” It was shared by everybody. It’s self-righteous people like you who can’t handle sharing it and want it “dedicated solely to bike riders.”

      I suggest you move to Marin, you have no business living in a city.

      Liked by 6 people

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