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.
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.”
Categories: Upper Great Highway