Commentary: The Benefits of the ‘Great Walkway’

By Hazel O’Neil

I appreciated the last issue of the Sunset Beacon’s Letter from the Editor about the importance of open community dialogue. The Great Highway is a key west side landmark, and it’s natural that we all care so much about it. 

If you spend time on the Great Walkway, you may have seen me out there on a weekend, handing out flyers and stickers and asking if you’d like to help preserve the space’s future as a park. Regardless of whether we agree, I’ve enjoyed every conversation with neighbors. 

I work in urban planning on transportation issues. I live close to the Great Highway, as do my parents on the other side of the park. I have used the road as a commuter both in a car and on a bike. I’ve studied and written about the road’s closure before. To foster a more open conversation, I think it’s important to consider the actual impacts of converting the Great Highway to an oceanfront promenade. 

November’s “Great Musicway” was likely the first concert ever played on the Great Highway. When the road is used as a public space for people, it is a unique and beautiful place for the community to gather. Artwork and caption by Hazel O’Neil.

I support the conversion of the Great Highway into a full-time park/promenade/Walkway for several reasons. The main one is that the Great Walkway is a truly unique, ultra-San Francisco public space, akin to Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld park (an adaptively reused airplane landing strip), New York City’s High Line, and the Embarcadero, and I would hate to see the City pass up the opportunity to add an iconic destination to its urban form. 

Since the road has been closed, there has never been a time when I don’t see at least a few people out there enjoying it. On weekends, it is packed with happy joggers, bikers, dog walkers and folks on wheels. The Walkway is where generations of children in the Sunset and the Richmond – as well as visitors from other parts of the Bay Area – will learn to bike, because it’s safe, flat, and beautiful. 

The Walkway has already hosted meaningful community events like the “Great Hauntway” (a car-free corridor of trick-or-treating), the “Great Musicway” (a public concert series that gathered community members to enjoy local music on the stunning California coast), and racial justice protests against police brutality and Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate. On an intuitive level, converting the Highway to a Walkway feels like tangible climate action, as it provides needed infrastructure for people-powered transportation and prevents gasoline runoff from entering sensitive dune habitats and the ocean.

It is true that since closing the Highway to car traffic, there is sometimes more congestion on Chain of Lakes Drive and La Playa, mostly during weekend days or during rush hour. The traffic isn’t fun, but it’s not insurmountable (it moves faster than many other roads throughout the City), and the trade-off is a space that thousands use daily to walk, bike and skate. 

For residents on streets near Sloat Boulevard, the Great Walkway provides a safe bicycle and pedestrian connection to Golden Gate Park, and subsequently downtown SF via protected bike lanes. When I want to visit my parents, biking from the mid-Richmond to the outer Sunset, I cannot get there on continuous bike lanes without the Walkway. Cars can take other routes, but there aren’t other places for the thousands of people who use the Great Walkway to recreate safe from traffic.

I watch the cars on the Great Highway during the weekdays and can speak from both experience and the City’s traffic studies that it’s a small group of people who rely on the road for their commute; more people use the Walkway as a recreation space than drive on it. I empathize with the residents who have been affected most directly; the City has a responsibility to mitigate the impacts of removing this connection for people who have chosen to live and work where they do. However, as a former car commuter from the Richmond to Half Moon Bay, I would like to remind drivers that before the pandemic, the Great Highway was closed to car traffic up to 30% of the year due to sand. Fixing north/south commute connections is a solvable problem. We can time the lights to carry traffic more efficiently on Sunset Boulevard; build a pedestrian bridge at La Playa/Lincoln and a traffic light at Chain of Lakes/Lincoln so that cars can move through these intersections faster; and invest in better transit coverage and frequency that runs north/south through the westside and to regional destinations like Pacifica. 

I like canvassing because it has shown me that we neighbors have more in common than we do apart, and we all want to ensure we’re planning smartly for the future. The data we do have – public comment, survey results, the astonishing number of people who used the Walkway during an average week when it was fully closed (25,000+!) – tell us that the majority is in favor of transitioning the highway into an oceanfront public park. With that in mind, I urge the City to focus on planning with the community for a Great Walkway that strengthens our community bonds, climate resilience, connections to nature, and provides equitable opportunities to get around.  

Hazel O’Neil is a resident of the Richmond District. She is an artist and works in urban planning, with a focus on climate and transportation.

12 replies »

  1. Clearly you missed the point that the High Line and Tempelhofer Feld park were respectively an inactive rail line and an inactive air field. They didn’t convert an ACTIVE rail line nor air field to recreational use. That’s a HUGE difference. If you build a better alternative route (which 19th Avenue and Sunset are not) and then make the GH a recreational space – you would find very little opposition. But when you take an active major traffic artery used by 18,000 vehicles per day for the use by maybe 4,000 recreational users (and fewer during inclement weather, nights, shortened daylight) you will generate huge opposition. The tradeoff for making GG Park (an actual park) worse to make a highway into a “park” is just not a good enough benefit to justify the displacement of all the traffic the GH bears into the nearby neighborhoods.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. While I appreciate the congenial tone, the article contains numerous inaccuracies. Christina Shih addresses some of these in her reply. It is disingenuous to compare the Great Highway, an active road used by more than 18,000 vehicles per day (likely carrying 25,000+ actual people), to unused spaces like Tempelhofer that were later converted to recreational use. Speaking of numbers, the claim that “more people use the Walkway as a recreation space than drive on it” is just flat out false. The author appears to be improperly comparing daily vehicle use to weekly recreational use, which is obviously not a valid comparison. Using the city’s traffic studies, which are referenced in the article, about 124,000 vehicles used the Great Highway every week pre-pandemic. Compare that to the author’s estimate of 25,000+ weekly recreational users. Which number is bigger? I can’t believe this point even needs to be debated. It’s not even close. Further, the claim that “the Great Highway was closed to car traffic up to 30% of the year due to sand” is also false. Please tell me in what year was the Great Highway between Lincoln and Sloat closed for more than 100 days? It wasn’t. In its presentations, the city itself said the Great Highway was closed on average only 27 days each year for sand removal (that’s less than 8%). That’s a big difference. The author appears be conflating the Upper Great Highway with the Great Highway Extension (south of Sloat), which has been closed for extended periods in the past due to extreme weather events and erosion. However, the Extension is a completely different section of road with unique issues, and it is not the subject of this debate. I am willing to have a meaningful discussion regarding the Great Highway, and I am open to considering alternatives and compromises so the area can be shared by all. However, any such debate should start with facts, and this article gets many of them wrong.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. 1. Just like repeating over and over that Obama wasn’t born in this country doesn’t make it true, repeating over and over that a closed highway is good for climate change doesn’t make true. Closing an ACTIVE highway that served 18k-20k drivers every day doesn’t make those cars go away. It only makes them spend more time in their cars, adding additional miles to their odometers, traveling in less fuel-efficient driving conditions than the highway offers (including actual newly created congestion–the worst condition for climate change–at a half-dozen or more pressure point). Some estimates show an additional 16 metric tons of greenhouse gasses are generated each day the highway is closed.

    2. There already are preexisting paths on either side of the highway for bikes to traverse Sloat to Lincoln without encountering cars.

    3. The highway itself is the safest route for cars to traverse Sloat to Lincoln. Despite 18k-20k drivers every day, there hasn’t been a fatality since 2005. Forcing those cars onto high injury networks and through residential streets makes the streets WAY less safe overall. Very selfish to say that one wants to walk safely on the highway, only to create huge safety hazards for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. throughout the Richmond and Sunset Districts and in Golden Gate Park.

    4. Wrong facts. The highway actually was closed 27 days each year on average for sand removal. Keep in mind that each sand removal closure is a function of 3-5 days of nearly gale force winds that render the highway largely unusable to everyone. Also, on those sand removal days, the highway is accessible to bikes and others, so that is a great compromise right there. Bikes get the whole highway for 27 days each year, and can use the preexisting paths or share with cars the rest of the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have been a 40+ year Outer Sunset resident and since the UGH re-opened partially in August 2021, there have been many thousands of daily vehicle usage seen with my own eyes since the partial re-opening of the UGH in August 2021. That is the reality. Perhaps 25,000 used it from March 2020 through the Summer 2020, butSFMTA and CCSF have admitted there has been a drastic decrease in usage since then. Also, the pedestrian path to the east of the NB lanes of the UGH can be used if it is maintained, as well as, the shoulders of both directions of the UGH for cyclists and runners. For over 90 years, EVERYONE used the UGH safely and successfully.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Urban planning, really? Those in the transportation and planning department have done an absolute horrendous job of keeping traffic moving in this city. Untimed lights, bus lanes, construction on 19th avenue to name a few.

    Come out on a Friday afternoon during commute hours and stand at the corner of 48th ave and Lincoln to see the backed up cluster of frustrated drivers. The park is a mess (up to 20-30 minutes of backups) both at the Chain of Lakes and at the end of Sunset and into 25th at Lincoln. This has caused commuters, parents, kids, appointments, Veterans, tourists and residents nothing but aggravation. It’s insane and holds zero logic especially environmentally while cars are backed up in the park sitting idling.

    You like to canvas you say, well join us to share your thoughts with those frustrated commuters the closures have caused. They clearly have the time to listen to you while sitting in stand still traffic.

    “Since the road has been closed, there has never been a time when I don’t see at least a few people out there enjoying it.” ****No need to comment on the ” at least a FEW”.

    “I watch the cars on the Great Highway during the weekdays and can speak from both experience and the City’s traffic studies that it’s a small group of people who rely on the road for their commute; more people use the Walkway as a recreation space than drive on it. ”

    ********THIS statement is 100% UNTRUE. Those who live on or near the Lower Great Highway have sat outside videoing the cars at all hours of the day and night.
    I drive to work every morning and home every afternoon on that road and count at share the road with at least 15 cars going South and 15 cars going North between EVERY timed light. Let’s say 8 lights x 30 cars in about the 6-8 minutes it takes to go 2 miles at 30mph. I am a school librarian not a math teacher but that doesn’t sound like a few to me.

    “For residents on streets near Sloat Boulevard, the Great Walkway provides a safe bicycle and pedestrian connection to Golden Gate Park, and subsequently downtown SF via protected bike lanes.” THERE IS A PEDESTRIAN PATHWAY and a BEACH! Walk the path or the beach. My friends ride bikes along with the cars all the time.

    I am so tired of letters like this. They are downright untrue. All we want to do is get to and from our jobs, appointments and families as efficiently and safely as we can without interfering with local side streets.

    OPEN the Great Highway 24/7 and let’s move onto to some real problems our city faces.

    Liked by 3 people

    • All this non stop kvetching and rationalizing by The Entitled to preserve what they believe is their birthright to drive anywhere anytime is getting tiresome. It’s a telling commentary on the priorities of The Entitled that this issue is all consuming. 😔


      • Leeheidues- I am veteran teacher and librarian and by no means entitled. I work everyday to educate students. I use facts. Facts show that people use a highway to commute. They do not prefer to use it as a playground for the few that want to play on a highway. Play on the beach, in the park and in playgrounds like we all did as children.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Leeheidhues- I am by no means entitled to anything. I am a veteran educator and librarian who teaches students how to discern facts. Closing a main artery for commuters is inefficient and increases pollution.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Obviously some people move to the City, like in the Sunset or Richmond districts and prefer a more circus like atmosphere like South Beach in Miami or Santa Monica in So Cal. 17,000 to 21,000 single cars a day using the great Highway a day is not a handful of people commuting. If you count the people in the cars that could be 50,000 or more people a day moving up and down the coast. The data you quote is wrong and inaccurate! The Great Highway Alliance has pointed this out several times to the city and the city knows it. Bogus numbers and counters! Yes, some of the days in summer of 2020 when it was 100 degrees in the city and 110 degrees inland there were a lot of people on the Upper Great Highway because the Mayor closed the beach parking lots and roads in GG Park. How many days a year is it 100 degrees out here or even in the 80’s? It was gridlock in the neighborhood with no parking and people stuck in their homes. The highway keeps the cars off the surface streets. This has been a highway since the 1800’s. You obviously want to go to the beach, but don’t want to walk in the sand?? Most people with small children would rather have their children play in the sand than on asphalt. Even most playgrounds still have sand boxes. You have the original O’Shaughnessy sea wall from the Cliff House to Fulton. How many times a year have you personally used it? How many of the over 200 parks and playgrounds have you been to? How many live music concerts at McLaren Park have you been to? Live bands and food trucks are not recreation! Living along the Great Highway for over 40 years I used to ride my bicycle 2,500 miles a year and up to over 4,000 miles. I surfed if there were good waves. I had no desire to stand or play in the middle of a highway. Cars on the Great Highway have never been a problem unless it was closed to traffic, diverting the traffic to the surface streets making it harder to ride safely.
    The Sunset was always a quiet family neighborhood. Now people are moving in and want to turn this area into like South Beach along our embarcadero with expensive condos and food trucks along the beach. The developers love that!! Developers and Scott Weiner want to build condos in what were back yards! If you want that lifestyle you should move to the embarcadero and live in a condo, or go down to Newport Beach. Most residents out here prefer a home and back yard to play in. In fact the city used to be famous for people having beautiful back yards.

    On another note when I have seen organized events like the Halloween Party, and other advertised venues, why am I not seeing people of color? Are these programs excluding inner city kids and families from the Fillmore and Bayview Hunters Point? Were these events advertised in those areas and at their schools and community centers? Is the great promenade you depict for the people of the entire city or the tech money people going surfing in their $80,000 SUV’s?

    Look what urban planning did to the Fillmore! Exploited the African American community tearing down their homes and businesses. All the nightclubs, stores, restaurants and beautiful Victorian and Queen Anne homes torn down for progress. As a kid I used to go to the Winterland Ballroom at Post & Steiner to see bands like Jimmy Hendrix or the Doors. It was also a skating rink with shows like Holiday on Ice. All torn down for urban planning. They even named a square after Justin Herman, the man hired to implement urban planning of the area. Who profited by all this? Look at Hayes Valley, the affordable homes and businesses are all gone now catering to the wealthy. The middle class are being pushed out.

    Let’s stop the land grab by Ginsburg and Park and Rec! Let’s get life back to normal! Lets support our local businesses so they can afford to stay in business and hire workers from the area. Please do not try to fix something that is not broken.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. “…from both experience and the City’s traffic studies that it’s a small group of people who rely on the road for their commute; more people use the Walkway as a recreation space than drive on it…” Yes that ‘almost’ says it all.

    The missing part is the “small group” feels they have a entitlement to privileges they’ve become accustomed to at everyone else’s expense.So like junk yard dogs, they’re barking and yapping and even menacing and threatening. They’re used to being given their way and will become more and more desperate as their ‘special-ness’ erodes. Nextdoor has been a hotbed for organizing their disgruntlement. Some already disabled SFMTA equipment that counts bike usage. Others suggest violence in the form of cutting gates, throwing sharp objects on the road to puncture bike tires, and stringing neck high wires across the road. That’s who they are and what they’ll do to keep their special status.


  8. “More people use the Walkway than drive on it ” is an absolute LOL lie . 200 walker/bikers versus 20,000 drivers + passengers = It’s a road for transportation not recreation . The closure cultists think using alternative facts is OK ….the Truth, however, is obvious .

    Liked by 2 people

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