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.
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.