By Thomas K. Pendergast
The controversy about whether the wheels rolling through Golden Gate Park and along the Upper Great Highway (UGH) should be on cars, or vehicles without motors, rolled into court in December via a lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed by six people and the organization Open the Great Highway Alliance. It was filed against the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, its General Manager Phil Ginsburg and the Recreation and Parks Commission.
The suit alleges that the defendants are violating local and state laws by keeping the highway – along with John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King drives in Golden Gate Park – closed to cars after what were originally supposed to be temporary closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It further alleges that, under both state and local law, the defendants lack the legal authority to partially close the roadways to vehicular traffic, while making exceptions for motorized vehicles like food trucks, scooters that require a driver’s license, along with surreys and electric bicycles. It also notes that JFK Drive was opened last October to “VIP” car parking for select attendees at the Outside Lands concert.
“As a result, those who are physically able and can afford to live nearby or can afford to own or rent scooters, surreys, and electric bicycles still have the luxury to freely roam about the Gateway Drives,” the lawsuit claims. “It is no longer feasible for many residents who are disabled or families from socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods to enjoy much of the sights and sounds along the ocean and within one of the San Francisco’s crown jewels: Golden Gate Park.
“In short, by closing the Gateway Drives, local authorities have imposed de facto wheelchair and racial redlining.”
A media spokesperson for Rec. and Park deferred all questions to Ginsburg or the department to the City Attorney’s office.
Director of Communications and Media Relations Jen Kwart at the City Attorney’s office said they are still reviewing the lawsuit, however, “the plaintiffs chose to file this matter in court, and that is where we will address it,” Kwart said.
The lawsuit further alleges that keeping the UGH partially closed amidst increased pedestrian and bicyclist traffic raises serious environmental, safety, and quality-of-life concerns, including: the destruction of the sand dunes on the west side of UGH; destruction of the landscaping on the median, with gaps from crossing mid-block and of the snowy plover bird’s habitat; climate control issues; air pollution in the local neighborhoods; reduced coastal access; and increased traffic and commute times, with associated safety and health issues.
The roadways in question were all closed in March 2020, along with the general shelter-in-place orders throughout the City, to deal with the pandemic in anticipation of sharply reduced car traffic volumes and the need for people to have spacious areas that they could recreate while maintaining social distancing.
According to evidence submitted to the court in August of 2021, many pandemic restrictions were lifted. However, the drives remained closed.
An Aug. 15, 2021 letter from Ginsburg to the mayor’s office, the SFMTA and Rec. and Park staff, submitted to the court as evidence, shows that the highways were closed pursuant to Park Code 3.03.
“The County Health Officer had imposed a shelter-in-place order that generally required people to stay indoors but allowed people to leave to engage in the essential activity of outdoor recreation,” the letter said. “The closure was due to the emergency, in furtherance of the public interest, and necessary for the safety and protection of the many members of the public who sought out recreational opportunities along the Great Highway, to enable them to recreate in a safe and socially distanced manner.”
Ginsburg noted that significant progress had been made against spreading the virus, such as people getting vaccinated and the opening of playgrounds and recreation centers, as well as schools and businesses.
“These changes indicate that fewer people will be needing to recreate on the Great Highway, which is normally a major transportation artery, during the week. But based on usage patterns from the past year, there is still a clear public interest, and a continuing need in this emergency, to ensure the safety and protection of the many members of the public who will be engaging in recreational uses of the Great Highway on the weekends,” Ginsburg wrote. “Therefore, at the request of Supervisors Mar, Chan and Melgar and Mayor London N. Breed, I direct pursuant to Park Code Section 3.03 that the Great Highway shall be closed to motor vehicle traffic between Friday noon until Monday 6 a.m., and on holidays, beginning on Aug. 16, 2021 at 6 a.m., and until further notice.”
Another exhibit submitted to the court is a description of the Great Highway Project that addresses the traffic issue specifically.
“In early March, the SFMTA implemented a traffic calming strategy throughout the Outer Sunset, which data shown (sic) a reduction in traffic volumes,” the exhibit states. “The SFMTA continues to monitor and analyze the traffic calming strategy as part of the Great Highway and Outer Sunset Traffic Management Project. Additionally, city agencies have partnered with Supervisor Gordon Mar’s office on a D4 Traffic Mobility Study, led by the SFCTA, to explore the long-term future of the Great Highway.
“With the Great Highway closed to automobile traffic on weekends and holidays, the best way to travel by car between Lake Merced and Golden Gate Park is to use Sunset Boulevard or 19th Avenue….
“Rec and Park uses a set of data sources to inform estimates of visitor counts. A pair of Eco-Counter sensors were installed along the roadway in September 2020, counting all visits on foot, bikes, scooters, skates, e-bikes, skateboards of all types and everything in between. It cannot count cars, buses, or trucks….
“Nearly two million people have used the Great Highway as a place to walk and roll over the past (16.5) months. In the past year, from July 2020 to June 2021, 1.6 million visits were made to the Great Highway. October 2020 was the most popular month with 228,000 visits.”
The lawsuit seeks a “writ of mandate and injunctive relief enjoining and restraining the defendants from violating and continuing to violate state and local law … which requires that the Upper Great Highway, JFK Drive, and MLK Drive be open to all vehicular traffic; for costs of suit incurred; for an award of attorney’s fees.”
Categories: Upper Great Highway