Upper Great Highway

Lawsuit Filed Against Road Closures to Cars

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.

The Upper Great Highway is at the center of a community debate and now a lawsuit alleging the defendants are violating local and state laws by keeping the highway – along with portions of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. drives in Golden Gate Park – closed to cars. Photo by Michael Durand.

“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.”

20 replies »

  1. Thank you!

    On Wed, Dec 29, 2021 at 11:29 AM Richmond Review/Sunset Beacon wrote:

    > San Francisco Richmond ReView posted: ” 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 ” >


  2. bfdsds. This gives me an opportunity to adjust my comment which is still “awaiting moderation”. Thomas did speak with folks at City Hall who provided the expected, “no comment”. I stand corrected as far as the City Hall bureaucracy is concerned. However, a diligent reporter would have sought out people from the myriad organizations and individuals working tirelessly for the permanent Great Walkway. As much as The Entitled want to delude them into thinking the Bicycle Coalition is the only advocate, The Entitled are mistaken. We will prevail. The shifting sands of time along the Pacific will tell the story.


    • You keep leaving the same old posts about “the Entitled” without being able to step back and see how incredibly entitled your own replies are.


  3. The Upper Great Highway was designed for safe, efficient vehicle travel. Adjacent to the highway is a pathway for pedestrians. Ocean Beach provides another wonderful place to walk and play. The sand dunes are being destroyed by people traipsing through and kids playing. There is garbage strewn along the Upper Great Highway, on the roadway, in the dunes and ice plant. It can’t be rationalized that it’s okay for food trucks with generators, select vehicles and some motorized 2 wheeled vehicles to use the roadway but not cars. Furthermore, it is indisputable that having cars backed up on north/south routes through Golden Gate Park and through the outer Sunset neighborhood creates more air pollution than vehicles running smoothly and efficiently on the Upper Great Highway. Tens of thousands of people are inconvenienced and delayed by the Great Highway closure so that a few people can recreate. This is an outrageous misuse of a public roadway. I am in full support of the lawsuit.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Thank you for showing our side of the story.

    There is plenty of space for EVERYONE. This has always been a shared space and should continue to be one. Motorist have been called selfish by these close it people when in fact we are the ones that want it shared. We are not trying to push pedestrians or bikes out but they are trying to eliminate the largest users of the that space.

    Liked by 4 people

    • This is a unique definition of “shared”. Coming from The Entitled it is typical happy double talk. The Entitled have The Great Walkway 60 percent. What The Entitled are wasting City money and their own money in taxes to the City Attorney is their what can only be called a selfish self serving goal to drive cars on The Great Walkway 100 percent of the time. We, all the assorted advocacy groups and myriad private citizens of all ages, will Prevail. Happy New Year


      • But you’re the only person who ever comments in opposition! Lol! You might confuse people with your silly nickname for OTGH because WE are not trying to take ANYTHING away from ANYBODY! All the assorted advocacy groups & myriad of private citizens pale in comparison to the number of long time SF residents who want the UGH to remain open to cars. Happy New Year to you as well, Sir!

        Liked by 1 person

      • You think what we are doing is self serving and selfish. We just want to put it back the way it was before a bunch of righteous selfish people decided to take advantage of the pandemic In order to force their will on motorist. We want to share it you want to steal it. We need it to get to work run errands and live our lives, you want to play on it. Who are the real selfish people I don’t think it’s us.


      • I have come to realize Nextdoor is insufficient for The Entitled. Now the The Entitled have another venting station to fill with Hot Air. The Richmond Sunset Beacon. What’s next a Fox News outlet in Western San Francisco?


  5. Seems like a slam dunk to me; open the Great Highway, stop wasting people’s time and money with this utter ridiculousness. Go use Golden Gate Park, or enjoy the pathway. Huge props to the OTGHA for continuing to work towards keeping San Francisco accessible to everyone. Bravo!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thank you Thomas for a great article. Hopefully this lawsuit will bring SF to its senses and return this highway in an equitable fashion to the majority users: commuters. The usage by recreation users is tiny at best. During the week its practically empty most of the time. The weekend before Cmas there were more SURFERS OUT IN THE OCEAN than recreation users on the highway. Meanwhile, cars are stacked up on Chain of Lakes, Sunset, 19th, Lincoln. The Bike Coalition, in cahoots with RPD, SFCTA, and SFMTA, have manipulated data and skewed results of surveys. It is shameful that these agencies are able to violate the public trust in such an unfair and inequitable way. The BOS needs to take this highway away from the jurisdiction of Phil Ginsburg before he has the chance to turn it into a commercialized tawdry mess. Leave the Great Highway alone, Phil. We don’t need you to make money off what was once an unspoiled, pristine natural space, but now is sullied with ugly food trucks with noisy generators blasting out over the soothing sound of the ocean.. Who knows what comes next–trinkets and tee shirts for sale? Ugly signs? Roller coaster rides? This is, in case anyone has forgotten, a wildlife protected area.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m happy to know more people are being informed about this illegal land grab. The organizations trying to close it will later make a $$ profit in the future pure an simple. There is already a bike and walking pathway. Why hog up the rest of the highway? The Great Highway is also an evacuation route for the Richmond District citizens to travel quickly South. The Richmond District is adjacent to the water on both the West and North borders. Moving East from the Richmond District in San Francisco citizens will also run into the Bay. Traveling South is not water locked. Please continue to keep our district open and safe for the residents.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Yes, this lawsuit is necessary. It should’ve never come down to this, but when petitions and meetings and protests and emails and phonecalls fall on deaf ears, you gotta do what’s right for everyone and for for the environment. Open The Great Highway for everyone! Stop this shameful land grab!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you to Richmond Review for reporting on this important lawsuit to stop this outrageous land grab by Rec and Park and its allies at MTA, the Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF. These taxpayer-funded agencies are trying to take advantage of a pandemic to ram thru an unpopular policy that has nothing to do with the original emergency. A day of reckoning is coming.

    However, one slight correction to your article. Paragraph four is not entirely accurate. You wrote “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.”

    That is only partially correct. Our lawsuit also says the city lacks the authority to partially close the roadways to vehicular traffic while making exceptions for “PEDSTRIANS and human-powered BICYCLES”, in addition to motorized vehicles. In other words, it is illegal for the city to partially close a road in a way that allows some people access and not other people. Otherwise, who could Rec and Park or MTA choose to exclude next, and based on what criteria?

    For example, the closure of the eastern portion of JFK Dr excludes disabled and partially abled people from being able to access Conservatory of Flowers and many other attractions there. This is about way more than the two museums. If these city agencies are allowed to exclude DISABLED people — the most vulnerable among us, who will they exclude next? The city also is excluding many different types of people from the Great Highway and Martin Luther King Drive. That kind of exclusion is illegal, according to state vehicle codes and San Francisco law.

    We are asking the judge to issue a preliminary injunction and re-open these streets to their pre-pandemic condition. Then we can start a REAL public discussion about how we can all share our streets. I believe there are compromises to be found, but first we need to re-open all of these kidnapped streets, and take away the ability of the corrupt Rec and Park and MTA to lead this process. Manuel Nuru may be gone from City Hall but his ghost of “insider dealing” and “pay to play” haunts Rec and Park and MTA. It is time clean house. Will Mayor Breed and the Board of Supervisors grab this bull by the horns and do it?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Essentially we have a department or two that are out of control being run by appointees who think they are above the law. Pretty much the way San Francisco is run these days and not too different from what we understand goes on in Washington. And so, we wind up in court. We welcome the effort to open the streets and will be looking for new pubic representatives who support their constituents instead of the well-funded disruptors. Back to normal means open the streets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t hold your breath because that’s the next battle. You need to go south and leave the west side alone. Managed retreat with all that infrastructure sitting there I don’t think so.


  11. The Upper Great Highway is a major thoroughfare for commuters and drivers. Pedestrians and bikers already have a path/trail on the east side of the highway fenced off from vehicles on the fringe of Golden Gate Park as well as the sidewalk promenade on the west side and the parking lots as well. Pedestrians also have the beach to walk on. Not to mention those pedestrians who do not clean up after their illegal dog walking on the walkway and beach and litter.


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