Commentary: A Disabled Senior Appreciates Car-Free JFK Drive

A Disabled Senior Appreciates Car-Free JFK Drive

By Carol Brownson       

I just read about a principle in behavioral economics: people have a strong bias for the status quo. We keep doing what we’re used to even though there might be better alternatives.

COVID disrupted San Francisco’s status quo. Growing older and disabled disrupted mine. So, I let go of what I was used to and reclaimed my freedom and my city. A mile and a half of car-free road in Golden Gate Park helped me do both. 

First, I found the perfect mobility scooter for me – a cute little sports car of a model. Until this year, I had no idea of the many new ways for disabled people to get around.

I expected to get my life back. What I didn’t expect was a better, more San Francisco life. While my scooter allowed me to get to get places on my own, San Francisco’s new focus on car-free spaces allowed me to get to parts of the city I hadn’t seen before.

I discovered Golden Gate Park’s car-free JFK Drive. More accurately, car-free JFK let this longtime San Franciscan discover the old park in a magical new way.

Where I used to drive, park and just visit my particular destination, I now roll off the bus in the park’s Music Concourse, float over to JFK, and go safely exploring on my mobility scooter. I’ve discovered amazing animal sculptures, shady redwood glades, historic structures and hidden lakes. And I’ve done it without worrying over potential hazards at every corner and driveway. 

During the worst of the pandemic, it was a place where we collectively escaped isolation. That sense of community and camaraderie continues to flourish. It’s apparent in the roller skating dance parties, the family bike rides and the picnics among friends. It encourages connection, something hard to make from the enclosure of your car.

As the public feedback stage wraps up and city officials decide the future of car-free JFK Drive,  I hope our human bias for the status quo can take a back seat to new possibilities.

Wouldn’t it be great if other disabled seniors had the opportunity to discover new ways for getting about? Car-free JFK seems an excellent place to do it. People could park in the disabled parking proposed behind the bandstand, near the bike rental. From there they could rent a disability scooter and see what works for them. Even better, park in one of the disabled parking structures in the museum parking garage and transfer to a mobility device. Lots of space just inside the basement museum entrance to set that up. 

Like many U.S. cities, San Francisco needs to improve its infrastructure for non-car transportation. That will take time, but the silver lining of the pandemic has been a willingness to experiment with bold new ways of doing things.

In the meantime, there is car-free JFK. Let’s keep it and improve it, not simply settle for the status quo.

Carol Brownson moved to San Francisco 34 years ago, fulfilling a childhood dream.

12 replies »

  1. What a wonderful commentary – I’m so glad you’ve found a way to enjoy park on your scooter and shared your experiences and suggestions here. Thank you! (I love the car-free roads too.)


  2. Not every disabled person is capable of scootering along JFK Drive. Many visitors are dependent on caregivers or group transit from nursing homes and care centers. It’s unfair that there are no days when people who cannot transfer out of a vehicle are prohibited from enjoying sights along JFK Drive, especially the Conservatory of Flowers and Dahlia Dell. Why is there no discussion of a compromise? Allow vehicles three days a week to allow those who cannot make the trek, except in a vehicle, can enjoy the park too.


    • I have difficulty imagining people who are unable to transfer out of vehicles. Presumably they aren’t living in the vehicles, so they must transfer out of the vehicle at the end of the day.

      There is a already a shuttle that runs up and down JFK– perhaps the city could license some group transit vehicles from nursing homes to make the same loop? With professional drivers, a couple more shuttles a day shouldn’t cause any issues.


  3. Of course you have difficulty imagining that it’s possible that someone cannot get in and out of a car. That is the typical ablest reaction. You can’t imagine it because you’re not disabled. You have no idea what you’re talkin about. No able-bodied person has a clue what it’s like to be disabled. Most of my life I was able-bodied I could get up out of a chair I could go up steps I could walk normally, and then all of the sudden you find yourself unable to do any of that. This is the problem between able-bodied and disabled people the able-bodied do not understand what it’s like to live in a body that no longer has the muscle strength to do what is normal. Please develop some compassion and understanding for people who are less fortunate than you. Someday it may happen to you too and then you will understand what we have to go through just to get through the day and then to have to deal with unsympathetic people like yourself.


    • I can certainly appreciate that it’s tough to get around when you cannot get in and out of a car. That’s why it’s important to make it easy to get around without a car.

      My grandma’s childhood friend lived in a suburb where the only option was to get around in a car. As soon as she was unable to drive, she became very isolated. It was rough. She died not long after, even though she seemed to be in good health otherwise. She talked about moving back to the Richmond, but it never happened.


      • You just dont get it. If you have trouble getting in and out of a car, you cant walk, ride a bike, take a bus or shuttles. The best and only alternative is a private car. I can only go places in a private car with afriend with me. I am banished fron JFK. I cant see Winter Lights. Why keep j.f.k. closed at night? People don’t want to walk through a dark park or bike through a dark park at night. It’s dangerous. That would be the ideal time to allow traffic at night time so people can ride in a safe car and see the Winter Lights his disclosures are just outrageously stupid and ableist.


  4. I absolutely disagree! As a disabled person not quite a senior at 61 it is a huge hurdle to access the car free zones without an automobile. Public transportation is a cesspool of infectious diseases and not very convenient unless you live in front of a bus stop that runs exactly where you need to go. Ever stand at a bus stop in the middle of the night in dense fog waiting for a bus???


    • Do you often travel to the car-free zones in the middle of the night?? I mean, more power to you if you do– it’s always nice to meet some friends in the quiet hours in the park for a beer. But I figure it’s better not to be driving in that case…


  5. You are speaking from your experience and ability to cope with the change. There are some of us who can’t. And it is not by choice. We can not do it. I myself cannot walk for long distances and would need to be able to park near to Museum if I am to visit. With a limited budget I have no funds to pay for parking.
    There is a responsibility of the city, to accommodate those of us who can’t, so we can enjoy the park, too. Have you ever taken the bus to the park? Do you know of the limitations of where we can get to in the park by bus? Please experience our difficulties too, before you make a recommendation that we don’t need it.
    I, too ask why is there no compromise offered? Days of the week? Discount on parking? A special space set aside. Something to say we realize you have a right to join the park too. A statement from the decision makers saying they want us to join the park in a way that’s convenient to us. The plan needs to accommodate the people of San Francisco, including those of us who have the need. Where our needs taken into consideration at the same time as everyone else.


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