Commentary: The Time for Car-Free Spaces is Overdue

By Liz Heidhues

Growing up on Second Avenue in the 1950s, I played in the streets with a gang of kids in the Inner Richmond.

Until it got dark, and our mothers hollered out the windows to come in, we would ride our bikes, roller skate, walk on stilts old Mr. Strohmeyer built for each kid, or play kickball in the streets.

I was 5 or 6 years old when something terrible happened to leave me with a morbid memory. A car hit Jimmy, my playmate.

I can recall the sound of my mother’s voice as she yelled “My god! It’s Jimmy!” I don’t remember any shock or feeling, just her yelling. I ran to the window where she was looking out  to see for myself. I saw a body crumpled in the street. I remember seeing a bloody paper towel blowing down the street.

I remember Jimmy was gone for a long time. When he returned to play in the street, the kids said he was crazy because his head had been broken.

Playing in SF’s streets is no longer safe for kids. Our streets are congested with cars. Motorists do not obey speed limits or stop signs. Cars fail to see and yield to pedestrians. San Francisco may be the most dangerous place in the U.S. for kids to play outdoors.

In 2014, San Francisco launched Vision Zero to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. We are making little progress on curbing our deaths. Since the start of Vision Zero, more than 200 people have died in traffic incidents. Another 20,000 have suffered serious injuries. 

In response to our high number of pedestrian fatalities and the crises of the pandemic, SF carved 3.5 miles of car-free roadway out of 1,200 miles of streets dominated by automobiles.

The preservation of two spaces closed to cars – JFK Drive from Transverse to Kezar drives in Golden Gate Park and The Great Walkway along the Pacific Ocean ­– should be a public health priority.

Motorists have been unceasing in complaining and ranting about not being able to use all public lands as freeways. They feel it is their birthright to drive their vehicles on every street in San Francisco 24/7, 365 days a year.

The City has bent over backwards to accommodate the motorists, who are arguing for a return of cars to JFK Drive and the Great Walkway.

Last August 2021, Supervisors Connie Chan, Myrna Melgar and Gordon Mar met with Mayor London Breed to deal a blow to The Great Walkway. Out of their meeting, a decision was announced bringing cars back onto the Great Walkway from Monday at 6 a.m. until Friday at noon. The decision was made while the other supervisors were gone for summer recess and the City was still monitoring the public pulse. It was announced with no public input. It was a slap in the face of public process.

To accommodate motorists on JFK Drive, the City has taken several affirmative actions:

  • Added a dozen new parking spots on Conservatory Drive West, Conservatory of Flowers;
  • Opened Nancy Pelosi Drive to cars right up the edge of JFK Drive;
  • Cleared out an area directly adjacent to the Japanese Tea Garden to create 20 ADA parking spots near the bandshell;
  • Increased the number of shuttle buses on JFK Drive, and;
  • Improved signage.

To accommodate riders and passengers going to Golden Gate Park’s attractions, there are 15-minute drop-off and loading areas in front of the de Young Museum, Academy of Sciences and within the Music Concourse Garage.

But the accommodations have not quenched the insatiable appetite of motorists. How are they responding?

The motorists sued the City in San Francisco Superior Court to force the opening of car free areas. Then the motorists filed an injunction to immediately open the car-free areas while the case was wending its way through the court. A Superior Court judge ruled against the injunction in February. Now the losing motorists are taking their case to the California Court of Appeals after the judge wrote in his order that the plaintiffs (motorists) were unlikely to prevail at trial court.

In their vexatious lawsuit, the motorists may have brought about what they wanted least: a galvanized public determined to act together to preserve car free spaces.

The Fine Arts Museums SF (FAMSF) has been a strident opponent of a car-free JFK Drive. FAMSF hired Platinum Advisors to lobby the City, the mayor, and Supervisor Connie Chan whose district encompasses JFK Drive. Platinum launched a misleading public campaign against car-free JFK Drive using misinformation and falsehoods. FAMSF is demanding cars return to JFK Drive to enable museum attendees’ parking. Before JFK’s closure to cars, up to 88% of its traffic was cut-through commuters. 

The Music Concourse Garage is an 800-car garage underneath the museums. Its parking is overpriced. FAMSF Director Thomas P. Campbell claims the museum doesn’t have control over the fees in the Concourse Garage. That doesn’t scan when museum insiders have six of seven seats on the garage Board of Directors, one of whom is the contractor who built the garage. The Garage Board could enact solutions like lower parking rates. The garage management owes the museums more than $2.5 million and the loan accrues interest. But FAMSF has not collected any money in more than a decade, which is not standard procedure.

Chan has met with the lobbyist Platinum Advisors a nine times within 11 months. She is the one supervisor most vehement in her opposition to car-free JFK Drive and The Great Walkway.

During her election campaign for supervisor, Chan signed the Green New Deal Pledge from the environmental group, Sunrise Bay Area. She pledged to prioritize the health of families, climate and democracy over the fossil fuel industry. This helped Chan eke out a 123-vote victory in the 2020 D-1 Supervisor’s race.

We became aware of Chan’s opposition at the first car-free JFK Drive rally in March 2021. At that time, she held her first of nine documented meetings with Platinum.

The rally’s organizers told one of us Chan was not supportive. It was true a year ago. It is true now.

In March, Chan attacked the validity of an official citywide survey completed November 2021. The survey was the largest such survey ever conducted by two City departments – SFMTA and Rec. and Park. It found nearly 3/4 of residents want a car free JFK Drive.

Chan is raising a false flag of lack of participation from certain ethnic groups. The survey was conducted in multiple languages and secured results from all zip codes and all incomes. She is attempting to align an official survey with lies to debunk its results. It seems she will go to any lengths to dismantle the feelings of people of all backgrounds and abilities registering their likeability of a car free JFK Drive.      

SFMTA Board of Directors and Rec. and Park Commission voted to make JFK Drive permanently car free. Breed came out in favor of the proposal and sent legislation to the Board of Supervisors to support the designation of a permanently car-free JFK Drive.

We need this to be a done deal so the phantom of Jimmy can be laid to rest.    

Liz is an educator with a masters degree in special education.

7 replies »

  1. City streets were never safe places for children to play on, despite nostalgic memories. Given that SF Park and Rec touts that every SF resident is within a 15 minute walk to a green space not to mention the large (percentage wise) federal recreational space available to SF residents, it’s hyperbole to say children don’t have a safe place to play. They have playgrounds. They have school yards. Some have their own yards. They have parks and beaches. Slow Streets where they mingle vehicles/bicycles (motorized or not), scooters (motorized or not) and pedestrians are not “safe” places for playing in. The SFMTA when asked at a forum stated that the intent of slow streets is not for games or playing in since they are still streets and abide by vehicular codes. There should not be soccer nets, lawn chairs, art work, volley ball nets, etc which people think fall under “recreational” use since the early slow street descriptions said slow streets were for transit and a place for people to “recreate” on. Connie Chan is responding to the legitimate issues of her Richmond District constituents with road closures to cars and the now publicly available evidence of skewed surveying (giving the Bicycle Coalition advance notice of surveys and hearings so they can “get our people out”) and poor sampling in the surveys which resulted in under-represented groups like over 65, non-English speaking, not living in the Sunset or Richmond districts, racial and income groups).


    • IMO Continuing to reorient SF Park roads as car free or low car spaces (not as commuter cut through streets) is in the long term best interests of SF residents. Prioritizing private car commuter convenience not so much.


  2. Christina Shih. What kind of person who callously uses the word “Nostolgic” to describe the Horror witnessed by a young girl when she saw her playmate bloodied and injured splayed out on the street after being struck down by a CAR?
    The same person who has engaged in a vicious two year campaign redolent with misstatements, half truths and prevarications to fight a losing battle to maintain the Hegemony of the CAR.


  3. Great piece Liz. Safe streets, community spaces, and climate action all work in harmony.

    JFK Promenade is San Francisco’s magnum opus to this urgent new future

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for writing this. The car has been king in our “transit first” city for far too long and we are weaker, poorer, and less safe as a result. Thank you for shedding light on the environmentally destructive double speak of some local leaders.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bus Rider. Thank you. Connie Chan is the person engaging in “destructive double speak”. Remember that when Connie seeks another term as Supervisor in 2024. She signed the Green New Deal pledge, took the endorsement of Sunrise Bay Area and has betrayed her Progressive supporters since Day One. Her perfidy must be dealt with at the ballot box.


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