Neighborhood News

Board of Supervisors Makes Part of JFK Drive Car-Free

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Private motor vehicles are permanently banned from the eastern section of John F. Kennedy Drive (JFK) in Golden Gate Park, after a 7-4 vote by the Board of Supervisors, acting as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA). 

The historic vote to make permanent what the Recreation and Park Department initially promoted as a temporary emergency measure. The closure was ordered to give people a space for recreation while keeping social distancing during the pandemic and to take advantage of fewer cars on the roads during the COVID-19 shutdown of businesses. The decision came after hours of public testimony during a marathon session which made clear that passions ran deep on both sides. 

In the end, activists and advocates from groups like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF – which over the past year have been lobbying hard and gathering support for a “car-free” JFK Drive – had reason to celebrate as Mayor London Breed’s plan was adopted. Many others from across town in the Bayview and Visitacion Valley left disappointed, along with the de Young Museum supporters and the four supervisors who voted against it. 

In a 7-4 vote, the Board of Supervisors acting as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority has banned cars from JFK Drive east of Transverse Drive in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

“It means so much to see this come to fruition,” said District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston. “We need a robust network of safe streets for walking and biking across our City, and car-free JFK is a critical part of making that a reality. Car-free JFK will move our City toward a greener, safer future,.” Preston’s district includes the eastern border of Golden Gate Park facing Stanyan Street. He was a co-sponsor of the mayor’s ordinance.

“Today, the Board of Supervisors made history,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF. “They voted in favor of our safety, health and climate. There is overwhelming support for having 100% car-free space – and in a city where an average of three people are hit each day while walking, it’s time we establish a safe, car-free space in our biggest park.”

But in some areas, the support is not as enthusiastic, with at least one board member, District 10 Supervisor and Board President Shamann Walton opposed. 

“The closure has done nothing to help make Golden Gate Park more diverse and that’s always been a concern of the community and a concern of mine,” Walton said. “I really, truly feel that Golden Gate Park should be reflective of the diversity that we brag about here in San Francisco and it is not the case right now.

“To close down portions of the park (to private motor vehicles) says to a certain geography, says to a certain class of people, says to a certain race of people here in San Francisco that ‘you weren’t welcome before and you’re still not welcome. And that this space is reserved for certain classes of people, certain races, certain people with means,’” he said. “I know this conversation has been a back-and-forth battle and some people want to make this strictly about cars versus no cars, but the conversation has always been much bigger than that.” 

According to the SFCTA report, “Golden Gate Park Stakeholder Working Group and Action Framework,” to make JFK Drive “car free,” 549 parking spaces were eliminated. Prior to the pandemic, there were 2,988 total parking spaces available east of Transverse Drive and 2,680 total parking spaces available west of Transverse.  

Before he cast his vote against, Walton shared that when he was young, he lived with his mother on Masonic Avenue close to the Haight and he walked down to the park frequently to play there. But all that ended when he moved across town to the Bayview. 

“And that opportunity to get to Golden Gate Park was gone because of access issues that still exist to this day,” he explained. “This is not as simple as ‘we want to have more cars on our streets.’ That’s not what this is about…. This is a great space but it’s a great space for a very few types of people. Is it ‘car free’ or is it ‘diversity free?’”

District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai said another issue is where, within the park, were all of the parking located that are now gone. 

“Our museums are public. These are not private, exclusive institutions. These are public institutions,” Safai said. “This conversation has been had in this City since the ‘60s about this stretch of road. As a planner, I would say I think we’re missing the mark from exclusively focusing on this one mile. If you were really looking at this park in a comprehensive way and you said ‘these are where all the institutions are. Where do you want to shut down a road in the park?’ I don’t think you would choose this spot.

“You cannot dismiss the reality that our public institutions – the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Tea Garden both of the museums – have seen a major drop in their patronage,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone can say it is easy if you’re disabled to get to the Dahlia Garden. I don’t think anyone can say that today, with a straight face. I don’t even think you can say it’s easy to get to the Conservatory of Flowers with a straight face. I don’t think the mayor’s proposal is fully baked.” 

District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan offered a compromise version which would allow for cars to enter the park via Eighth Avenue and allow motorists to drive one way on JFK Drive down to Transverse Drive. She also proposed opening Conservatory Drive from the Arguello Boulevard entrance to access the Dahlia Garden. This version has now been sent to the Board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee for review.

She also questioned survey results done by Rec. and Park and delivered to her office on Oct. 15, which, Chan said, purported to have garnered 5,900 responses and showed 71.9% support for closing JFK Drive to private motor vehicles. 

“Who filled out the survey?” Chan asked rhetorically. “According to (Rec. and Park) data … 60.6% (are) white. And then separately, 62.9%, no disabilities. So, these are the people that supported full closure of JFK Drive.”

As of January, she elaborated, Rec. and Park has increased those surveyed to 9,000, of which approximately 8,000 were done online. 

“But out of that, though, there are duplicate IP addresses,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the same person. It could also be different people from the same households. About 2,000 of them were duplicated from the same IP addresses. So, let’s look at who filled out the survey overwhelmingly to support the closure of JFK Drive. Only 245 individuals who are Black, African American, and 568 individuals who are Hispanic or Latinx. Also, out of the thousands who were surveyed only, 399 surveys were completed by individuals 75 years or older. 

“Who are we prioritizing? Who are we willing to leave behind?”

During public comment, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Executive Director Janelle Wong gave Chan a direct answer.

“I want to address Supervisor Chan’s question, ‘who is this for?’,” Wong said. “Candidly, every day I swing my leg over my bike, climb in the saddle and ride off, it’s about my life. And it’s about all of our members lives every time we ride the bike around town. This is not about recreation, which, I love all the joy, and our organization’s all about that. The reality is, for us, every single day, is that it’s about our life and protecting it and keeping it safe.” 

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