News Analysis: Traffic at a Crossroads

By Jack Quach

The Future of S.F. Traffic-Restricted and Slow Streets

San Francisco’s streets with traffic restrictions will face key decisions in coming months, including the approaching November ballot. 

The once continuously flowing San Francisco traffic was dramatically reduced to a sparse trickle during the first months of the widespread COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the low car traffic resulting from public health measures at the time, in April 2020 the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) implemented the Slow Streets program. 

Under the program, the SFMTA placed restrictions on motor vehicles to prioritize pedestrians and bike riders and limit (though not eliminate) through traffic. These generally impacted residential  areas. Additionally, larger networks such as the Upper Great Highway and John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, while not officially part of Slow Streets, experienced car restrictions during the onset of the pandemic. 

These types of streets hosted outdoor gatherings, allowed for outdoor exercise and adjusted transportation. Although the City initially directed the revised travel to last until the end of San Francisco’s COVID-19 emergency order, the SFMTA voted to maintain some roadways under the new rules. 

But as the City re-emerged from the 2020 and 2021 pandemic peaks, calls for the removal of key streets from the Slow Streets program arose. Meanwhile, supporters have also requested lengthening or making permanent certain slow streets. The argument around the program’s future — and that of streets with traffic restrictions enacted during the pandemic — has since become a focal issue for community leaders and members. 

The future of two currently restricted streets — the Upper Great Highway and JFK Drive — pivot on the results of the Nov. 8 city ballot. 

Proposition I, “Vehicles on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway,” seeks to return the two large roadways to full-time car access. 

The Great Highway began the pandemic fully blocked off to cars, giving way for bikers, joggers and walkers. However, as the nature of COVID-19’s spread fluctuated, it became available to cars for select times during the week. In August 2021, the mayor and Board of Supervisors reopened the Upper Great Highway to cars for weekday use (excluding Friday afternoons), preserving weekend hours for bicyclists and pedestrians.  

Many sections of JFK Drive also saw reductions to car traffic during the pandemic that similarly prioritized non-vehicle access.

Slow Streets were created to allow for outdoor exercize and social distancing during the pandemic. They = are designed to limit traffic in favor of pedestrians and bicyclists. They are still found in the Richmond and other neighborhoods. Photo by Kate Quach.

In late April, the Board of Supervisors decided to permanently keep the restrictions initially made as pandemic response measures for safe recreation. Meanwhile, another proposition, Prop. J, called “Recreational Use of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park,” would retain the car-free status of JFK Drive in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. 

If both ballot propositions succeed in November with more than 50% majorities, the latter — Prop. J, which confirms the Supervisors’ agreement — would overrule the proposal to fully reopen Kennedy Drive. 

As for the Slow Streets program, it will receive a major verdict at an even earlier deadline: early to mid-September. 

Among the recent developments in the debate surrounding the permanence of San Francisco’s slow and traffic-restricted streets, city government decisions surrounding Lake Street stand as one of the most prominent. Though directors of the SFMTA made the initial decision in August 2021 to extend Lake Street as a Slow Street, the agency opted to make further considerations in early July as a result of low public satisfaction about the plan. 

The SFMTA announced that its Board of Directors will meet during one of their September meetings (Sept. 6 or 20) to conclude the long-term plans for Slow Streets, which could include reductions or expansions. 

Many community members have displayed loud voices in the complex conversation around the vitality of traffic restrictions in the city. 

“When they closed the Great Highway two years ago in April of 2020, at about June I started getting extremely alarmed because the traffic on my street to the Lower Great Highway was unbelievably bad and dangerous,” said Patricia Arack, leader of community organization Concerned Residents of the Sunset and proponent of reopening Great Highway and similar Slow Streets for full-time car access. 

Arack, who has a disability, said that her greatest concern is the Slow Streets program’s ability to exclude disadvantaged groups, such as seniors, those with limited mobility and those who live far away from public spaces; she pointed to the closure of JFK Drive as negatively impacting people who need cars to utilize the park and its resources. 

On the other hand, residents such as Luke Bornheimer, an organizer with Community Spaces SF and the Friends and Families of Slow Lake Street, hold opposing views. 

“I think that Slow Streets is an incredible program and improvement to our city,” Bornheimer said. “Most notably, they have created positive community in our public space that makes more resilient, more connected and healthier communities.”

Contrary to many critics of the COVID-19-era program, Bornheimer felt that it gave access to increased safety and convenience to seniors and those with disabilities or families. The limits on large amounts of traffic, he added, make way for those who require car transportation to travel with greater ease. For Bornheimer, the transition to environmentally conscious means of moving through the City — including bicycles, walking and electric scooters — that the Slow Streets program offered was another important factor when advocating for the extension of the guidelines.

The contrasting and intersecting views on a city program engulfed by heated debate spotlight the separate, diverse perspectives on the re-envisioning of San Francisco’s urban transportation. As members of the Sunset, Richmond and City at-large voice their opinions to city representatives and through local organizations, it is clear the future of slow and traffic-restricted streets will remain a top priority at the crossroads of major issues such as accessibility, environmental protection and community building after the COVID-19 peaks of the past two years.

Jack Quach is a staff reporter for the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers.  

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