A section of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park will remain permanently closed to vehicle traffic following a marathon meeting Tuesday of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
After 12 hours of discussion and public comment, the board voted 7-4 to limit the use of a 1.5-mile stretch of the road to just joggers, bicyclists and other pedestrians.
The city initially closed JFK Drive to vehicle traffic between Kezar Drive and Crossover Drive when the COVID-19 pandemic began in an effort to make it easier for residents to exercise and recreate outdoors while practicing social distancing. Prior to the pandemic, the street had only been closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays.
Mayor London Breed introduced the ordinance last month to make the closure permanent, citing widespread support from the city’s residents.
Roughly 70 percent of respondents to an online survey run by the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency and the Recreation and Park Department supported keeping JFK Drive permanently free of vehicles, as well as the addition of increased shuttle service and bicycling infrastructure along the street.
“This will continue to be a place for families, for children, for seniors, and for visitors to gather and have a safe and wonderful experience in Golden Gate Park,” Breed said in a statement Tuesday night.
The ordinance includes continued bus, free shuttle and paratransit service along JFK Drive, expanded parking availability for people with disabilities and the addition of at least six bike-share stations within the park.
Transit advocates like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and the regional planning think tank SPUR argued making JFK Drive permanently car free was well overdue and would be an important part of San Francisco’s effort to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025.
Advocates also noted that the city has expressed its intent to meet the goal of Vision Zero, a traffic safety movement aiming to stop all traffic fatalities and serious injuries, and that a vehicle-free JFK Drive would help accomplish that goal.
“We support car-free JFK because it has become one of the city’s most well liked and well used public spaces,” SPUR policy expert Madison Tam told the board Tuesday. “At all times of the week. You can see people from all backgrounds and neighborhoods enjoying it.”
City officials also noted that even with the JFK Drive closure, 80 percent of roadways in the park and 83 percent of the available parking spaces will remain available.
But while city officials touted support for the road closure from a majority of those surveyed during an eight-month outreach period, a handful of board members and many public commenters argued that the street closure will make it harder for older park visitors and people with disabilities to visit museums and attractions like the Conservatory of Flowers and National AIDS Memorial Grove.
The de Young Museum said in a statement last year that the closure would disproportionately prevent those with mobility issues from visiting.
“While it is great for those who can walk or bike to the de Young, it negatively impacts a significant group of our local community, including people with disabilities, those with (Americans with Disabilities Act) placards, the elderly, families with infants and young children, and others,” the museum said.
Supervisor Ahsha Safai – whose district includes the Excelsior, Oceanview and Ingleside neighborhoods – argued that the efforts to improve access for older and disabled people did not go far enough and the needs of those groups were not properly considered.
“If you cannot get to something easy, you will not go. You just won’t go, I can tell you that right now with certainty,” Safai said. “That is what my community has said over and over again: ‘if we cannot access it, we will not’.”
Supervisor Connie Chan, whose district includes the Richmond district as well as Golden Gate Park, argued that the public support for the JFK Drive closure also looked more comprehensive than it actually was, as roughly 61 percent of the nearly 6,000 who took the SFMTA and Rec and Park’s survey were white and 63 percent did not have a disability.
Chan argued in favor of a partial reopening of JFK Drive to westbound vehicle traffic between Eighth Avenue and Transverse Drive and urged the board to postpone a JFK Drive decision until she could formally a propose an ordinance.
“I think the data tells you who we’re willing to prioritize, who we’re willing to leave behind,” Chan said. “Not just for the last two years during the pandemic but also we’re more than willing to continue to leave them behind.”
Chan and Safai ultimately voted against the ordinance, along with Supervisors Shaman Walton and Aaron Peskin.
Supervisors Matt Haney, Dean Preston, Gordon Mar, Hillary Ronen, Myrna Melgar, Catherine Stefani and Rafael Mandelman voted in favor of keeping the street free of vehicles.
Preston argued that some of the backlash to keeping JFK Drive permanently car free was the result of a major change happening quickly, but suggested that it only seemed that way because “we are so many years behind.”
“Folks have been pushing for policies for years that would have created more car-free spaces, more traffic calming and led us toward Vision Zero,” he said.
Haney called the vote “historic” and “extraordinary,” and argued that resuming pre-pandemic vehicle traffic through Golden Gate Park would only be a step backwards from the city’s stated goals.
“We’ve made these commitments – on climate, on safety, on transit, on moving towards more car free spaces in our city,” he said. “And this is an opportunity for us to demonstrate that commitment.”