Two years ago, this month, Heather Miller was killed bicycling through Golden Gate Park. The tragedy was only the first of the day. Less than three hours later, Katherine Slattery, was fatally hit as she biked across Seventh and Howard streets.
The events spurred an acceleration of The City’s Vision Zero goal to eliminate traffic fatalities. Agencies have worked to improve conditions around San Francisco. In Golden Gate Park, they raised cross-walks, added speed bumps and tables, and upgraded striping. The Recreation and Park Department also began re-analyzing a proposal, referred to as “Healthy Saturdays,” to close a portion of John F. Kennedy Drive to cars on Saturdays year-round.
While the de Young Museum and California Academy of Science support measures to make streets safer, they are concerned about the proposed closure. Both institutions are located on JFK Drive. Miriam Newcomer, the de Young’s director of public relations, said visitorship declined when The City decided to close the street on Saturdays from April to September 10 years ago.
“At the core, this is about accessibility,” Newcomer told me. “The Academy and de Young are committed to providing equitable access for the entire community, including those who are not able to bike or walk to Golden Gate Park.”
The museums’ concern is understandable. Closing the street would make it more difficult for people to drive and park. But that doesn’t mean the idea should be abandoned. For both safety and environmental reasons, San Francisco must reduce the number of cars on city streets, especially in public spaces like Golden Gate Park.
If year-round Healthy Saturdays moves forward — and it should — The City can come to an agreement that protects access, safety and the environment.
Although the museums offer admission discounts to visitors who choose not to drive, 73 percent still travel by personal car, according to surveys conducted by the de Young and Academy last winter. Some visitors have challenges that make walking long distances difficult. Of the respondents, 40 percent said their parties included a guest with limited mobility, such as a senior or child in a stroller.
The museums also have hundreds of employees. The de Young has not surveyed the transportation habits its staff. But the Academy offers commuter benefits, like extra vacation days and paycheck bumps. By assessing the number of employees taking advantage of these benefits, as well as through surveys, the Academy ascertained almost 70 percent of its staff commutes sustainably.
“We’ve given our staff every incentive to not drive,” Ike Kwon, chief operating officer of the Academy of Sciences, told me.
But, as the surveys indicate, visitors and employees are still driving. While closing JFK Drive will impact these people, the impact can be reduced.
“We want as many people as possible to visit all of our parks and museums,” Sarah Madland, a Recreation and Park Department spokesperson, told me. “We do this by drawing people to parks with events they love, making parks physically accessible and culturally relevant.”
The Department has assessed the number of parking places that would be impacted by the Healthy Saturdays extension. Visitors could still leave their car in the 800-spot Music Concourse Garage, as well as approximately 3,500 places within the Park and 1,800 places around the perimeter. Closing JFK Drive will only eliminate 284 spots on the weekends.
The Department has also met with disability advocates, and plans to include additional shuttle stops along JFK Drive. Of course, visitors and employees would still have access to Muni, paratransit and myriad other transportation options San Franciscans use to get around, including scooters, bikes and our own two feet.
While these measures could reduce impacts to people who drive, the point is to get people out of their cars, so San Francisco can reduce impacts to bicyclists, pedestrians and the environment.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent announcement in April to make Central Park car-free received strong support from groups interested in increasing safety, reducing pollution and combating climate change. He also closed Prospect Park in Brooklyn to automobiles.
“It’s inspiring to see other cities doing more,” Brian Wiedenmeier of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition told me. “People use JFK Drive as a thruway to commute, and that’s not what Golden Gate Park should be about.”
The Bicycle Coalition is one of the leading advocates pushing for the extension of Healthy Saturdays in San Francisco. Before the election, it secured support from the leading mayoral candidates. The next step would be securing support from a supervisor who would introduce legislation.
Until then, the Recreation and Park Department is working with other San Francisco agencies to gather data, understand the impacts of extending Healthy Saturdays and look for solutions.
“This is not one of the complex issues of our time,” Madland said. “We are solving for a few hundred parking spaces. We are confident there is a solution that works.”
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.
GREEN SPACE Q&A
Thank you for the tip that paper milk cartons go in the blue bin. But what about paper milk cartons with built-in plastic spouts? – Christina Lee
Sorting cartons with plastic spouts is a struggle for many San Franciscans. But the solution is simple: just toss the entire container in the blue bin. No need to cut the plastic part out.
Please make sure all cartons and containers are empty. Recology, San Francisco’s recycling provider, is working hard to provide quality paper and plastic to overseas recyclers. San Franciscans can help by keeping everything in the blue bin clean and dry.
Let me help sort your sorting! Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.