Judge signals support for closed Great Highway, JFK Drive

‘Over the course of the pandemic, these spaces have become some of the most beloved areas in S.F.’

A San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled last week The City acted lawfully when it closed down three major roadways on the west side for pedestrians and bicyclists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The closures of the Great Highway, John F. Kennedy Drive and Martin Luther King Drive began at the start of the pandemic and aimed to encourage walking and bicycling by creating a network of car-free streets throughout amidst a stay-at-home order.

In December, a resident along with the group Open the Great Highway Alliance filed a lawsuit against the Recreation and Park Department, the Recreation and Park Commission and Recreation and Park General Manager Philip Ginsburg alleging the trio are violating local and state laws by shutting down the roads to vehicles. The lawsuit sought a preliminary injunction to force The City to reopen the roads.

On Feb. 9, a judge ruled in favor of The City, affirming it was authorized by law to temporarily close down the streets during a public emergency.

In his ruling, Judge Richard B. Ulmer Jr. found the plaintiffs didn’t meet the requirements for the preliminary injunction and cited city data that nearly 7 million walking and bike trips were made along JFK Drive between April 2020 and September 2021, while the closed portion of Great Highway draws in some 126,000 people monthly on average.

“I am pleased the court agreed that The City was well within its authority to provide residents a safe space to recreate,” City Attorney David Chiu said in a statement. “Over the course of the pandemic, these spaces have become some of the most utilized, beloved recreation areas in The City.”

“One of the pandemic’s few bright spots was our city’s willingness to try out bold new ideas, such as allowing safe, healthy recreation on streets previously open to vehicles. JFK Drive and the Great Highway became respites from isolation, places to connect with each other and improve our mental and physical health,” Ginsburg said. “I’m pleased these streets will continue to be a source of joy while The City continues to engage with the public on their long-term future.”

Plaintiff Steven Hill said he and other plaintiffs are considering their legal options.

“I am disappointed with the judge’s ruling,” said Hill. “Respectfully, the judge misapplied the law and based his decision on unsupported and provably false data. In this very short ruling, the judge did not analyze critical issues such as whether the two-year long street closures qualify as a ‘temporary event,’ and ignored key precedent on road closures, including a critical state Supreme Court case. Moreover, the judge accepted The City’s flawed evidence without even considering the plaintiffs’ objections to the admission of that evidence as hearsay and irrelevant to the legal issues at hand.”

While both JFK Drive and MLK Drive are entirely closed to vehicles within Golden Gate Park, as of Aug. 1 Great Highway is open to vehicles only on weekdays.

According to city officials, the Board of Supervisors is anticipated to consider the permanent status of the car-free streets in the near future.

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