MIT study: Closing ‘Great Walkway’ is a mistake

Let’s learn lessons from the pandemic and reclaim our streets from cars

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In case you missed it, many San Franciscans, including this columnist, are upset with the decision to allow cars on the so-called “Great Walkway.”

“Obviously, cars impact climate change,” Maia Piccagli, co-chair of the local Mothers Out Front team told me at Sunday’s rally in support of permanently closing the thoroughfare (more commonly known as the Great Highway) to cars. “But traffic also affects wildlife, creates fumes and tire residue is a significant source of microplastic in the ocean.”

“We value this space for biking,” Josh Kelly, a neighborhood resident and activist, added. “Now, I don’t have a way to get to the library safely on my bike. Maybe we’ll just drive.”

Putting aside environmental impacts, driving is not an irrational choice. Cars are often the most convenient and reliable transportation option; especially when there are fewer obstacles, such as closed or slow streets. If policymakers truly want to provide sustainable and inclusive transportation choices, they should promote high-quality alternatives to driving, like beautiful bike paths along the beach.

This was a recent finding from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The research suggests it is a mistake to reinforce driving as the best mode of transportation. Instead, local legislators should permanently close the Great Walkway to cars — a result many San Franciscans and city leaders back. Such an outcome would put our environmental, transit-first, Vision Zero promises into practice and challenge a system that keeps cars in control.

The vast majority of Americans own a car, despite well-known environmental impacts, high maintenance costs and low utilization rates. To understand why so many continue to make this choice, MIT researchers asked approximately 4,000 people in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle and Dallas hypothetical questions to assess how much they would need to be compensated to give up their car for a year. Spoiler alert: It took a lot.

Even considering a “free, ubiquitously available ride hailing service that could meet all your car trips,” respondents said they’d still need around $6,500. This is because car ownership provides feelings of certainty, reliability, flexibility and safety — characteristics that are harder to find with other transportation modes.

“Car ownership is a security blanket,” Joanna Moody, who led the research for the MIT Energy Initiatives Mobility Systems Center, told me. “Even if you invest in alternatives, access to that car provides so much optionality to people that it’s really hard to rival that convenience.”

Researchers did identify certain variables that increased the likelihood people would give up a car, such as subsidized transit or employer-backed carpool programs. Respondents with more urban zip codes also value car ownership less. This is because in urban areas other modes of transportation such as walking, biking, taking a bus or hailing a ride function well, and driving and parking a car costs more.

That’s not always the case in the predominantly single-family Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods, where wide streets and garages are plentiful. And with the removal of high quality transportation alternatives, like the closure of beloved bike lanes along the Great Walkway five days a week, there are even more reasons to take a car.

“The easier it is to travel with a car, the more embedded in the system it becomes,” Moody told me.

Allowing cars to remain in control is a significant failure. San Francisco’s leaders have repeatedly challenged the status quo when it comes to other environmental causes like zero waste, clean energy and natural gas. There is no reason we can’t build on the lessons learned since the start of the pandemic and reclaim our streets from cars.

“If you like the idea of slow streets, closed streets and shared spaces I would not take your foot off the gas in terms of advocating,” Manny Yekutiel, who sits on the board of San Francisco’s transit agency, said at a recent event at his space in the Mission.

“That sense of quiet and collected space is ruined by the car, whether gas or electric,” added San Francisco Director of the Department of the Environment Debbie Raphael.

Those who loved the Great Walkway aren’t ready to stop fighting for its future. Ultimately, the sandy stretch will become car-free again, whether thanks to San Franciscans or nature.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.