Converting the Great Highway into a Great Walkway makes no sense

It’s helpful to take a detailed look at the environmental and transit effects

It seemed like a no-brainer.

In April of 2020, the Great Highway, the four-lane road that runs parallel to Ocean Beach, was closed down for sand removal. And then, with more outdoor recreation areas needed because of the pandemic, it stayed closed and was available to bikers, hikers and dog walkers.

But as fall approached and schools finally began to open, Mayor London Breed made the decision in August to reopen the Great Highway to car traffic on weekdays.

To say it was an unpopular choice for biking and pedestrian advocates is to understate the case. Two urban planning activists filed an appeal to block the reopening. Channeling Critical Mass, bicyclists have staged protests, where they block all the lanes and ride slowly, tying up traffic.

Some city agencies enthusiastically supported the Great Highway shutdown. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority cites its public survey, which showed 64% of San Francisco respondents and 53% of those in the Sunset supported the idea.

The Recreation and Parks Department said its sensors recorded more than 140,000 visitors a month. The closed roadway was heralded by the Great Highway Park Initiative, as the “second most-visited recreational space in the city,” after Golden Gate Park.

After all, who doesn’t like a park?

Well, funny you should ask. Residents in the Avenues have complained bitterly that the closure created increased traffic. There were well-documented backups in Golden Gate Park. They decried the lack of access to a main route to Daly City and San Mateo.

And, you won’t be surprised to hear, the Great Highway as park or road has turned into a bitter, unpleasant fight, with each side accusing the other of rude behavior and harassment.

So, when the Board of Supervisors takes up the issue this year, we can expect some lively hearings.

That’s why it might be helpful to take a good, squinty-eyed look at the numbers. Because some of them don’t add up.

For starters, the Great Highway is one well-traveled road. According to a city study from July, before the pandemic 18,000 to 20,000 cars used the road per day.

And, as shown during the COVID closing, when that highway isn’t available, those cars head into Golden Gate Park, which isn’t able to handle the crush.

“The irony of it,” says Michael Cawthon, who lives in the area and supports opening the road to cars, “is they want to close a road to open a park, but then they are diverting a lot of traffic through an existing park.”

“They make it sound like the people who want (the Great Highway) open to cars want to destroy the Earth with global warming,” says Christina Shih, who lives in the Richmond. “But you know, 18,000 cars a day don’t go ‘poof’ and disappear into the atmosphere.”

Cawthon is an interesting character. He’s a longtime federal bank examiner, so he’s an experienced data diver. And when he hears something that doesn’t sound right, he tends to start digging.

Using his skills, he went after some of the claims by advocates. For example, the often-repeated claim that the closed highway was the second-most visited recreation area in The City, after Golden Gate Park. Using National Park Service data, Cawthon showed that was not true.

The theory that getting the highway closed would cut pollution is undercut by those traffic jams, which end up leaving cars on the road for longer periods of times, actually increasing pollution.

Cawthon also looked into claims that closing the highway would increase pedestrian safety. He found data in the Department of Public Works TransBASE dashboard that showed there hasn’t been a fatality on the Great Highway since 2005.

He made a public records request for Rec and Parks’ data on the number of visitors. The department has a pretty sophisticated collection system. It uses infrared counters to track visits and also includes cell phone data.

It took lots of follow-up. Cawthon says he used the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, a city-established organization that advises the Board of Supervisors and others how to ensure easier access to public records. He also called the City Attorney’s office and appealed to his supervisor, Connie Chan.

When he finally got the numbers, two months after requesting them, he found “basically what I expected. That recreational use had dropped off significantly.”

So while it was true that some 140,000 people visited in January, when the Great Highway closure was a novelty, by May it had fallen to less than half that. (Due to some glitches, and even possible vandalism, the sensors did not get good data in June, but as Cawthon says, the trend is clearly down.)

And then there is the much-touted San Francisco County Transportation Authority survey, which shows strong support for closing the Great Highway.

But there are some problems.

First, the survey attracted only 3,989 respondents (although 95% were San Franciscans.) But as SFCTA says, “The survey was distributed through our website, email and social media.”

“So if you weren’t on their mailing list or not active on social media,” Cawthon says, “you didn’t hear about it. I think very, very few people were aware that this survey was out there. I certainly wasn’t.”

A more representative gauge of where the neighborhoods are on this is a petition called “Open the Great Highway!” Currently, it has been signed by over 14,200 participants. That’s a motivated group.

So, after all that, where are we? Well, the Great Highway debate seems like a symbol of something larger in San Francisco. With red bus lanes popping up, and dedicated bike zones, it is getting harder and harder to navigate The City in a car.

And in some cases, like closing a main highway, driving becomes more difficult in terms of time and emission reductions. For some advocacy groups, making driving hard is a win. But you can’t just say, “We got them out of their cars; now they are on their own.”

“It seems to me that it looks good, has a lot of good sound bites and good optics,” says Cawthon, “but when you start digging into specifics, it doesn’t do any of those things.”

When we hear San Francisco is a “transit first” city, that includes the second part of the equation. That people will leave their cars and use public transportation.

The problem is, as we’ve heard often, public transportation in The City is in terrible shape. Ridership fell off a cliff during the pandemic. Muni is facing a deficit of over $100 million. And frankly, some people are reluctant to go back to riding buses, which were a mixed bag at best before COVID.

For Shih, who says the Avenues are a “public transportation desert,” closing the Great Highway is indicative of a larger issue.

“Instead of focusing on getting public transportation back up to snuff,” she says, “we are spending all this time on signage for slow streets and converting the Great Highway into a Great Walkway.”

Even District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar, who supported closing the highway, agrees.

“The future of Great Highway must also include an increase in public transit routes and service frequency,” he said.

Breed’s compromise plan, closed to car traffic on weekends and open to a full commute on weekdays, is reasonable. The only tweak I’d suggest is not to close the road at noon on Friday. People who drive south to jobs don’t have a route to get back after work.

But finally, there’s one more important point. And I have to admit I hadn’t thought of it until it was mentioned by someone in City Hall.

It is extremely likely that, due to sea level rise, The City is going to have to close the Great Highway anyhow. The encroaching ocean will make the road unusable. And it could happen as quickly as the next decade.

So this discussion is no joke. Something is going to have to be done.

But what’s the plan?

It can’t be to shut everything down and then worry about the details.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius

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