Fight over future of JFK Drive heats up

Shamann Walton compares accessibilty issues to segregation, likens street closure to ‘1950s South’

Keeping a section of John F. Kennedy Drive closed to cars is akin to segregation.

That’s what Supervisor Shamann Walton, whose supervisorial district is home to The City’s largest concentration of Black residents, said Tuesday during a hearing at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority about the future of the prominent Golden Gate Park roadway, which has been closed to vehicles since April 2020.

Walton compared the current state of the roughly 1.5-mile stretch of JFK Drive to the “1950s South” because of the long journey residents of his district must endure to reach Golden Gate Park by transit if they’re unable to drive a car.

A trip from Third Street, one of Bayview’s primary commercial corridors, to the Conservatory of Flowers, for example, takes nearly an hour on Muni.

“It just seems like people are OK and comfortable with who is accessing JFK right now and who is not,” he said. “It makes me sick to my stomach that segregation is still existing in San Francisco […]”

Walton’s remarks drew criticism on social media, with some calling the comparison “offensive.”

“My grandfather was born in Jacksonville, FL in the 1920s, and he’d have a LOT to say about this comparison,” Walter Thompson, a local journalist, said on Twitter.

Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve an action plan from the Golden Gate Park Working Group, a stakeholder committee tasked with identifying park access needs and possible solutions.

Members included representatives from a variety of interest groups, advocacy organizations and the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences, institutions that have advocated for reopening to vehicles.

The report does not make a recommendation as to whether JFK Drive should remain car-free, but it does outline 42 suggested actions for The City to take to mitigate concerns and inform a conclusion on that very question.

“This is really just the beginning of a community conversation, not just in District 1 or on the west side, but really it requires a citywide conversation,” said Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond.

Part of Golden Gate Park’s primary east-west thoroughfare was temporarily closed to cars early in the pandemic to make room for socially distanced recreation and essential travel. The order is set to expire 120 days after the end of the ongoing emergency public health order, barring legislative action from the Board of Supervisors.

With the end of the acute pandemic inching closer, it’s now time for The City to determine whether to keep the road closed to cars permanently, or to return to the pre-pandemic conditions of total closure on Sundays and partial closure on Saturdays during summer months.

“As the end of the pandemic grows nearer, we must shift our work from temporary, reactive measures to permanent, proactive ones,” said Supervisor Gordon Mar, who represents the Sunset District, home to a vocal coalition opposed to closures such as JFK Drive and the Great Highway.

That’s where things get hairy.

During the pandemic, JFK Drive has become a hub for families and children looking to experience The City’s iconic green space on two feet or two wheels.

During the nearly two hours of public comment at Tuesday’s hearing, dozens of callers told stories about their children learning to ride a bike, weekend picnics and recreational family outings made possible by the road’s closure and the protection it provides from vehicles.

“The safety of car-free streets is of the utmost importance and the current closure has also prompted my 71-year-old mother to consider riding a bike,” said one caller.

Supporters say it helps combat dual crises of street safety and climate change by reducing car trips citywide as well as carving out space for park users to be truly protected from cars. Some said the report didn’t go far enough to emphasize the safety benefits to users, especially children.

Between 2014 and 2019, there were 30 collisions along this segment of JFK Drive, accounting for roughly one-third of all such incidents in Golden Gate Park across the same period.

But the closure to cars has also angered some residents of nearby neighborhoods who say they’ve experienced abysmal congestion and disability advocates who say people with limited mobility can no longer access the park easily.

Before the pandemic, JFK Drive and adjacent roads offered roughly 549 parking spaces, 26 of which were designed for individuals with limited mobility. That’s roughly 18 percent of the 1,404 total parking spots available for free in Golden Gate Park’s eastern section and 27 percent of the total accessible parking in the same area.

City agencies agree accessibility needs to be prioritized, and they’ve started converting existing parking spots into Americans with Disabilities Act-only.

About 75 percent of pre-COVID travelers on the part of JFK Drive currently closed to cars were cut-thru commuters, reaching about 8,000 cars per day.

However, Supervisor Dean Preston, who has repeatedly called for a “robust shuttle system” to improve access from all neighborhoods to Golden Gate Park, argued that the concerns of these commute drivers were not a “legitimate public interest here that we need to accommodate.”

Echoing Walton’s comments, other critics of car-free JFK Drive say forbidding vehicles without beefing up transit access is an intrinsic equity issue.

“The workers out there who can’t spend two or three hours on the phone participating in this are not being heard,” one caller said during public comment on Tuesday.

CTA’s approval of the report kickstarts a roughly four month-long period of community outreach, data collection and analysis that will attempt to outline access pitfalls, traffic impacts and usage of the park.

Simultaneously, city agencies will continue to implement short-term actions recommended in the report, some of which have already been completed, including ongoing accessibility improvements, reopening of the Music Concourse as a loading zone, increased wayfinding signage and rerouting of the 44-O’Shaugnessy to more directly serve this part of Golden Gate Park.

“In the meantime, we are working very rapidly to maximize access to the park by all modes of transportation, particularly those modes for people with the fewest ways of getting to the park,” Tumlin said.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and San Francisco Recreation and Park Department will then craft a proposal for either a one-year pilot program, or a permanent path forward for JFK Drive that will be presented for approval to the Board of Supervisors and other advisory boards.

That’s expected to happen in October or November.

Walton had previously requested a detailed equity analysis intended to inform the final proposal.

“I am not supportive of more cars on the street, but I am supportive of desegregation in San Francisco, and this is a policy that does the complete opposite of that,” he said.

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