The Upper Great Highway soon will reopen to vehicles for the first time in over a year, after becoming the second most visited open space in San Francisco during the pandemic.
Starting Aug. 16, the beachside promenade will allow vehicles on weekdays. It will remain a car-free destination only during the weekend, from noon Fridays to 6 a.m. Mondays, as well as holidays.
The future of the road has been a source of contentious debate on The City’s western border since it was closed in April 2020 as part of San Francisco’s emergency pandemic response. Supporters of the car-free street point to the thousands of daily cyclists and pedestrians as proof of its success, while critics of the temporary closure say it has resulted in worse traffic and travel times.
Supervisor Gordon Mar, who represents the Sunset, called it a “meaningful compromise” and a “good road forward,” though he’s under no illusions that it will be a panacea for supporters or critics of the closure.
“The debate over the Great Highway has been really polarized,” he said. “I expect people to be disappointed.”
With that, Mar also said he hopes the middle ground will bring the much-divided neighborhood together after more than one year of a divisive split on the issue.
Based on early reactions, that outcome’s looking unlikely, at least for now.
“I’m ashamed for our city today,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, a street safety advocacy organization.
The news came through an unexpected press release from Mayor London Breed’s office Thursday afternoon. She’s not been involved in the debate publicly, to date, but Mar said the mayor sat down with supervisors on the Westside in late July to discuss the Great Highway’s future.
“Having the Great Highway closed on weekends and holidays will make sure that residents and visitors can enjoy this incredible space, while recognizing the needs of our families and residents who need to get to school and work during the week as we reopen,” Breed said in a statement.
This logic doesn’t totally line up with the present moment, though.
The delta variant continues to spread citywide, stalling initial plans to reopen many offices. And San Francisco has a safe routes to school program designed to encourage families to take other modes of transportation to get their children to and from school.
Before the pandemic, approximately 20,000 cars per day used the road, about half in each direction, according to data collected from the San Francisco Municpal Transportation Agency in May 2019. Since the Great Highway’s closure, an average of 3,240 cyclists and pedestrians have used it on weekdays and 5,230 on weekends between October 2020 and May 2021.
Advocates point to these numbers as proof that the promenade is a hugely valuable asset to The City from a health and recreational perspective, but that it also helps San Francisco make tangible strides toward achieving its climate and mobility goals.
“This is an illogical step backwards for San Francisco,” said Janice Li, advocacy director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “The persistence of the pandemic and pressing reality of climate change on our coast means that the Great Highway needs to stay open to the people, and not to cars.”
Many supporters of the car-free promenade also reacted to Thursday’s decision with frustration over what felt to them like a back room deal over an issue that has sparked a huge amount of public engagement and debate.
“We are deeply disappointed that the supervisors and the mayor didn’t let the public process play out on this,” Medeiros said. She emphasized how much they were left in the dark on the discussions by noting that her organization first caught wind of the change when a neighborhood organizer saw a city employee doing work on the Great Highway traffic signals.
Officials are quick to point out that this is not a permanent plan for the Great Highway. They bill it as a simple adjustment to pandemic-era modifications designed to respond to the reopening of in-person instruction in schools as well as the continued reopening of the economy.
Both Supervisor Connie Chan and Mar emphasized the need to provide immediate relief to drivers facing traffic and congestion due to the closure. In their eyes, the debate enabled a larger conversation about changes needed to improve mobility writ large on the west side of The City.
“The future of the Great Highway must also include an increase of public transit routes and service frequency for the Richmond,” Chan, who represents that neighborhood, said in a statement.
As is the case with all other pandemic-era street changes, this temporary modification would remain in place until 120 days after the expiration of the mayor’s public health emergency declaration.
However, there are plans to craft a proposal for a pilot program that would extend a version of the Great Highway closure — either in this new configuration or another alternative — for one or two years. City officials are adamant that public feedback will be a key part of the proposal process.
It will be up to the Board of Supervisors to vote on this proposal and help to determine the future of the Great Highway, but a timeline has not been announced.