The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors approved a proposal Tuesday to make permanent changes to the traffic flow on Twin Peaks Boulevard, which has been largely closed to vehicles since early in the pandemic.
With approval, the Burnett Avenue gate will stay shut to private and commercial vehicles such as tour buses, keeping Twin Peaks Boulevard reserved exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists until Christmas Tree Point, where one-way vehicle traffic would be permitted to access the iconic viewpoint.
The Portola gate on the south side will be open to vehicles, including tour buses, at all hours, and half of the figure-eight road that runs between the peaks would be usable by cars. The other half would remain exclusively for those using alternative modes of transportation.
Cars were barred in March to create space for socially distanced outdoor recreation, and the open space around Twin Peaks quickly became a hub of activity, attracting more than 800 individuals each weekday and over 1,100 on weekend days, according to SFMTA data.
Neighbors on the Burnett Avenue side of Twin Peaks, however, reported a massive uptick in litter, vandalism, car theft and partying as a result of the closure, and believe the lack of vehicle access to Christmas Tree Point had moved the longstanding late night activity there from high in the hills down into their residential streets.
These complaints of disruptive behavior persisted even after city agencies opened the Portola Drive gate between 6 p.m. and midnight in September as an attempt at mitigation.
SFMTA officials reassured the board and the public that they would deploy parking control officers to help direct drivers to the proper parking locations, collaborate closely with the San Francisco Police Department and monitor the impact of the street changes.
But they remained optimistic that simply opening up parking at Christmas Tree Point would move some of the boisterous behavior from the residential areas near Burnett Avenue back up to the top of the hill.
Robust, hours-long public comment on Tuesday included neighbors opposed to the proposal; advocates who wanted to keep the entirety of the roadway closed to vehicles; and supporters of the proposal who deemed it a fragile balance of competing interests.
Some residents called to express frustration with the current condition of their neighborhood, which they said had gone from bucolic to dangerous, and lobby board members to reject the proposal or, at least, introduce additional parking enforcement and other measures to mitigate disruptive behavior.
Other members of the public offered their support, albeit widely tepid, of the proposal. They called it a “compromise,” and acknowledged that while it cuts the amount of open space currently enjoyed atop Twin Peaks during the pandemic by about half, it still represents a step forward in the effort to set aside vehicle-free space for cyclists and pedestrians.
“We are trying to find the solution that does the most for the most given all of the very complex parts of this,” SFMTA Director Manny Yekutiel said of the difficulty in crafting this proposal.
To arrive at this point, SFMTA conducted a three-week electronic survey to identify a solution that would resolve the conflict between those who advocate for a Twin Peaks Boulevard permanently closed to vehicles and those who prefer the roadway be either partially or permanently opened, including neighbors and advocates for people with disabilities.
Working with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and the Police Department, SFMTA put forth five roadway options for Twin Peaks Boulevard ranging from total closure to vehicles to the pre-pandemic reality of both gates being entirely open to them.
Of the five options, the design proposal that would have permanently closed the gate at Portola Drive while opening the Burnett Avenue side to vehicles was the most preferred, with 52 percent of survey participants ranking it their first choice on the basis that it would have given cyclists and pedestrians the most open space.
Street safety advocacy groups such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition were widely in support of this option.
Central to this option, as well, would’ve been the need to either forbid access of tour buses to Twin Peaks entirely or reroute them through Burnett Avenue, neither of which SFMTA deemed viable, especially given the tourism industry’s significant contribution to San Francisco’s economy writ large.
Officials cited the regular tour bus trips up to the viewpoint at Twin Peaks before the pandemic as reason that access to the vista should be preserved for visitors to The City.
Tumlin said the agency considers its support of this industry — and the tax base it brings — as a key component of The City’s broader economic development strategy moving forward.
While 30 percent of respondents ranked a return to the pre-COVID design as their first choice, which would have opened both gates to vehicles at all times, that option also garnered the most distaste with 64 percent ranking it as their least-favored choice.
Ultimately, however, board members approved the option on Tuesday that earned “a mix of support” from the 1,700 respondents, but received the recommendation of staff because it “offers the best balance of competing objectives, providing access to the top of Twin Peaks for motor vehicles as well as a closed roadway dedicated to people walking and biking.”
According to the staff report, it also achieves a number of other objectives: it doesn’t require modifications to streets that currently restrict tour buses; it doesn’t require capacity-building on Portola Drive for the influx in cars; it will improve safety for “vulnerable street users” and create “safer connection” to open space; and it will likely move people parking on Burnett Avenue who disrupt neighbors to the Portola Drive gate so they can access the top of Twin Peaks by car.
“We’d much rather see a closure at the Portola gate to prioritize open space atop Twin Peaks for folks walking and biking,” said Bicycle Coalition Senior Community Organizer Kristen Leckie. “We’re in support of this current proposal to solidify permanent car-free space now and are pushing The City to consider more ways to open up space on Twin Peaks in the future.”