Cyclists and pedestrians use the full road on Slow Street John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Cyclists and pedestrians use the full road on Slow Street John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Street safety activists rally to make JFK Drive permanently car-free

Golden Gate Park museums maintain vehicle access necessary for disabled

Advocates will gather Saturday in Golden Gate Park to urge The City to make John F. Kennedy Drive permanently car-free. Billed as a family-friendly event with sidewalk chalk art, a selfie booth and music, the rally will begin at 10 a.m. at JFK Drive and 8th Avenue.

Host organizations such as People Protected, the Richmond Family Transportation Network, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Friends of the Urban Forest will have representatives present to recruit volunteers to join the campaign as well as distribute information on their cause.

Their message boils down to a simple slogan: parks are for people.

“There’s a community that does not want to see our park turn back into a parking lot,” said Matt Brezina, one of the co-founders of People Protected. “We want to have our voices heard.”

Though JFK Drive was closed to cars on Sundays prior to the pandemic, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department temporarily barred them on an all day, every day basis starting April 28 in an effort to create additional outdoor space for recreation and essential travel during the shelter-in-place order.

The 1.5-mile stretch of road has since become a haven for throngs of cyclists, runners, walkers, roller bladers and others who can enjoy the northern side of the park without fear of vehicles. Families can regularly be seen teaching kids how to ride without training wheels, or walking dogs after dinner.

“The most beautiful thing is the diversity of people using JFK Drive, and they’re people who never would have felt comfortable there before,” Brezina said.

Formal action is required from the City to make all or part of this program permanent, otherwise the closure to cars must expire 120 days after the current public health order ends, an unknown date that’s theoretically moving closer as vaccination rates improve.

“Car-Free JFK has provided cultural connection, recreation and safe passage for all visitors, while activating a beautiful stretch of public space,” said David Alexander, co-founder and community organizer of Richmond Family Transportation Network, in his pitch for why the road should stay car-free.

Two institutions with major cultural and political influence in San Francisco have come out in opposition to permanent closure: The DeYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.

Both assert the car prohibition would disproportionately impact patrons with limited mobility.

“While it is great for those who can walk or bike to the de Young, it negatively impacts a huge group of our local community, including people with disabilities, those with ADA placards, the elderly, families with infants and young children and others,” said Miriam Newcomer, a de Young Museum spokesperson.

Advocates agree access must be maintained for people with disabilities, but they counter that doing so doesn’t require a return to the pre-pandemic status quo. This is where the coalition of street safety activists has concentrated much of its engagement with The City.

They have urged The City to convert existing parking spots on adjacent, nearby streets such as Lincoln Avenue or Fulton Street into ADA zones, providing as many or more accessible spaces as were removed from JFK Drive when it was closed to cars.

Both institutions say they support the creation of safe passageways for pedestrians and bicycles within Golden Gate Park, but not at the total expense of vehicles. Instead, they want a complete redesign of traffic flow within the park that would minimize the need for the various modes of travel to intersect.

“We encourage sustainable transportation whenever possible, and share the strong desire to make our streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists,” said Katie Jewett, a spokesperson for the California Academy of Sciences. “We also want to ensure that as many people as possible can access the park, especially those who live outside the reach of public transit, face financial or physical barriers, or are from groups traditionally underrepresented among visitors to cultural institutions.”

Advocacy groups organizing the rally point to an 800-car garage approved by voters in 1998, managed by the Concourse Authority, as an underutilized resource, and they’re calling for SFMTA to oversee the garage so it can create more affordable price options for individuals with limited mobility or others who might need it.

“[It] has enormous potential to serve local and regional visitors who travel by car,” Alexander said. “The garage needs to be front and center in any conversation about accessibility in Golden Gate Park.”

Determining the path forward for JFK Drive doesn’t just send a message about The City’s vision for the park, it also has real safety implications for those enjoying the open space .

On March 8, a cyclist sustained life-threatening injuries after she was struck by the driver of a minivan at the intersection of JFK Drive and Kezar Drive.

“That’s so painful to see, because we all knew and explained that the space was dangerous,” Brezina said.

Though the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has since installed additional signage and pavement striping to communicate to drivers the presence of numerous cyclists and pedestrians in the area, it is hamstrung in its ability to implement more safety measures until a decision has been made.

Director Jeffrey Tumlin told the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday that creating a “more welcoming and more protective crossing” between the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park remains “contingent” upon how The City proceeds with JFK Drive and the nearby, also temporary, protected bikeway on Fell Street.

While a coalition of city agencies and stakeholders are likely to be involved in conversations around the future of JFK Drive, the authority to make the closure ultimately rests with the Rec and Park Department.

Agency officials did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Organizers emphasized Saturday’s rally will retain an emphasis on COVID-19 safety, and they ask all attendees to wear masks and maintain social distance.

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