San Francisco’s Great Highway was closed in March to provide open space for pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s Great Highway was closed in March to provide open space for pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Temporary Great Highway closure could lose support from District Four supervisor

Gordon Mar asks SFMTA to take action to calm traffic and reduce congestion on surrounding streets

Supervisor Gordon Mar, whose district encompasses the Outer Sunset, has demanded action to address speeding and congestion around the currently car-free Great Highway.

Without it, Mar said he will no longer support the ongoing, temporary closure of the Great Highway to vehicles, a move his office actually asked for back in April in order to provide space for socially distant recreation.

“But we cannot sacrifice safety for recreation, and I cannot continue to support the temporary closure of the Great Highway if we cannot make it safe for my constituents in the near-term,” Mar wrote in a letter to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin and a number of staff members Tuesday.

The District Four office’s letter is a formal request for the transit agency to dedicate some of its technical expertise and staff time to mitigating the traffic impacts that have spilled over onto surrounding neighborhood streets in the Outer Sunset.

“We want SFMTA to move with the same urgency on pedestrian safety and traffic calming as they have with closing the Great Highway,” said Edward Wright, one of Mar’s legislative aids.

SFMTA spokesperson Kristen Holland said the agency had been in contact with Mar’s office, and that multiple staff members would be participating in a virtual town hall on the topic Friday afternoon.

“We take the concerns of the supervisor and the residents of District Four very seriously. We will be responding to him and to his constituents after a discussion in today’s town hall meeting,” she said. “We appreciate our ongoing coordination with the supervisor’s office.”

San Francisco’s westernmost coastline at Ocean Beach has always been an iconic destination for visitors and residents alike.

Since April, when it was closed to traffic, the Great Highway has been embraced as a new kind of public place for San Francisco residents, not just as an outdoor haven for thousands of people and families from all over The City but also as the backdrop for community-building, marches for social justice and public art. Some residents have even pushed to make it car-free on a permanent basis. At the same time, the closure has resulted in traffic moving to nearby streets that aren’t equipped for the high volume of high-speed cars traveling north to south, and Mar says it’s making neighbors who live, play and work on the surrounding residential streets feel unsafe.

Over 5,000 cars each day are traveling along nearby Lower Great Highway, with a “significant percentage” of those cars driving at unsafe speeds, according to the District Four Mobility Study out of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

Though SFMTA implemented new detour signs and new turn restrictions to redirect traffic to Sunset Boulevard, some weeks after the Great Highway went car-free, these ideas emanated from Mar’s office rather than traffic engineers, and Mar remains “unconvinced that these are sufficient to address the real and urgent safety concerns.”

The letter lays out a detailed set of requests of SFMTA, all of which Mar says his office has been advocating for on behalf of his constituents for over seven months to no real avail.

“The pace of our bureaucracy is failing my constituents, and our seven months of conversations with SFMTA staff, half a dozen community meetings, several petitions from Outer Sunset residents, and more more — none have proven successful,” he wrote. “So, now I am asking you for help.”

Mar requested a written traffic mitigation plan within the next two weeks; a commitment to more traffic conducts after the calming measures have been implemented; a slate of traffic engineers to identify the level of traffic volume and speed that is safe for the Lower Great Highway; and the installation of the remaining components of the Lower Great Highway Pedestrian Improvement Plan within the next three weeks.

“What we’re asking for is not anything we haven’t been asking for. What’s new is we put it in a letter,” Wright said, calling these urgent requests “sincere” and “what we think is best.”

Social media erupted with pushback Friday morning, but Wright, who focuses on transportation issues for the supervisor, emphasized that any characterization of the letter as an attempt to reopen the Great Highway to vehicles was misguided.

“That is not what we are trying to do,” he said, adding that these parameters for maintaining the short-term closure of the Great Highway are directly guided by real concerns over making it and the nearby neighborhoods safe.

Matt Brezina, a safe streets advocate and co-founder of People Protected, says The City should absolutely work to curb dangerous driving behavior — of which he thinks there’s plenty near the Great Highway and citywide — but that setting it up as a choice between recreation and safety is a false premise.

He points to city-provided data that shows 2020 is on track to have the lowest rate of collision on Upper Great Highway and Lower Great Highway in the last five years as proof that while streets should absolutely be designed to mitigate the ability of cars to drive dangerously, it doesn’t need to come at the expense of a public resource like car-free Great Highway.

Wright said the office hadn’t received a formal response from SFMTA, but did say he’d been in touch with agency staff and expected a response to be forthcoming. He also expressed appreciation for the agency’s participation in the supervisor’s community meetings and its regular correspondence with the office, but said the expertise is what they need.

The letter concerns only the current closure of the Great Highway, created as part of the citywide response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Separate from these traffic mitigation requests are discussions about the long-term future of the roadway.

Any decision made about that would be subject to a robust public engagement process, environmental review and formal action by the SFMTA Board of Directors, unlike the current closure, which was expedited in light of the emergent situation.

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