By Marcel E. Moran
Of all the difficult decisions facing San Francisco during the pandemic — from mandated shelter-in-place to looming budget cuts — perhaps the easiest one was closing a section of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park to cars. Almost overnight, the 1.5 mile stretch of road was transformed from an unsafe, car-clogged entrance to a citywide gathering space for runners, walkers, families with children, cyclists, and everyone in between. Not only have weekends meant throngs of park-goers enjoying the absence of vehicles speeding, idling, and fighting over parking spots, but also weekdays now feature a veritable “rush hour” of bike riders heading to work and back home, many with young ones in tow. For little more than the cost of the plastic barriers, San Francisco has created a new destination for all age groups.
Amidst this popular reclamation of public space, one organization stands opposed: the de Young Museum, which sits a stone’s throw from the car-free section. In a statement released last year, the museum wrote “should the closure of JFK Drive East be prolonged post shelter-in-place, it would deny vulnerable populations access to the de Young museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and the entire northeast section of Golden Gate Park.” Moreover, last week Tom Campbell, the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco said on KQED: “It’s a big issue for us… while it’s lovely during the safe-streets period during the pandemic, made available for bicyclists and joggers and strollers, the closure is a problem for those who are driving from further out in the Bay Area, and can’t use city transportation, so… it is our hope that we’ll be able to get it reopened.”
Let us count the ways in which this statement is wholly incorrect. First, access to the de Young Museum is in no way “denied” to anyone. Sitting underneath the museum campus is an 800-spot parking garage (with 15 accessible spots), whose entrance is on Fulton Street. Second, cars are free to circle the Music Concourse for museum pick ups and drop offs, entering and exiting on MLK Drive from the south. Third, the SFMTA route 44 bus stops directly in front of these museums, and other bus lines (routes 5 and 7) also make stops within walking distance of the museum campus.
So, given car access, transit options, and an entire parking garage, what does the leadership of the de Young Museum have against car-free JFK? It’s quite simple — the museum would rather JFK revert back to its pre-pandemic function of serving as free parking for patrons. Indeed, it is not enough for MLK Drive to offer free parking every day of the week, or for there to be manifold ways to reach the museum without a car.
Perhaps the most telling words in the issued statement are “vulnerable populations.” Of course it is of interest to all San Franciscans to build an accessible city for all, from our streets and sidewalks to our buildings and institutions. But, vulnerability as a transportation-planning concept must be considered broadly, and that includes pedestrians and cyclists who for too long have been incredibly vulnerable on our roads. Sadly, the city is going in the wrong direction in terms of its Vision Zero pledge, which aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024. Thanks to car-free JFK, cyclists and pedestrians now have far safer and more enticing routes to the de Young, including for those walking or biking with children, who may otherwise not want to brave the traffic-prone sections of the park. Does their safety mean nothing?
Rather than attempt to nix such an amenity, the de Young Museum should embrace car-free JFK, both by encouraging its members to travel via bike, transit, and walking, and by installing more secure bike parking on its grounds. Supporting low or zero-emissions transportation options would also meaningfully demonstrate the de Young’s commitment to combatting climate change and improving San Francisco’s air quality. This need not be a zero-sum game, but instead a collaborative project which integrates the museum into this new phase of Golden Gate Park. Imagine sculpture installations along JFK Drive, or an entire weekend devoted to sidewalk chalk art featuring local artists. What the rightful banishment of cars from this road has shown us is how much potential our public land has, something museums should get behind in earnest.
Sadly, if the de Young does not change course in its advocacy against car-free JFK, it will turn off an entire segment of the city from entering its galleries. The scores of people now enjoying Golden Gate Park in entirely new ways are worth more than a mile of additional free parking, and one should hope the de Young can see that from its perch above JFK.
Marcel E. Moran is a PhD student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. He lives in San Francisco.