Dr. Stephen Gamboa, pictured with his family, says keeping John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park car-free is crucial for public health. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Stephen Gamboa, pictured with his family, says keeping John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park car-free is crucial for public health. (Courtesy photo)

Safe streets have emptied my emergency department — we should keep them

By Dr. Stephen Gamboa

I was at my church picnic in Golden Gate Park in April 2019 when I heard someone yelling for help. As an emergency physician, I’m always ready to respond to any disaster major or minor, so I ran to see if I could assist. A young woman had been riding her bike on John F. Kennedy Drive when she was struck by a U-Haul truck using the park as a shortcut. She was conscious but hurting; likely a broken arm and a concussion. I helped stabilize her and called emergency medical services. As she was loaded into the ambulance, it occurred to me how upsetting it was that someone just out trying to enjoy a nice day wasn’t safe riding her bike in a city park.

After that disconcerting incident, I began to pay attention to the daily stream of pedestrians, runners and bike riders injured by cars in my Emergency Department. Prior to the pandemic, JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park was a predictably dangerous place for people on foot and bikes. I cared for many park-goers who had been badly injured there. In fact, JFK Drive is designated by The City as a high-injury corridor, meaning that it was among the most dangerous streets in The City for pedestrians.

It’s no longer that way. After JFK Drive was closed to motor vehicle traffic in April 2020 to allow for more social distancing, I noticed something strange and wonderful: I haven’t seen a single patient in my ER due to a traffic collision on JFK. Because JFK Drive has remained car-free and safe for kids, we have prevented many serious injuries. Data supports my observations: In 2019, nine people reported injuries on JFK, some quite severe (notably, most injuries, including many I see in the ER, are never reported in official tallies). Since the road closed to cars, zero serious injuries have been reported.

I tell almost everyone that I see in my ER that the most dangerous thing they will do in San Francisco is cross the street, and the statistics bear that out. This is especially true for children: Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in young people ages 1 to 29 in California. As the father of two small children, this hits particularly close to home. This is a public health crisis. We must do better for our children.

San Franciscans should take great pride in the leadership our city has demonstrated in its pandemic response. Working on the front lines in the ER and as part of the Department of Public Health’s COVID Response, I have seen how strong and proactive leadership can save many lives. Now it is time for our San Francisco city leaders to demonstrate the same proactive and evidenced-based approach to traffic safety in our city.

As an emergency physician and a father, I will always advocate for approaches that save lives. If we have an opportunity to make our city safer for children and other vulnerable people through maintaining car-free spaces and Slow Streets, we must take it. Conversely, if JFK Drive is opened back up to motor vehicles, we will have to live with the knowledge that every injury or God forbid, fatality, that is suffered there was within our power to prevent and we chose not to do it. San Franciscans, especially children, deserve a permanently kid-safe and car-free JFK.

Dr. Stephen Gamboa is a father of two, resident of the Richmond District and an emergency physician at Kaiser Medical Center, San Francisco.

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