Debate over Great Highway’s closure represents a much larger San Francisco problem

Last month, a sign appeared in the window of the popular Outer Sunset bakery Devil’s Teeth. “Open the Great Highway,”...

Last month, a sign appeared in the window of the popular Outer Sunset bakery Devil’s Teeth. “Open the Great Highway,” it read simply. Social media outrage ensued, with some threatening to boycott the business altogether.

Officials closed the iconic Pacific Coast roadway to vehicles in April 2020 as part of San Francisco’s emergency pandemic response. Supporters of the car-free street were enraged that the near-beachside business would prefer access for polluting vehicles over people, while critics of the temporary closure resonated with the storeowner’s argument that traffic and travel times had worsened as a result.

Today, the Great Highway is The City’s second most visited open space behind Golden Gate Park. Even on a foggy weekday morning, people can be seen on the shoreline path jogging, walking with coffee or cruising on their bikes.

According to Recreation and Park Department data, on average, 3,240 cyclists and pedestrians used it on weekdays and 5,230 on weekends between October 2020 and May 2021—which amounts to roughly 126,000 people per month.

Yet the closure has sparked grievances among some residents, many of whom say it has transferred reckless driving, speeding and congestion onto nearby residential streets.

Now, as The City’s reopening nears, it’s time to figure out how to resolve the contentious issue. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors and Recreation and Park Department Commission will host an informational joint hearing on Thursday to publicly discuss a potential pilot program that would keep the Great Highway closed beyond the pandemic.

But as the old adage goes, the devil is in the details. And those details often turn otherwise bold projects into less transformational compromises.

Recent examples include the Muni project on Geary Boulevard, which went from a bus rapid transit line to side-running transit-only lanes, and Better Market Street, which took upwards of a decade to pass—only to have the hallmark elevated bikeway struck from the plan. Both involved extensive and entrenched public input that proved a universally embraced solution would be impossible.

The Great Highway decision represents a familiar question: Will The City take bold steps to embrace its transit, climate and development goals, or will bureaucratic gridlock and competing interests among the public be its demise?

Public process

Lauren Crabbe has owned Andytown Coffee Roasters for seven years.

She credits the car-free Great Highway for saving her storefront on 46th and Taraval, and says she hasn’t heard from customers that it’s been hard to reach her coffee shop as a result of the closure.

“I do feel like when the world shut down, the Great Highway was open and it was a really beautiful thing to have in our neighborhood,” she said. “Instead of bypassing the neighborhood in our cars, we were getting out and walking.”

With three locales in the Sunset, Crabbe is no stranger to San Francisco’s proclivity for public process. So while she does acknowledge that COVID-19 necessitated decision-making in a vacuum, she also understands that the lack of opportunity for public input alienated many residents who feel differently.

“It’s more emotionally charged than I think is warranted,” she said. “There’s a lot of hurt feelings on both sides here, and I feel like there wasn’t enough effort to foster that conversation.”

The debate has divided the community, multiple people told the Examiner.

Crabbe said she’s heard folks on both sides talk about “canceling neighbors” depending on their viewpoint about the roadway’s future.

The data confirms the polarization. A survey from the County Transportation Authority polled about 4,000 people, and found nearly 53 percent of respondents favored keeping the roadway vehicle-free beyond the pandemic. Meanwhile, 21 percent supported opening the Upper Great Highway back up to vehicles, the second most popular option.

During the hearing, Rec and Park and SFMTA will discuss two pilot options, including continuing the current car-free configuration or opening the northbound side of the roadway to vehicles. Already, critics on either side of the argument say these solutions would raise safety and communication issues or fail to address frustrations from motorists altogether.

Edward Wright, legislative aide to Supervisor Gordon Mar, called the meeting a “good faith gesture” on the part of city agencies to start a dialogue, but noted that if that effort had started months ago, the current hostility and distrust in local government might have been avoided.

“This street belongs to the public,” Wright said. “It’s in the public domain and the public should have a say in how it can be best used.”

Traffic impacts

Multiple Outer Sunset residents said they were very concerned by dangerous driving behavior immediately following the Upper Great Highway’s closure.

Before the pandemic, approximately 20,000 cars per day used the road, about half in each direction, according to data collected by SFMTA from May 2019.

Even as overall traffic volumes decreased during shelter-in-place, residents of adjacent Lower Great Highway noted excessive speeding and congestion, with one noting that the volume of cars made it tough to get out of her driveway.

Mar, who represents the Sunset District, partnered with SFMTA on a series of traffic calming measures in March 2021 that many say have largely assuaged those worries.

John Zwolinski has lived in his home near Upper Great Highway since 2003. He said the closure originally wreaked havoc on driving and travel patterns in the area, but that improvement since the traffic calming measures has been like “night and day.” He’s now started to believe a car-free Upper Great Highway could bring lots of community value.

“I’m a man of a certain age who is attached to his car,” he said. “But I also understand this paradigm of a car-centric urban area is not sustainable.”

Others reported frustration that residential parking spots were constantly occupied, and raised alarm about longer car trip times. Between one and 12 spaces per block are available mid-day and in the afternoon along the 15 blocks of Lower Great Highway, according to parking availability surveys conducted over the last six months.

The staff report for Thursday’s joint meeting says a pilot program would allow city officials to test the closure’s traffic impacts during a more “normal” period.

Those findings would eventually inform the fate of the Upper Great Highway, which ultimately rests with the Board of Supervisors. Mar, who represents the Sunset District, supports a hybrid model, at least as a pilot, where vehicles and people can both access some or all of road at different times.

“We think there’s a lot of room for compromise,” Wright said.

Closing the Upper Great Highway to vehicles isn’t a novel idea. In fact, it’s already written into a strategic plan for Ocean Beach that calls for its permanent closure south of Sloat Boulevard in 2023 to address coastal erosion.

Additionally, the road is deemed a “recreational street” in the General Plan, intended to prioritize slow, non-motorized travel, and has been a part of the park system since 1870. Before the pandemic, it was temporarily closed an average of 27 times throughout the year to accommodate special events or to remove windswept sand.

Which makes one thing clear: regardless of how this particular fight plays out, change is coming. And how residents embrace it may set the stage for future decisions.

“It’s really important to note that the conversation about the Great Highway and the potential need to change its use didn’t start with the pandemic,” said Wright. “A lot of folks are viewing the debates right now as a question of whether the way this road exists today should change or not. And I think it’s important for everyone to understand it is going to change.”

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