Pedestrian advocates want some of San Francisco’s most iconic streets, such as the main avenue to Golden Gate Park, to be banned. Others are pushing back, saying they need to drive to work, drop off kids and get around.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – For Vanessa Gregson, the four-lane freeway that borders the beach along the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco is now a car-free sanctuary, great for biking and enjoying the tranquility.
“You hear the beach. You hear the waves, ”said Gregson. “You feel like you are in nature and you are in San Francisco.”
Like cities from Paris to New York that closed roads to drivers after the coronavirus outbreak, eco-friendly San Francisco closed miles of roads to cars so people could safely exercise and socialize.
Now pedestrian attorneys want to rule some of San Francisco’s most iconic streets, such as the main drag into Golden Gate Park, forbidden. Others are pushing back, saying they need to drive to work, drop off kids and get around.
The debate was marked by duel meetings and fierce disputes over security and climate change in the densely packed city. On social media, customers threatened to boycott a bakery whose owner expressed support for reopening the main seaside road known as the Great Highway to cars. others came to their defense.
Shamann Walton, president of the San Francisco board of directors, has been ridiculed for comparing the closure of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to Jim Crow South, including by other African Americans who describe his accusations of segregation as silly. Walton says he feared the road closure and free parking will affect low-income families who cannot simply bike or transit to the park.
For Tim Boyle, who lives on the beach near the four-lane highway, life was far from peaceful. Unable to use the main drag, massive vans, motorcycle gangs, and impatient drivers race through its once sleepy neighborhood.
Boyle, whose son has cerebral palsy, says taking out her wheelchair-equipped van has become a nightmare. “Essentially, I stop traffic on a given day, four to ten cars on each side, just so I can pull my own car into my driveway,” he said.
San Francisco officials began converting streets into pedestrian-friendly boardwalks in April 2020 after the mayor declared an emergency. Officials closed more than 45 miles of the neighborhood corridors and are investigating which ones could be permanent.
They also sealed off a 1.5 mile stretch of JFK Drive, the main road through Golden Gate Park that receives more than 24 million visitors annually, and a 3.2 km stretch of the Great Highway – now renamed the Great Walkway by some – carried more than 18,000 vehicles the day before the pandemic.
The streets of San Francisco are slated to reopen 120 days after Mayor London Breed lifted the COVID-19 emergency declaration, which could be in next month. Various agencies control the public debate before deciding whether to reopen the Great Highway and JFK Drive fully, partially reopen, or close to vehicles. The Board of Supervisors will have the final say, said Tamara Aparton, a City Parks spokeswoman.
Seattle and New York are also among the US cities that want to make temporary car-free streets permanent. In Europe, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced plans to ban most of the traffic in the city center, with the exception of public transport, vans and residents.
Pedestrian advocates say there are options to ensure people who can’t easily ride bikes or walk can still visit Golden Gate Park, including designated drop-off points and programs for low-income families. They also want more so-called road calming measures to slow down traffic and improve safety on the affected streets in the neighborhood.
San Francisco is no stranger to dismantling auto infrastructure for green spaces. Those in charge decided not to replace the Embarcadero motorway after it was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and replaced it with a boulevard that is now a popular tourist destination.
Despite the tickled debate, most people are likely to be in the quiet middle and want both open space and free transportation, said Connie Chan, a regulatory agency whose district is affected by the closings along the beach and in Golden Gate Park. “They just want to be able to go where they need to go and not get stuck in traffic,” she said.
Katharine Lusk, co-director of the Boston University Initiative on Cities, said that more than 90% of 130 US mayors in 38 states surveyed last summer said using parking lots or closing streets would give them more space for outdoor dining to accomplish. Almost half closed some streets to through traffic; A smaller part closed the streets completely to cars. While only 6% said they would make these changes permanent, Lusk wonders if this could change as demand increases.
On a sunny weekday, a few dozen people organized by Walk San Francisco toasted the one year anniversary of the road closure in Golden Gate Park. Charles Oppenheimer said his daughter Olivia, 11, once feared driving through the third most popular urban park in the United States.
“There are double-parked cars and angry drivers through the park honking kids at the honking, and now that it’s shut down it’s so much better,” he said.
Near the western end of Golden Gate Park earlier this month, more than 100 people gathered in front of blockades on the freeway and waved signs to reopen the road. Passing drivers honked their horns in support as a musician blew music on a light pink sousaphone.
The highway is two lanes, with a sandy beach and the Pacific on one side and a protected pedestrian path with succulents on the other. A parallel two-lane street has houses on one side, many with posters saying “Open the Great Highway”.
Since the neighboring streets have absorbed the displaced traffic, Judi Gorski has documented numerous accidents. The car fumes, speeding, noises and near-wrecks make her feel trapped in her four-decade-old house where she says: “The traffic goes on all night.”
For photographer Steve Rhodes, who was walking the almost empty Great Highway one day after visiting the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, having the space to move is liberating.
“The intersections with the cars are just a nightmare,” he said. “More roads should be closed and it has to happen because people don’t have to rely on cars.”
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