SAN FRANCISCO — In Tuesday’s election, San Francisco voters will decide the fate of two car-free spaces which have become popular destinations for recreation.
Opponents contend that the closed roads have increased drive times and traffic on side streets. But proponents of the car bans say those claims just aren’t backed up by the available evidence and research.
The two roads were originally closed to car traffic by the city early on in the pandemic as an emergency action to create space for safer, socially distanced recreation.
The first road is JFK Promenade in Golden Gate Park. JFK Drive, as it was formerly known, had already been closed to cars on Sundays and some Saturdays before the pandemic, but now it is always car-free. In April, the Board of Supervisors voted 7-4, with the backing of Mayor London Breed, to make the JFK car ban permanent.
The second is the Upper Great Highway on the city’s Pacific coast. At first, Great Highway was also always closed to cars, but since August 2021, it has been open to cars on weekdays before closing at noon on Fridays and through the weekend.
In July, a proposal to revert the two roads back to their pre-pandemic statuses gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, with the designation Proposition I.
A competing measure, Proposition J, is also on the ballot, and would affirm the Board of Supervisors’ April vote to make JFK Promenade permanent.
If both measures get more than 50% yes votes, the one with a greater number of votes would pass and leave the other one moot.
In the months since the measures got on the ballot, intense organizing on the issue has ensued, with each side passionately making their cases.
On one side are those in favor of Prop J and against Prop I, including Luke Bornheimer, an organizer with advocacy group Community Spaces SF, which is campaigning for Prop J.
“It provides people safe and accessible space to recreate, to build community, and to experience nature without the negative effects of cars,” Bornheimer said.
“This just makes it slightly easier, safer, and more convenient for people to enjoy our parks and get around our city in a sustainable, safe, and more environmentally friendly manner—and healthier, for that matter,” he added.
And in a city that averages between two and three pedestrians struck by vehicles each day, advocates highlight the safety they say banning cars provides. Before the pandemic and its subsequent closure, sections of JFK Drive were designated part of San Francisco’s High Injury Network, or the 13% of streets responsible for 75% of severe or fatal traffic crashes.
“This is because it was primarily a cut-through street; a lot of traffic was moving through here, sometimes people going way too fast,” said Marta Lindsey, the communications director of Walk San Francisco, a non-profit campaigning for Prop J.
“This is a park. This was never the intention, for this to become a thoroughfare,” she added.
But on the opposing side, those against Prop J and in favor of Prop I—whose campaign is overwhelmingly funded by groups and individuals connected to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park—say the road closures decrease access to Golden Gate Park and the beaches along Great Highway. They claim the ban on cars has made neighboring streets and neighborhoods more congested and less safe.
One section of the website of the Yes on I campaign (officially called Access For All) reads, “The closures have also pushed traffic into our neighborhoods, turning small local streets into high-traffic roads.”
“Prop I will move cars back to major roadways and off local streets that are not designed for high-volume traffic, reducing accidents and pollution and improving pedestrian and bicycle safety,” it adds.
Data, experts, and research, however, complicate the picture.
An analysis from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency found no significant change in vehicle travel times for several north-south and east-west trips around Golden Gate Park before and after the full-time vehicle restrictions on JFK. The study found that after the vehicle ban, although traffic volumes may have been higher at certain intersections during rush hour, overall traffic volumes were generally lower.
There were other factors that could have played a role across the two time periods like changes in travel patterns related to the pandemic — but at the very least the study complicates Access For All’s assertions.
Access For All did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article, despite indication that the messages were received and seen. The group Open the Great Highway, which is cited as a sponsor in the full name of Access For All that is registered with the government, declined an interview request in an unsigned email.
Research and history also suggest that increased traffic on neighboring streets is not inevitable after road closure, contrary to what many might expect.
Induced demand is an economic theory that says when more of something is provided, or it’s provided at a lower price, people become more likely to use it. When applied to vehicle transportation, it’s called induced traffic.
“We widen the highway, we speed up travel, people drive more,” said Susan Handy, director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation at UC Davis. “They make more trips, they go to farther destinations, they may decide to live a little farther away from work; there are a lot of adjustments that happen that lead to an increase in driving.”
The opposite phenomenon, termed reduced demand, has not been studied as robustly, but there are real-life case studies, including in San Francisco.
In 1986, San Francisco voters rejected a plan to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway along San Francisco’s northeastern waterfront. But after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake severely damaged the freeway, public sentiment changed, and the city replaced it with a boulevard.
The traffic nightmares that had been predicted did not materialize, and today, the Embarcadero is a bustling area with masses of pedestrians, many of them tourists.
“There’s very good reason to believe that when you take away capacity, some of that driving will go away, and you’re not going to end up with a whole lot of traffic problems simply because you’ve closed those roadways. People adjust,” Handy said.
That’s not to say concerns aren’t valid or that there might not be traffic increases in the short term, she added.
Some say the shift in travel patterns has already been occurring with the roads in question.
“We’ve seen people in cars gravitate towards and drive on Lower Great Highway as well as Sunset Boulevard. But we’ve also seen a number of people not use cars for trips that they used to use cars for, or take shorter trips closer to home,” Bornheimer, said.
In any case, it’s not clear that the beliefs about higher traffic are even held by all who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the closed roads.
Running parallel to the Upper Great Highway is the Lower Great Highway, a largely residential street featuring speed bumps, stop signs, and a speed limit of 25 mph.
Take a drive there these days (there’s one lane going each direction), and you’ll pass by colorful houses whose windows variously feature campaign signs from both sides of the debate. In one camp, the signs say “Yes on J”, “Safe Parks For All”, and “Keep Upper Great Highway For The People”. In the other, they say “Yes on I”, “Open The Great Highway”, and “Access For All”.