For boomer parents, it seems the No. 1 concern regarding their children’s well-being was vans. As in: Sickos, driving vans stocked with candy, waiting to spirit young people off to parts unknown.
You don’t see vans so much anymore, unless you’re a traveling musician. Perhaps that’s for the best.
Regarding my generation, I was truly unprepared for how much of my parental stress would relate to cars, keeping my kids off the street, and telling them, endlessly, to watch for driveways. This is draining and all-consuming. So the notion of car-free spaces has me at “hello.”
Make no mistake: I am pleased that, after many months of process and many years of pining, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 7-4 to cement John F. Kennedy Drive’s car-free status. An idyllic space for people to perambulate and socialize — and not worry about being maimed or crushed — is intrinsically a worthy end. Arguments against this particular closure have either been largely addressed, or are baffling and questionably genuine (more on that in a moment).
I am, however, a bit concerned that, in a city with so many overt afflictions and existential maladies, that this is the issue to generate such outsize attention and participation. I am more concerned that this decision to limit car access and parking on a mile-long stretch comprising a small fraction of Golden Gate Park’s roads and parking spots required such a lengthy, bitter, convoluted and politically malevolent process.
San Franciscans should be satisfied that we have created a much-needed social space. But not too satisfied: Taking cars off JFK drive, among other clear benefits, has been touted as an environmentally friendly move. But that’s a dubious claim. And, without taking on much bigger battles regarding much bigger issues, and without wading through much costlier and less tangible and compelling processes, San Francisco will not begin to address either environmental goals or elusive attempts at equitability.
Ratifying JFK’s car-free status “is achieving community goals, and is a good thing,” says Sarah Jones, the Municipal Transportation Agency’s former planning director, who played no small role in engineering this long-sought move.
“But, as a destination,” she continues, “it’s not achieving environmental goals. I think JFK Drive, in and of itself, has limited climate benefits. To really get somewhere on climate action, the focus needs to be on transit.”
And as anyone who’s ever taken a city bus knows — or not taken a city bus while waiting for said city bus — that’s easier said than done. Removing cars from the road is, by and large, for the good: People need places to be. But this, on its own, does nothing to remove people from their cars.
If San Francisco can’t find a way to do that, our future is bleak.
Chris Jones (no relation to Sarah) loves car-free JFK. He loves roller-skating in the park. But ay, there’s the rub: He drives here to do it from his home in Davis.
“I have an electric car,” he offers. “But making the park more of a recreation area free from vehicles is just an attraction to bring in people from far-flung places. I can’t see that it’s going to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions.”
Jones is the director of the Cool Climate Network at UC Berkeley. He has also analyzed the long-term greenhouse gas emissions for San Francisco and documented how this and hundreds of other cities can reduce them. He’s also helped create this handy-dandy carbon footprint calculator.
On top of everything else, Jones is evidently a fan of roller-skating in Golden Gate park, too. Not being menaced by cars is a definite plus. But this alone isn’t going to reduce this city’s emission levels, which, Jones notes, are remaining steady and not going down. This alone does not mark environmental progress.
Again, to be clear: That’s okay. Social goals and family-friendly amenities are inherently worthwhile. People should enjoy themselves in the park. It’s fine. But, unless this is only a first step, removing cars from the park won’t make a dent in this city’s climate, equity and transportation goals.
“In order to work,” Jones says, “you need the ‘mass’ in mass transit.”
Sarah Jones agrees. Yes, with cars off JFK, cyclists can now traverse the entire west end of the city with relative ease and safety, and yes, this could well connect up to an emerging network of bike-friendly streets. Jones is an avid cyclist (your humble narrator also rides a bike to work every day and totes multiple children on it). So this is for the good.
But, she reiterates, “bikes only go so far as a travel mode. But transit — everyone could use transit. That is the best, equitable, sustainable, accessible, usable transportation mode.”
She pauses: “Or it could be, if it’s designed and managed for and prioritized in that way.”
Of course it isn’t.
Adding insult to injury, the plan to allow cars back onto JFK would put them in just the place to obstruct the 44 O’Shaughnessy bus. That’s a bad idea. But, when it comes to Muni, this bad idea will have to take a number and wait in line.
One of the most jarring criticisms of removing cars from JFK Drive was that it harked to the Bull Connor-era American South. That it, to borrow the term used in a whitepaper circulated by the museums that have long considered this stretch of road their de facto loading dock, constitutes “recreational redlining.”
Let’s be clear: This city has not done right by its oppressed minorities. The fact that Black people were, traditionally, relegated to an isolated, transit-poor, remote realm in the southeast — which was, casually, irradiated by the United States Navy — is no coincidence.
The claim, however, that removing automobile access to one small stretch of road in Golden Gate Park is tantamount to segregation remains mind-boggling. Bayview residents are still free to drive all the way to the museum and park on Fulton or the 90-odd percent of untouched parking spots in the park. Certainly, the city could alter the pricing at the cavernous subterranean parking lot it built with taxpayer money (and, for that matter, reconsider the exorbitant prices at the museums).
Yes, it takes a while to ride the 44 from Hunters View to the museum concourse, but that’s because buses are slow. Here’s a novel idea: Speed them up.
It remains elusive to grasp how cars speeding along JFK Drive equals “equity.” But it’s not so elusive to see how it would be equitable to create something of a 44 Express, zipping to the park with limited stops, and helped along by transit-only lanes. If there’s a greater environmental goal to be achieved by removing cars from JFK, it’s to listen to people explain why cars were necessary here, and then meaningfully address those situations so they no longer are.
This is the road to real progress. Sadly, in San Francisco, it is the one less traveled. And that has made all the difference.
Quite simply, Muni is run like the Oakland A’s: Riders are getting less for more. To mix sporting metaphors, Muni is the Steve DeBerg of transit: It’s just good enough to get you beat. Muni is growing less and less reliable and offering less and less in the way of service, and it shows. Yes, there’s a pandemic and all, but San Franciscans’ percentage of trips made through sustainable modes has dropped to its lowest rate in a decade.
“There is very little interest paid in the San Francisco political and transportation worlds to what makes it workable for people to get out of their cars,” sums up Sarah Jones. “Mode shift is not concrete. It’s not very satisfying. It’s not something a politician can point to.”
That’s a shame. This should be Job No. 1 at Muni, and in City Hall.
“This has to be the focus of every [transit] decision and every investment,” Jones continues. “Having a system that requires cars to get you where you want to go is not equitable, not viable and not livable.”
So that’s the big picture. Everyone should enjoy yesterday’s victory. And then look to tomorrow.