A still from a 2010 'Skatin' Place' video from David Miles, the 'Godfather of Sk8'

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. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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34 Comments

  1. “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.”

    Haha! Brilliant! Weapons-grade snark Mr. Eskenazi. Write on!

  2. Excellent idea on the 44 Express.
    We’re at the park most every weekend – there ain’t many black folks.
    And yeah – We (San Francisco) yanked them out of the middle of town and sent them to live in remote barracks.
    Of all the sightseeing and bus tours available in SF, 44 O’Shaughnessy is the one ride that gives you some real perspective on life in San Francisco.
    Get up early on Saturday and head to 3rd and Evans and hop on board for a ride to the other end.
    Sit in the very back and take it all in.

    1. “We’re at the park most every weekend – there ain’t many black folks.”

      You do realise, I hope, that blacks are only about 5% of the city’s population?

      So how many blacks would expect to see in GGP?

  3. If you live in either the Sunset or Richmond districts and want to cross through to shop or visit, this change along with closing MLK and great highway means lines of cars idling at 41-43 ave crossover. Busses crossing the park suck (take too long and don’t go in straight lines).

    1. How to get from Lincoln Way to Fulton Street (or viceversa): 4 lanes at GHW, 2 lanes at Chain of Lakes, 6 lanes at Crossover, 4 lanes at Stanyan. TOTAL: 16 lanes. How many more ya want?

      1. On paper it is a lot of lanes, but GHW is only open 4 days a week, when it is not covered in sand and closed anyway.

        19th has been under construction for decades it seems, and makes that route really, really slow (and not 4 lanes a lot of the time during the day).

        My kid’s bus ride across the park on a weekday after school takes upwards of 45 minutes, if the bus ever comes.

        The real answer is to improve public transit and significantly limit tour buses. They take up too much space as it is.

        1. Plus, they messed up the signal timing at 19th/Crossover and Lincoln last year, causing even longer backups. (Same for Park Presidio/Lake. Lake’s also a slow street, they could easily change the signal timing to keep traffic moving there).
          While at it, in my book, it’s the timing changes at Crossover/Park Presidio that did Tim Cramer in – easy to get caught out with traffic moving differently all of a sudden.

      2. Here’s an idea, it’s time to open up the streets to the public and drivers that use them for business and other ventures. I run a business in this city and pay all kinds of different taxes and I’m losing hours every week because my truck are being detoured all over the city. Time for a political change in this city so we stop this bike coalition and the supes from destroying this great city. They’ve done it already.

    2. @Blangton First of all, if you think the 18, 28, 29, 33, and 44 ‘suck’ and ‘take too long,’ you and other drivers are clearly the problem. Advocate for transit-only lanes instead of griping. Second, if you are shopping or visiting outside the Sunset/Richmond and it requires a car, do some good and practice patience—understand that your needs don’t come before those who want to enjoy their park or travel via non-car modes.

  4. Too bad the Board, SFMTA and SFBC didn’t care about the removal of the northbound commute hour bike lane on Polk Street between Pine and Broadway. That was a hard-fought battle, and we got a small bone. SFMTA happily gave it back to businesses so they could build private-use-only “shared” spaces on public land.

  5. Seriously? People are leaving SF because they are tired of being bullied and told how to live. There are thousands of empty housing units in the city and empty offices spaces and people are worried about the right to skate in the park? I guess it is easier to close the streets than to figure out how to get people into empty housing and our overpaid civil servants prefer to do the easy work. Thanks to our intrepid journalists we at least have an idea about what they are not fixing.

    1. Well, squatting is an excellent solution. The wasted space empty units will be filled up. And I am being serious.

  6. In any other city in the world, there’d be a dedicated public transit line to bring folks from say the Ferry Building (from the East) or Ocean Beach (from the West) to GG Park. The 21 Hayes (which SFMTA tried to permanently kill with COVID) used to come close. San Francisco and GG Park MUST HAVE dedicated public transit lines to bring the public (residents, visitors and tourists) to the Crown Jewel. The shuttle is a joke and its gasoline powered, erratic, small and extremely limited. Bay View residents, families, disabled folks and visitors from the North, South, East and West are denied access (unless of course they bicycle). Golden Gate Park needs dedicated electric public transit lines that run the entire width and length of the city. They should be free on the weekends. This is a no brainer and essential construct.

  7. Fact of the matter, JFK closing was being thrown a bone. Almost all cities in the same class as SF have had car free parks for decades. Think Central Park as one prime example. There remain nearly 20 miles of roads in the park primarily used as shortcuts for hurried motorists.

    1. But Central Park is anything but a pillar of equity. GG Park and Griffith Park are more equitable and both have easy car acceess.

      Central Park’s model the last 25 years has been to court the rich. The GG National Parks Conservancy has done much to emulate that model. There are pros and cons to this model, but cons need to be considered.

  8. Absolutely agreed with everything in this article! Car-free JFK was a huge morale boost for me and my family during the pandemic.

    I tend not to bike, skate, or use motorized scooters because I don’t feel safe being protected only by a line of green paint on the ground separating me from cars going 30+ mph. With streets like JFK and Page, I finally can feel safe using people-powered transportation. I even see old people and kids out on bikes! That’s what a city is supposed to be. If we actually had world class transit to match our world class parks, the whole city would benefit!

  9. Bravo for the article. Transit is so often the big pink elephant in the room in local environmental discussions. Transit is woefully insufficient here. Tuesday night I was coming home on a packed 14 Mission, which doesn’t even have clearly marked stops on Beale or Main Street. Waiting to take BART home from SFO took 45 minutes recently; on that same evening, uniformed police officers were directing traffic at the airport. Paying SFPD to direct traffic must cost a pretty penny. How does local transit policy even make fiscal sense?

  10. Yes! This part: “listen to people explain why cars were necessary here — and then meaningfully address those situations so they no longer are,” should be the entire job of the SFMTA.

    As a special thing for 4/20, they ran an express bus from Civic Center BART to Hippie Hill. Why not run that every day? And yes, also a 44 Express and a 29-Sunset Rapid.

    Of course, what’s needed to do right by Muni riders is more funding. I hope everyone’s voting yes on Muni’s bond measure, Prop A on the upcoming ballot.

  11. We didn’t talk about the Disability community is there equal access I don’t think so not everybody can ride her bike and walk it needs to be shared roadway we will need to live together I don’t know why you didn’t talk about the Disability community as far as it went your article was OK but you left out to Disability community

  12. You may have been born in San Francisco, but it’s obvious that you were raised somewhere else, because you’re totally out of touch with the broader SF community, that’s obvious from your entire article. You and all the other Young Yuppies are privileged elites who don’t give a damn about ANYBODY but yourselves. There are many disabled and older residents who can ONLY access this special part of GG Pk by car via JFK Dr. But discriminating against them seems to be totally cool with you and all the other younger, able-bodied, & mostly white ppl who will have EXCLUSIVE use of JFK Dr & that part of the park. — Must feel good to be so smug and elite. – Guess what? The fight is NOT over. You’ll see and you’ll be schooled in what TRUE San Franciscans do when they’ve been screwed by their fellow residents and political representatives.

    1. Louise, I think you’ve very aptly demonstrated the demographic that truly doesn’t give a damn about anyone but themselves, notwithstanding your attempt to speak for the disabled and nonwhite. (Hint: Unlike you, they largely ride Muni to get around, and limiting car traffic hugely improves service.)

  13. I almost never go to Golden Gate Park. It’s a bit far from Bernal where I live. As far as open spaces go, I prefer Ocean Beach. A number of parks and open spaces available and close by for people in the southern part of San Francisco, South San Francisco and Daly City are poorly maintained. It would be interesting to see a budget breakdown of how much city, state and federal funding are directed toward John McClaren Park and Ocean Beach versus Golden Gate Park and Crissy Field.

    Regarding car free, I know very few people in San Francisco who are car free. Regardless of income level, most San Franciscans drive.

    In fact, I’m genuinely concerned about climate change and the environment. But I don’t think our current efforts in San Francisco have had much of an effect. Many people think that by buying a Tesla they have erased their CO2 footprint. In order to be able to charge a Tesla from solar panels on a house, you have to own a house in the first place. Home ownership in San Francisco is quite low (and getting lower).

    Most solar panels are produced in China in factories that run off coal fired energy sources.

    If you don’t have your own solar panels to charge your Tesla, then your power comes from the California electrical grid:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_California

    About half of California’s electrical power is derived from burning natural gas. Burning natural gas does have a significant CO2 and methane footprint.

    I don’t have any answers here except to say that walking more and driving less (regardless of the energy source of one’s vehicle) is a good thing. Driving to GG Park to go for a walk on or near car free JFK does not earn one any social good bragging rights.

    I am so tired of this. I am tired to hearing from various city uppity ups that planting a few native grasses means that San Francisco is mitigating climate change. I love the look of native grasses, don’t get me wrong. But climate change mitigation from a few grass clumps?

    I am tired of hearing from various urban forestry wonks that planting more city trees (which often need watering) will mitigate climate change. Trees make shade, which is nice. But planting more trees and grasses cannot sequester carbon in any significant way.

    Improving city transit? OK. But many locations are not accessible by public transit. As pointed out in this article, the buses are slow.

    JFK drive is now car free because some people who go there a lot (certainly a minority of people in San Francisco) didn’t want cars driving through their picnic area. That is all.

  14. I asked a friend whose girlfriend works at the Conservatory of Flowers what she thought about the road closure. And she said it was incredibly difficult for elderly patrons to visit now. And I thought about it and realized this makes sense. Pre-pandemic, I’d sometimes help my ex when she was taking care of an elderly woman with dementia, very frail. We’d take her out for dinner, etc. And we ABSOLUTELY needed a car to do this. She couldn’t walk very far so I’d drop her off right in front of wherever we were going, my ex would help her into the place and I’d look for parking. There is no way she could have taken a bus and it would have been terrifying for her anyways. I think I only understand this side of things because I was involved in helping take care of someone. I don’t think the Bicycle Coalition type people understand this stuff at all.

    1. The car access to the Conservatory of Flowers is at Arguello and Fulton, it brings you right to the west entrance. You can drop off Nana and go look for parking.

      1. Where exactly is that easy to find parking near the Conservatory of Flowers? Very occasionally, like when we went to see the LED Light Display, we’ve had a really tough time parking. And the parking is often a ten or more minute walk from the Conservatory of Flowers.

        Occasionally, we go to the De Young or the Cal Academy of Sciences. We park in the Music Concourse Garage. That seems to work for the center part of the park so long as there is no big event on the particular day that one chooses to go. Cost is about $20 for three hours. But . . . the Music Concourse Garage does fill up. Real downer when this happens, and enough to make me think twice about going again.

        Further west, cars are vandalized there, so I would never park inside GGP on the less visited roads in the western end. Outside the park, on Ocean Beach (near the bottom of Balboa at the Great Highway) there are usually lots of people. Parking in this area is relatively safe. However, that is a long way from the Bison Paddock or the Chain of Lakes.

        The Hellman Hollow Picnic area used to have easy parking along JFK. You could go for a picnic with kids and know that your car would be OK as it was parked nearby. This also used to be a popular area for school x-country runs. Now, with the lack of parking, access for these types of events will be complicated or impossible.

        Some people will say that riding a bike to these areas is an option. Hello? Bike theft? Also, riding a bike with children in tow is impractical and also dangerous for anyone living more than half a mile from GGP.

        Making JFK car free prioritizes the needs of joggers, skateboarders, rollerbladers and cyclists who live in relative proximity to the park, and who do not need to worry about bringing children, the elderly or people with mobility issues along with them. Maybe that was the real intent of this decision.

        While I am not all that concerned about whether or not I can park on JFK, what does concern me is the amount of political energy that has been devoted to making JFK car free. The real costs and benefits don’t seem to have been discussed in a critical way. This type of highly politicized short sighted thinking permeates a lot of decisions about open spaces in the city.

  15. Car-free JFK is great! I’m a big supporter, and the article does a go job communicating the benefit and enthusiasm. Kudos on voicing skepticism of its over-all benefit on environment or equity. Those words get bandied about too much without serious discussion of exactly how they will be improved.

  16. There are a number of points left totally unmentioned in this coverage:
    1) Closing JFK (and other streets, including the UGH) is not about need (JFK is empty most of the time) . It is about raising property prices because you have access to those streets.

    2) Unless you are going to one of the two overpriced theme parks, there is no reason to go to GGP as opposed to elsewhere.

    3) During Bay and Breakers, the 44 had to take a longer detour! Very aggravating. Cars do not impact the buses; closures and double parking by Amazon and other delivery vans (because there are no spaces) do.

    4) If “recreational space” was the goal, then why was Strybing Arboretum closed for months while the streets remained closed?

    5) The ferris wheel and food truck and bike rentals are ONLY the start of commercializing this area. Closure is part of park privatization.

    6) Why not remove JFK then if it is not necessary?

    7) Sending cars on detours is absolutely anti-environmental! Stressed drivers are also more likely to hit someone (although accidents are statistically rare everywhere).

    8) Promulgating a temporary closure and then pushing to make it permanent in no way is “democratic process.”

    9) Corrupt “nonprofits” that serve elites (such as Parks Alliance, WalkSF and VisionZero) need to show their members that they are doing something. They can point to this as a victory.

    10) Local businesses also need parking spaces, as do residents. It is wrong to assume that all bicyclists will bike here.

    11) Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being squandered to EXPAND the parking lot across from the Tea Garden! Instead, this lot should be removed and the green space returned to the public.

    12) The privatized parking lot behind the Hall of Flowers should be returned to public use. A “nonprofit” never should have been allowed to take control of it.

    13) Garish and dirty-red transit zones are not a solution. Most of our streets are too narrow, and the money for frequent service is not there (because our money goes to the military and corporations and the very wealthy are inadequately taxed). Express buses are a solution — but Sean Elsbernd’s ballot initiative of yore (which reduced starting salaries) has made it difficult, a driver told me, to find new drivers.

  17. It’s great for bikes except of course in mid summer when they will shut down all of the rest of JFK for 3+ weeks for a three day concert. So you can ride mid summer but not actually to get anywhere.

    1. Here’s an idea, maybe it’s time to troll 311 over all the vehicles still blocking JFK Thursday after Outside Lands. Bring on the tow trucks. What a bunch of bums, Hardly Strictly is out of the way Tuesday.

  18. My suggestion is allowing cars limited and slow access onto JFK for parking, but with more speed bumps and barriers to prevent through-transit.
    I get why some people want it all car-free. I can’t count how many times some idiot in a BMW has honked at us because we were just going the speed limit and their entitlement gave them some priority. But with a dog now disabled and in a wheelchair, the only regular GGP ground with decent footing and close parking for us is Kezar Triangle. (Don’t get me started about how Lindley Meadows still hasn’t recovered from Outside Lands, yet again.)

  19. Thank you, Joe for all the writing you do which I have enjoyed over the years. You are a treasure to the city and this reader appreciates your research and analysis of complex issues.

    The fact is I agree with you but also with most all of the commenters in some way. I’ve never owned a car because I could never afford one and I have been fortunate to get almost anyplace I need by mass transit, cycling, or walking.

    However, as a previous commenter said, this debate has gotten out of hand and downright ugly. Out here in the Sunset, it has caused division between neighbors, who otherwise may generally share political views.

    It is unnecessary and pointless. Another divide and conquer tactic by politicians looking to pad their resumes with “green projects” without being accountable
    to all constituents.

    As a cyclist/pedestrian, naturally car-free roads appeal to me but not if it means some of my friends and neighbors cannot easily access public parks and amenities. This is a city that should consider all of its residents.

    And a lot of these closed streets initiatives have not gone through appropriate channels and planning.

    You are right that the biggest priority should be mass transit and I wish I saw the same energy behind the “Great Walkway” and the closed streets at some of the SFMTA meetings or demanding transit improvements – beginning with dissolving the SFMTA Board of appointees and revoking the decision to merge SFMTA and parking and enforcement. That was a regrettable decision which has led to unelected individuals with little to no hands-on transit planning making critical transit positions.

    SF is the only large US city that has a transportation board that has never included a current or former transit operator. Think about that: no driver representation. That is a problem. Also, the policy wonks (degrees in law, public policy, or business) on the SFMTA board greatly outnumber the engineers, urban/transportation planners, mechanics and drivers. Are you beginning to see why our transit system is flailing?

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