San Francisco residents debate keeping scenic roads car-free after COVID

SAN FRANCISCO— For Vanessa Gregson, the four-lane highway that borders the beach along San Francisco’s Pacific Ocean is now an automobile-free sanctuary where she can blissfully ride her bicycle and enjoy the quiet.

“You hear the beach. You hear the waves,” said Gregson. “You feel like you’re in nature, and you’re in San Francisco.”

Like cities from Paris to New York that shut roads to motorists when the coronavirus hit, environmentally friendly San Francisco closed miles of streets to automobiles so people could exercise and socialize safely.

Now, pedestrian advocates want to keep some of San Francisco’s most prominent streets off-limits, like the main road into Golden Gate Park. Others are pushing back, saying they need to drive to work, drop off kids and get around.

The debate has been marked by dueling rallies and strident arguments over safety 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 oceanside thoroughfare known as the Great Highway to cars; others came to her defense.

Shamann Walton, president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, was mocked for likening the closure of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to the Jim Crow South, including by fellow African Americans who call his accusations of segregation silly. Walton says he worries that closing the street and its free parking will affect low-income families that can’t easily bike or take transit to the park.

For Tim Boyle, who lives near the four-lane beachside highway, life has been anything but peaceful. Unable to use the main road, massive delivery trucks, gangs of motor bikes and impatient drivers now hurtle through his once-sleepy neighborhood.

Boyle, whose son has cerebral palsy, says taking out their wheelchair-equipped van has become a nightmare. “Essentially I’m stopping traffic on any given day, four to 10 cars backed up on each side just so I can pull my own car into my driveway,” he said.

San Francisco officials started turning streets into pedestrian-friendly promenades in April 2020 after the mayor declared an emergency. Officials closed more than 45 miles (72 kilometers) of neighborhood corridors and are studying which ones could be permanent.

They also sealed off a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) portion of JFK Drive, the main thoroughfare through Golden Gate Park, which sees more than 24 million visitors a year, and a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) stretch of the Great Highway — now renamed by some as the Great Walkway — that carried more than 18,000 vehicles a day before the pandemic.

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