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Safe space for people and accessibility can go hand-in-hand in Golden Gate Park

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Like many of us, Carol loves San Francisco but doesn’t feel safe on many of its streets as a pedestrian. Aggressive driving and dangerous intersections are commonplace. Because she now uses a mobility scooter, Carol is lower to the ground and less visible to drivers. Just getting around her neighborhood can feel risky.

Carol’s fears are not unfounded, especially as an 80-year-old. Seniors are much more likely to be hit and killed in traffic crashes in San Francisco. People over 65 typically make up about half of pedestrian deaths each year.

But Carol has a refuge where she can enjoy our city and be truly safe. Carol goes to what’s called ‘car-free JFK’ in Golden Gate Park. A 1.4-mile portion of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park was closed to vehicle traffic at the beginning of the pandemic. And Carol goes there every chance she gets.

Carol’s hardly alone in this. Car-free JFK Drive has become an incredibly popular destination at all times of day, every day of the week, for people of every age and ability. Already 36% more people visit this section of JFK Drive than did pre-pandemic (for the past 50 years this same section was closed to traffic on Sundays).

This safe, car-free space in our city’s premier park is a treasure that should be made permanent. New York City made the entirety of Central Park car-free in 2018. But we need a range of accessibility solutions to help ensure seniors, people with disabilities, and anyone with limited mobility can enjoy car-free JFK Drive and all Golden Gate Park attractions.

Some Key New Accessibility Solutions Are Now in Place

In light of the JFK Drive closure, the SF Recreation and Park Department and SFMTA have been making key improvements to improve passenger drop-off options, ADA parking needs, and connectivity to attractions. These include:

  • New loading zones for pick-up and drop-off in the Music Concourse were added in 2020 for direct access to the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, and Japanese Tea Garden. (As always, any type of vehicle can enter the Music Concourse from MLK Drive. Paratransit can access attractions on the Music Concourse from JFK Drive using the 8th Avenue Muni and de Young delivery entrance.)
  • Nancy Pelosi Drive was opened all the way to JFK Drive to provide access to the Tennis Center and nearby destinations.
  • Conservatory Drive West was reopened in October to provide access to the Conservatory of Flowers and the Dahlia Dell, and now has 18 free on-street parking spaces along it.
  • A number of new, free ADA spots were added near attractions. These include five free on-street ADA spaces along Martin Luther King Drive near the Music Concourse and Shakespeare Garden, as well as three new ADA spaces near the Tennis Center on Nancy Pelosi Drive.
  • The City is also in the process of repurposing the tour bus parking lot behind the Music Concourse to become 14 new free ADA parking spaces. View a map of accessible parking options in Golden Gate Park.
  • The 44 O’Shaughnessy bus is now back running frequent, direct Muni service to attractions on the Music Concourse. The closure of JFK Drive has improved service for riders of the 44, cutting 10 minutes of the route travel time.

But More Accessibility Solutions Are Still Needed

These improvements are a strong start to better address accessibility needs for people with limited mobility, but there are only a start. Important additional solutions are being considered by San Francisco Rec and Park and the SFMTA; we endorse these wholeheartedly. These include:

  • Affordable rates for the Music Concourse Garage. The garage underneath the Music Concourse, which opened in 2005, was specifically intended to reduce vehicle traffic on the Music Concourse. Unfortunately, this garage has been mismanaged by the Music Concourse Community Partnership, including a $4 million embezzlement scandal. The current high hourly parking rates often mean the 800 parking spaces (including 33 ADA spaces) are seriously underutilized. We applaud Supervisor Connie Chan for being the first elected official to push to reform the garage rates to improve equity and accessibility. And we endorse efforts by the Board of Supervisors to realize the garage’s potential to serve park visitors and support the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences.
  • Adding many more free ADA spaces plus curbside drop-off and pickup zones near the 10th Avenue entrance to the park. This would add about 15 new ADA parking spaces on Fulton Street near 10th Avenue, which are near the de Young and the Rose Garden. Sidewalk widening and pathway upgrades would improve accessibility from Fulton into the park.
  • Better advertisement of direct curbside drop-off and pickup zones for the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences. You may not know that everyday from 7AM – 7PM, you can drop off or pick someone up right at the door of the lower floor of the de Young or at an elevator that goes right into the California Academy of Sciences. All you do is enter the Museum Concourse Garage from either side; as long as you exit either side within 15 minutes, it’s free. Currently there is no signage and very little information for visitors to utilize this convenient option.
  • Taxi stands near major attractions. Given the popularity of Golden Gate Park attractions for both locals and tourists, designated space for taxis to wait for passengers would provide a predictable transportation option for many visitors.
  • Improving and expanding free shuttle service. A shuttle has run along JFK Drive for over a decade on Sundays as well as Saturdays from April to October. But service is infrequent and unpredictable. Few visitors know it exists or where it stops, and there’s no seating or shelter for waiting passengers. Other major parks have shown that robust shuttle service can bring big accessibility and environmental benefits; Golden Gate Park can do the same! San Francisco Recreation and Park is now considering service improvements, route changes to better connect riders to parking and transit, and stop improvements like new benches.

There are a few more common sense solutions that Walk SF believes are essential for accessibility:

  • More seating and places to rest. JFK Drive currently lacks many benches or other types of seating along it. This is important for anyone who may need a rest (and certainly for anyone waiting for the shuttle bus), and also facilitates community and connection within the park.
  • Clear signage and wayfinding for accessible routes. If you are a person with limited mobility and especially if you use a wheelchair or other mobility device, you need to know which paths and streets have sufficient width, moderate grades, and flat pavement without obstacles. Better signage and information to direct visitors to accessible routes is an easy but meaningful fix.
  • More solutions to support people who need to use mobility devices. It’s been wonderful to see Golden Gate Park test out free adaptive bike rental on JFK Drive. We’ve heard a variety of ideas from people with mobility challenges, including having mobility scooter rentals in the Music Concourse. We urge the City to explore ideas like these.
  • Improving traffic safety on the streets adjacent to the park. Golden Gate Park is bordered by designated ‘high-injury’ streets: Fulton, Lincoln, and Stanyan. Dangerous speeds and intersections need attention to support safe access to the park on foot and transit.

What’s Next

In early 2022, the Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to make car-free JFK Drive permanent or open it back up to vehicle traffic. Before the closure in April 2020, 75% of traffic on JFK Drive was ‘cut-through’ traffic. As a result, despite being in a park, JFK Drive was a designated ‘high-injury corridor’ due to the frequency of traffic crashes.

So let’s not lose this precious safe space. Instead, let’s put our energies toward bringing every possible accessibility solution to life. Safe space for people and accessibility can absolutely go hand-in-hand in Golden Gate Park.

Get involved in the campaign for a car-free JFK Drive forever. Feel free to share your accessibility ideas to me at brian@walksf.org.

Banner image by Emily Huston. Copyright Emily Huston.