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A defining win: the story of the permanent car-free space in Golden Gate Park, JFK Promenade

The idea for a 24-7 car-free JFK

Just weeks into the pandemic in early 2020, one of Walk SF’s staff members heard an idea some runners were talking about.

What if JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park were made car-free not just on Sundays, but every day, so people could be active with plenty of room for social distancing?

It was an idea with legs, so to speak. Walk SF jumped into action.

On March 20, 2020, Walk SF launched a webpage where people could send an email to Mayor London Breed asking her to create this safe space. Within 48 hours, nearly 2,000 people sent emails!

The idea gains momentum, and Mayor Breed acts

Support and activism around the idea of a car-free JFK Drive quickly grew from there. On April 28, 2020, using emergency powers, Mayor Breed officially closed a 1.5-mile segment of JFK Drive to traffic 24 hours a day (note: Shelley Drive in McLaren Park was made car-free that day, too; Walk SF is supporting a section staying this way).

What was first called ‘car-free JFK’ quickly proved incredibly popular, attracting hundreds of thousands of people using it each month. It was also quickly clear to us at Walk SF how necessary this space was in a city where an average of three people are hit walking every day – and also supported the City’s Vision Zero goals. We needed this large, safe, dedicated space for pedestrians – the largest in San Francisco – not just during the pandemic, but always.

The two campaigns for car-free JFK

In August of 2021, we learned that the Board of Supervisors would vote on car-free JFK’s fate. With the help of our dedicated volunteers and members, we were able to go all-in to organize to make it permanent. (It’s important to mention that this idea was championed by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and activist David Miles, Jr. for decades.)

Walk SF ended up spending 15 months organizing and advocating for a permanently forever car-free, people-first, pedestrian oasis that’s now called ‘JFK Promenade.’

The first campaign was all about getting a majority of Supervisors to vote in support of Mayor Breed’s legislation to make JFK Promenade permanent. Within a few weeks, we had volunteers out on JFK Promenade every weekend getting passersby to sign postcards to their Supervisor. And that was just the start (read more below).

Seven months later, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation from Mayor Breed to make JFK Promenade permanent in a vote of 7 to 4 on April 26, 2022.

A few months later, opposition to JFK Promenade put Measure I on the ballot. Measure I would have taken away car-free JFK, plus bring back traffic to the Great Highway on weekends and halt the City’s climate mitigation project on the Great Highway Extension.

This led to Measure J being put on the ballot to ask voters to reaffirm the legislation passed by the Board of Supervisors making car-free JFK permanent – and a massive push by Walk SF and many partners to pass Measure J and defeat Measure I.

Ultimately, voters passed Measure J by 63% and rejected Measure I with a 65% NO vote on November 8, 2022. Voters also passed Measure N by 74%, which will make the 800-space parking garage underneath the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences more affordable for San Francisco seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income families. These decisive wins sealed the deal for a permanent JFK Promenade!

What Walk SF did in support of the two campaigns for car-free JFK

Thanks to our members, Walk SF was able to:

  • Coordinate volunteers in gathering 10,000 signed postcards to deliver to Supervisors before the April 26, 2022 vote.
  • Organize rallies and get extensive positive media coverage. Throughout the campaign, our messaging focused on safety and the love of car-free JFK.
  • Identify and push for accessibility solutions. Walk SF led walk audits and listening sessions with senior and disability groups to identify specific needs. This led to a detailed list of proposed solutions, many of which came to life in 2022. Learn more.
  • Bring in and lift up new voices. We worked with climate groups, health care professionals, local businesses, schools, the running community, and a passionate group of moms to reach elected officials and voters from different perspectives.
  • Be part of a coordinated coalition including the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, KidSafe SF, Church of 8 Wheels, Great Highway Park advocates, Mothers Out Front, Richmond Family SF, San Francisco League of Conservation Voters, San Francisco Parks Alliance, San Francisco Surfrider Foundation, SF Climate Emergency Coalition, Sierra Club San Francisco Bay, SPUR, Streets for People, the Climate Reality Project, Urban Environmentalists, 350 SF, and more. Together, we were able to navigate a lot of politics, do an incredible amount of grassroots organizing and outreach, and leverage resources. This was critical for both the Board of Supervisors vote and on the November ballot.

From the start, the car-free JFK campaign was always much bigger than the 1.5 miles of car-free space. It was about what kind of city San Francisco is going to be, with a safer, healthier, climate-friendly future for everyone.

Check out some of the best photos from both campaigns

Here are some of our favorite photos from the two campaigns.

So many played a part in car-free JFK victories!

We’re forever grateful to everyone who played a part, big and small, in winning a forever car-free JFK Promenade. Beyond our members, volunteers, and coalition partners (see list above), there are many more to thank.

The leadership of Mayor London Breed and staff at the Mayor’s Office were critical, from first putting the temporary JFK Promenade in place to championing its permanence. We’re so thankful to the members of the Board of Supervisors who voted YES: Haney, Mandelman, Mar, Melgar, Preston, Ronen, and Stefani.

State Senator Scott Wiener was crucial not only in his support, but because he passed SB 288, which streamlines the approval of pedestrian and bike safety projects. This prevented JFK Promenade from getting bogged down by bureaucracy. David Chiu was also very supportive in his position as State Assemblymember.

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin and SF Recreation and Park (Rec and Park) Director Phil Ginsberg championed not just the idea of JFK Promenade, but also the many solutions in motion to make the park more accessible, equitable, and safe for all. Their staff at SFMTA and SF Rec and Park worked incredibly hard to get solutions on the ground. The SFMTA Board of Directors threw their leadership behind JFK Promenade, too.

And there are surely more. But for now we will end this section by calling out David Miles, Jr. No one has done more than this incredible activist!

Celebrating JFK Promenade every year on April 28

Be sure to save the date for April 28th, 2024, when we celebrate this safe, car-free space for people exactly four years after JFK was first closed to traffic by Mayor London Breed.

Does JFK Promenade mean a lot to you? Consider a donation to Walk SF.