When the pandemic forced Americans indoors last spring, many people stopped driving. Once-bustling streets full of bumper-to-bumper traffic, suddenly quieted, were opened to pedestrians, who found an outlet for their pent-up quarantine energy by walking and bicycling outdoors.
Now, as the country begins to approach a return to normalcy, cities are considering whether to reopen so-called slow streets to cars, and transportation activists are fighting to keep the rapid gains they made in what has been a decades-long battle against the automobile.
In San Francisco, that debate centers on a stretch of road in Golden Gate Park, where a 1.5-mile swath of John F. Kennedy Drive was closed to cars during the pandemic.
Advocacy groups point to a huge spike in foot traffic and cycling in the park over the last year and a significant reduction in car crashes as reasons the road should remain closed to cars. But the museums that occupy the park worry that a continued closure could make it more difficult for people to find parking spaces and visit their galleries.
It’s another struggle over whether to make permanent a shift in day-to-day life that was sparked by the pandemic.
“I think the coming out of this pandemic, as we’re beginning to do, is that moment in time to seize the moment for these kinds of changes,” said Paul Skoutelas, the president of the American Public Transportation Association, which has been watching similar discussions play out in Los Angeles, New York, Austin and other cities.
In April, more than 200 bikers, skaters and amblers rallied on the front steps of the California Academy of Sciences, calling for Golden Gate Park’s J.F.K. Drive, which has been closed to cars since April 2020, to stay car-free even when the pandemic ends.
“You’re supposed to be able to enjoy yourself in a green environment and escape the hustles and bustles of everyday life,” said David Miles Jr., who spoke at the rally and is known in San Francisco as the Godfather of Skate. “That only happens when the park is closed to cars.”
Mr. Miles, 65, has been fighting for decades to close the park to cars. The city barred vehicles from J.F.K. Drive on Sundays in 1967, and in 2007 began closing parts of the park to cars on Saturdays for half of the year. With cars gone this past year, Mr. Miles said, there has been a resurgence of roller skaters whizzing through.
Mr. Miles, who views the park as a diverse gathering ground for skaters doing tricks, children riding bikes and everyone in between, said the constant battle and the arguments that resurface every few years have him feeling like he’s in the movie “Groundhog Day.”
But “it’s different this year — you have a lot more energy, you have a lot more enthusiasm,” he said. “I think that this is the best opportunity we’ve had to make this closure permanent.”
The de Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences, both nestled near J.F.K. Drive, say the situation is not so simple. The street closures eliminated nearly one thousand parking spaces, including a handful of disabled spaces, leaving 4,700 total.
Closing J.F.K. Drive “is cutting off the ability to access that area of the park, including the de Young museum, to whole swaths of the community, especially those who are not able to walk or bike,” said Miriam Newcomer, the de Young Museum’s director of communications.
Ms. Newcomer said she was particularly concerned about seniors and those with disabilities getting to the museum without ample parking nearby. There is a nearby underground parking garage, but she said the $33 charge — not decided by the museums — is prohibitive for many.
Both museums say they are open to a compromise, such as closing one lane of J.F.K. Drive, and want more research to be done. Scott Sampson, the executive director of the Academy of Sciences, said he is not necessarily opposed to keeping the area car-free, but wants a rigorous study done and community listening groups held before a final decision is made.
The other side says there is still plenty of parking, and that the museums are trying to run out the clock and hope inertia leads Golden Gate Park back to how it was before. If nothing changes, the street closures will expire 120 days after the city’s coronavirus state of emergency is lifted. The expectation, though, is that San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, which has the final say, will make a decision before that.
Last week, the supervisors accepted a report on the park from the Transportation Authority and agreed to spend several months surveying residents and studying the issue before making a call. Some supervisors have praised the road closures, while others have worried the shutdowns are hampering people of color from visiting Golden Gate Park. The report’s findings seemed to dispel that.
In the meantime, transportation activists are calling for other parts of the city to remain closed to traffic as well. On Sunday, they rallied on San Francisco’s Great Highway, a stretch on the western edge of the city bordering the Pacific Ocean that has become known as the Great Walkway during the pandemic.
Luke Bornheimer, the leader of a street safety group called Kid Safe J.F.K., said keeping cars out of both Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway would “send a clear message that our city values kids, families and the safety of all San Franciscans.”
Here’s what else to know today
Compiled by Manny Fernandez
The Palisades fire continued to burn on Sunday, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the Topanga Canyon area of western Los Angeles County.
Kobe Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers star who was killed in a helicopter crash last year near Calabasas, was posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.
When it comes to lobbying lawmakers in Sacramento, California’s main teachers union is king: The California Teachers Association outspent other interest groups in the first quarter of this year. The teachers union pursued political influence amid the pandemic to the tune of $2.85 million, the Bay Area News Group reports.
In Santa Cruz and other cities, tensions over homeless encampments have reached a turning point, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Protesters rallying in support of Palestine in Fresno were pepper sprayed. On Sunday, the police arrested the man they believed was the one caught on video spraying a chemical substance through his car window, The Fresno Bee reports.
A caller left racist, threatening voice mail messages for Brian Colbert, the Black mayor of the Marin County town of San Anselmo. The police arrested a 63-year-old man in connection with the voice mail messages, The Marin Independent Journal reports.
The Golden Gate Bridge has been humming loudly and driving commuters and neighbors crazy. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a team of engineers has been working on the problem, which began following a retrofit of a sidewalk safety railing.
Who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? The Los Angeles Times launched a snack-food investigation and interviewed more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees to answer that question.
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Kellen Browning is a technology reporter in the Bay Area covering the video game industry and general tech news. He graduated from Pomona College. @kellen_browning