Eight hours into a contentious meeting on the future of a 1.6-mile stretch of road in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Leon Chow still felt he wasn’t being heard.
A dozen monolingual Chinese seniors had spoken out against the closure of John F. Kennedy Drive, but in the end, two key commissions—the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors and the city’s Recreation and Park Commission—decided to make the road a permanent car-free zone. That recommendation will now go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.
“We are always the most ignored group of people,” said Chow, the former board chair of the Chinese Progressive Association and a longtime activist who organized the seniors to voice their opposition. “I will keep doing this.”
JFK Drive, a popular thoroughfare that was closed to cars during the pandemic, has become an ideological battleground in San Francisco. The debate on pedestrian and bicyclist safety has pitted seniors and the disabled who want easier access to Golden Gate Park and its museums against pro-alternative transit activists who want to keep the boulevard car-free. Mayor London Breed and three supervisors recently announced they will push the car-free policy forward, while other supervisors are reluctant to give up on finding a compromise.
City staff has made 16 recommendations to increase the accessibility of JFK Drive when it’s closed to cars, including a new ADA parking lot and a free shuttle that now connects to Muni buses. A survey during the pandemic found that more than 70% of San Franciscans support keeping JFK Drive car-free.
But among the formal opposition letters the city received, one came from Self-Help for the Elderly, a prominent nonprofit organization serving Chinese and Asian seniors. Self-Help rarely weighs in controversial political issues, but the organization chose to speak up on this occasion.
“Unfortunately, the current state of JFK Drive hurts seniors,” wrote Anni Chung, 71, a long-standing community leader and CEO of Self-Help. She emphasized the need to hear marginalized and underrepresented people, adding that the closure of JFK Drive is “detrimental to vulnerable communities such as the elderly, and people with disabilities, and underserved communities across the region.”
Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond District and Golden Gate Park area, said the letter weighed heavily on her. She said she felt an “obligation” to solve the access issue after hearing Self-Help’s concerns.
“When I saw that letter, it gave me a lot of food for thought,” Chan said.
The fight over the future of JFK Drive has become a political wedge that could end up in the hands of voters—advocacy group Open the Great Highway Alliance filed a lawsuit alleging Americans with Disabilities Act violations, and the group is threatening to create a ballot measure. Chan said she is seeking to find a compromise with Breed, but finding equity for people to access the park is a core issue for her.
“Communities of color living far away from Golden Gate Park—like Chinatown, Bayview and the Excelsior neighborhood—often feel left out,” she said.
Chan said she hasn’t decided on whether she will oppose the recommendations for JFK Drive, and it’s not clear if she has enough support from her fellow supervisors to block the mayor’s plan.
In 2000, San Francisco voters shot down proposals to make JFK Drive car-free on Saturdays. Conflicts between Chinese seniors and bicyclists are far from new, Chow said. The most notable incident occurred in the Castro in 2012 when a bicyclist struck and killed a 71-year-old Chinese immigrant man.
“If you are not a senior or taking care of a senior, you will never understand,” Chow said.
According to data from Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian safety advocacy group, Asian seniors are the likeliest demographic of pedestrians to be hit and killed by cars. In 2017, Asians made up 50% of the pedestrian fatalities in San Francisco, and more than half of them were seniors. In 2018, 2019 and 2021, all the Asian victims of fatal crashes were seniors.
“Our streets are too dangerous, especially for pedestrians,” said Jodie Medeiros, the executive director of Walk SF. The organization’s Chinese-speaking community organizer has been talking to people every weekend on JFK Drive, she said, and the feedback shows people love the car-free space and do not want it to go away.
Janice Li, a bicyclist activist and elected BART board member, acknowledged that the Chinese community is “often the victim of fatal pedestrian and even bicyclist crashes,” and any concerns about access to JFK Drive should not “outweigh the huge amount of benefit” that comes from keeping the road closed to vehicles.
“Parks are for people,” said Li, who lives in the Richmond District. “They are not for driving, not for cars.”
She suggested the city and groups pushing to reopen the road should do more outreach to San Francisco’s monolingual Chinese immigrant community. Li also noted that there are Asian seniors walking groups in the city that support pedestrian safety and are not being heard.
City departments have done bilingual outreach work during the past two years, but it’s unclear how many people were contacted. SFMTA officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Susan Lew, a 67-year-old retired hospitality worker and Richmond District resident, supports reopening JFK Drive to traffic, even though she lives two blocks from the park and enjoys the convenience of a short walk to JFK Drive. Lew said traffic congestion and parking in the neighborhood has gotten worse since the road was closed to cars, and she worries about people without the ability to drive and park closer.
“You have to think about others,” Lew said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Association had filed claims that car-free JFK would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Council has not taken a recent public position on JFK Drive. The story has been updated to reflect that advocacy group Open the Great Highway Alliance filed an ADA lawsuit against JFK Drive’s closure and may lead efforts to take the issue to the ballot. A sentence also has been clarified to note a fatal crash in 2012 did not occur on JFK Drive.