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Is car-free JFK here to stay? Many support it—but poll says vote could still go either way

Ruby Heathcott (left) and Elsie Stevens (right) practice for a roller derby on JFK Drive on March 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

It’s a close one, but more San Francisco voters say they want car-free JFK to stay than to go. The divisive ballot measure could set the stage for the future of San Francisco’s pandemic-era street changes.

During the pandemic, John F. Kennedy Drive became the center of a passionate debate about allowing car traffic on one of Golden Gate Park’s busiest roads, which was closed to cars in early 2020 due to the Covid pandemic. Though the Board of Supervisors decided in April to keep cars off JFK Drive permanently, converting it into JFK Promenade, the fate of the road now rests in voters’ hands

The Standard’s election poll showed that nearly half of likely voters favor keeping JFK Drive car-free—though a sizable portion, 40% prefer reopening the road to car traffic. Twelve percent of this group remains undecided going into the election, enough to sway the vote come November. The Standard’s findings show support for the street’s closure, but a far cry from the 70% support often cited by the city in a survey conducted by the Recreation and Parks Department

The issue will come to a head in November, when voters will be asked to vote on Propositions I and J, the first of which calls to reopen JFK Drive and the Great Highway to cars while the other would make the current JFK Drive closure permanent. 

The decision comes at a critical time as changes, like JFK Drive’s closure and the Slow Streets that were implemented during the Covid pandemic, meet their fate in City Hall and at the ballot box. 

Advocates for the street’s closure say that it will improve safety in Golden Gate Park and help put the city on a more sustainable path. Its opponents say the road’s closure may make the park and its attractions inaccessible to people with disabilities, families, seniors and residents who live far away. 

Who Wants JFK and Great Highway Open to Cars? 

Indeed, San Francisco’s seniors overwhelmingly favor reopening JFK Drive to through traffic, underscoring Prop. I’s core argument that closing JFK Drive to car traffic will disproportionately affect older San Franciscans and those with disabilities. Respondents over 50 showed the most support for reopening the road to cars.

“I'm extremely frustrated with an activist SFMTA and progressive politicians,” wrote one 72-year-old respondent. “65% want their streets, JFK Drive and the (Great Highway) open but our politicians and the SFMTA try to tell us what we want.”

Opponents of the closure of JFK Drive, the Great Highway and Slow Streets protest at City Hall on March 10, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Great Highway was closed to cars temporarily during the pandemic, but now allows vehicular traffic on weekdays. Supervisor Gordon Mar, whose district encompasses the road, has a plan to keep the status quo while preparing for 2023, when its southern stretch is set to be closed to cars permanently.

But Prop. I’s authors are calling to reopen the entire road to cars, raising the estimated cost of the legislation to up to $80 million over 20 years to build a costly seawall, which the city says would be necessary to keep the road open and protect wastewater infrastructure. 

Prop. I is backed by local socialite Dede Wilsey, a longtime benefactor of the de Young Museum and the Corporation of Fine Arts Museums, the museum’s nonprofit arm. The museum's nonprofit itself has also taken a stance against the closure.

Those who favor reopening the road to cars tend to identify as independents or Republicans. They also tend to be born and raised in San Francisco, homeowners and parents of local schoolchildren, according to poll data.

Who Wants No Cars on JFK Drive? 

Proponents for a car-free JFK include Mayor London Breed and Supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Catherine Stefani, Dean Preston, Gordon Mar, Myrna Melgar, former Supervisor Matt Haney and Hillary Ronen, who all voted to make the street’s closure permanent earlier this year. 

The ballot measure has also found support among most endorsing organizations in the city, with local advocacy groups Walk SF and Kid Safe SF pushing it forward. 

According to poll data, voters between the ages of 18 and 34, Democrats, bike and transit riders and tech workers are the most interested in seeing JFK Drive free of cars.

That tracks with campaign finance information, which shows that the majority of the top ten employers of people who contributed to the car-free campaign committees worked for well-known tech companies. That includes $300,000 from Yelp employees and thousands more from workers at Y Combinator, Twitter and Google.

White people, college graduates and regular visitors to the park are also marginally more likely to support its closure to cars. 

City Invests Thousands on JFK Updates

Though November’s election will determine JFK Drive’s fate, city agencies nevertheless plowed ahead with plans to improve the park in August. 

San Francisco’s parks and transportation agencies together are spending $200,000 on improvements to the road, which so far have included updates to road signs, crosswalks and park entrances.

It may help appease some locals who are worried that Covid-era policies are suffering from a lack of long-range planning. 

“I like the parklets and slow streets,” one respondent said. “They were good solutions during Covid. But now they are being left without much [in] the way of policy or being maintained.”

Correction: This version corrects both the estimated cost of Prop. I and which improvements on JFK Drive the city spent money on.


Liz Lindqwister contributed additional research for this story.