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The future of the Great Highway: A coastal park for all or a road to nowhere?

The image shows a grayscale scene of a shared road with cyclists and pedestrians, some jogging or walking dogs. Traffic lights and distant hills are visible ahead.
Gabrielle Lurie/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

By Lucas Lux and Heidi Moseson

San Franciscans owe an incredible debt to past generations who took bold action to give us the natural areas and coastal access we enjoy today. They turned an abandoned military site into Crissy Field. They tore down a double-decker freeway to create the Embarcadero promenade. They converted the Presidio into a national park. 

These were hard-fought victories that we now take for granted. Now it’s our generation’s turn: Let’s seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the Great Highway into a world-class coastal park for future generations to enjoy 365 days a year.

The Board of Supervisors recently voted to permanently close the southern end of the Great Highway, which is falling into the Pacific Ocean due to coastal erosion. This now-crumbling southern section linked the Great Highway to Daly City, providing a shortcut for drivers heading south. The closure removes the shortcut section, making the remainder of the Great Highway a superfluous road a stone’s throw from a parallel arterial, Sunset Boulevard. Drivers will have to turn inland rather than hug the coastline as they did before, presenting us with a choice: If we have to turn inland anyway, why not turn inland earlier, allowing us to transform two miles of the Great Highway into a 17-acre oceanfront park?

The image shows an overgrown, abandoned area with concrete barriers and structures. The background includes a weathered wall, a fence, and a distant foggy landscape.
Concrete barriers are placed in the sand adjacent to the Great Highway between Sloat and Skyline Boulevard on Aug. 17, 2022. This portion of the highway has been subject to erosion. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

We have already seen tremendous public response since the city approved a three-year pilot program closing an adjacent stretch of the Great Highway to cars on weekends, creating a 2-mile flat oceanfront promenade from Lincoln Way to Sloat Boulevard. The part-time promenade already draws nearly 10,000 visits on an average weekend, making Great Highway Park the third most visited park in San Francisco. The New York Times even honored the park as one of its “52 Places for a Changed World,” bringing global recognition to our oceanfront.

The success of the pilot offers a glimpse of what San Francisco’s next iconic destination could be like. Just as nobody today misses the freeway that used to loom over the Embarcadero, future generations will find it hard to believe that the city’s oceanfront was once a sand-covered mini-highway that separated nearby neighborhoods from the coast.

Making space for all

The Great Highway as a road only makes space for people using cars. As a park, it makes space for all people, including kids and the 34% of San Franciscans without a car, to enjoy a shoreline promenade for a wide range of activities that are not possible on the beach itself, like roller skating, skateboarding, pushing a stroller, biking, or even riding a Mario Kart. Critically, turning the roadway into a park also opens the coast to people who cannot walk through sand. People who use wheelchairs, seniors with limited mobility, people of all ages who have physical disabilities, and even blind runners enjoy the ocean breeze thanks to the wide, flat, paved walkway on weekends. It has also become a community space where seniors meet for free tai chi or chair yoga, and thousands gather at Halloween for a safe and “only in San Francisco” place to trick or treat. 

Connecting people to the coast is not the only reason to turn a road to nowhere into a park; the space’s usefulness as a roadway is already limited. Sure, the view out your car window as you speed down the Great Highway is great for a few blocks! But that view comes at a cost. A road adjacent to sand dunes is expensive to maintain; keeping the Great Highway clear of sand for car traffic costs taxpayers $1.7 million per year. And still, the roadway is closed to drivers up to 65 times a year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the challenge.

The black-and-white image depicts a street scene with cyclists and pedestrians along a hilly road. In the foreground, two children play on a grassy slope.
People ride bikes and walk down the Great Highway near Ocean Beach on Aug. 10, 2021.

More importantly, keeping the view out of your car window requires giving up the opportunity to have a permanent oceanfront park, with ocean-view seating, dedicated places for bicycles and walkers, gathering spaces for community events, a skate park and playgrounds. That infrastructure is possible only if we convert the stretch into a full-time park, not a part-time road closure. 

The primary concern cited by opponents of a permanent park has been the loss of a shortcut in and out of the city. The closure of the Great Highway’s southern extension makes the point moot. When the former shortcut closes, drivers will have to divert inland toward Sunset Boulevard, a north-south arterial 10 blocks from the ocean; their options will be to turn at either Lincoln Way or Sloat Boulevard, both an equivalent driving distance. Other baseless arguments, like claims that cars speeding along the Great Highway protect coastal wildlife, were unanimously rejected by the Coastal Commission, which oversees the stewardship of California’s coastal lands.

San Francisco can create a new, world-class oceanfront park simply by asking drivers to turn inland at Lincoln Way rather than Sloat Boulevard. In turn, the money currently spent clearing sand from the roadway could be redirected to improvements for drivers trying to make their way south after the shortcut closes, like adding timed signal lights to Lincoln Way. By more smoothly connecting drivers to Sunset Boulevard, these improvements would also help relieve concerns about through-traffic diverting onto neighborhood streets. 

The choice is simple: Should our city’s Pacific coast be a vestigial highway to nowhere, or should we create a win for all San Franciscans by creating a new 17-acre oceanfront park and streamlining north-south commutes at the same time? 

San Franciscans of the past acted boldly to give us the city we know today. The first step to creating the Embarcadero promenade required tearing down a double-decker freeway. Creating Crissy Field required cleaning up a military dump.

Our first step to create a new coastal park for the next generation is simply changing where we make a left-hand turn. Are we up to the challenge? 

Lucas Lux and Heidi Moseson are residents of the Outer Sunset and president and vice president, respectively, of Friends of Great Highway Park, a volunteer nonprofit focused on maximizing coastal park access along the Great Highway.

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