Eyes on Newsom and Dufty as Healthy Saturdays Gets Reintroduced

by Ted Strawser, 2007-02-20

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick is expected to reintroduce legislation today, calling for a six month trial of Saturday car-free space in Golden Gate Park. The legislation is identical to a measure that Mayor Newsom vetoed last May, stating that he needed more information about the effects of the proposal. Last week, Newsom released the results of a long-anticipated independent study of the impacts of Sunday car-free space in the Park. The study shows, unequivocally, that visitors' use of the Park increases greatly on car-free Sundays, as do visits to the de Young Museum and local businesses. The study also shows that the popular car-free space causes no detrimental impacts on parking availability or traffic in neighborhoods near the park.

“This study shows me that the Mayor should have no reason to veto legislation that I plan to introduce at the next Board of Supervisors meeting that will close JFK Drive from Kezar Drive to Transverse Drive, on a six month trial basis,” said McGoldrick. “The parking and traffic impacts are virtually the same on Saturdays and Sundays. Visitors to the park more than double on Sundays when the park is closed to traffic, and more people visited the de Young Museum and local merchants on Sundays.”

Both sides are gearing up for a major election-year political battle. Will the six-month trial of car free space on JFK Dr. fall prey to Newsom's eighth veto? Or will Supervisor Bevan Dufty save the day by proving he supports the pro-environment, pro-family measure over politics?

Former President of the SF Board of Supervisors Matt Gonzalez reflected the hopes of many environmentalists regarding the potential for Bevan's leadership on Healthy Saturdays “I hope Bevan will do the right thing and support a six month trial. Bevan is a reasonable person and he didn't have the benefit of this compelling study when he cast his vote in opposition last year.”

Almost a year ago, Mayor Newsom vetoed a trial of Saturday car-free space in Golden Gate Park. The proposal, called Healthy Saturdays, would have replicated the current, popular 1 ½ mile Sunday stretch of car-free space on Saturdays for six months. Ironically, Newsom's veto came the same week that NYC's Republican Mayor Bloomberg unveiled a similar 6-month trial of car-free space in New York's Central Park. One year later, the NYC trial was a success and is now permanent, while SF falls behind. Indeed car-free recreational space is on the rise. From NYC to Paris to Mexico City to Chicago, urban families and tourists, alike, enjoy increasing popular urban oases.

In his veto letter, Newsom stated that the proposal “aligns with my administration's goals” but that “this proposal in its current form is unsupportable – due to a lack of understanding about its impacts and my concern about contravening the will of the voters”. Newsom indicated concerns that Sunday car-free space may create parking and traffic hassles in the neighborhoods near the Park and he promised to do a study which would allow the city to better understand the impacts, saying “any decision to expand Golden Gate Park road closure must be based on an objective analysis of reported impacts.”


Last summer the Mayor's Office asked the S.F. County Transportation Authority (T.A.) to perform an exhaustive fact-based analysis of car-free space in the Park. The study consisted of Saturday and Sunday parking availability and traffic counts in neighborhoods surrounding the park, supplemented with detailed surveys of hundreds of park users and neighborhood residents. The study was finally released last week, eight months later than promised, after park activists filed Sunshine Ordinance demands for the study data and draft reports.

The unbiased study shows overwhelmingly that car-free space has positive impacts on Park usage, local businesses, and the cultural institutions in the Park. Meanwhile, the study found no negative traffic or parking impacts of the Sunday car-free space in the neighborhoods, while overall park use doubled during the hours when 1 ½ miles of JFK Drive are car-free (even tripling in the busiest eastern end of the Park). The report also indicated that the Concourse Garage, directly beneath the de Young Memorial Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, is only 40 percent full on Saturdays and 62 percent full on Sundays. Many observers call the six month trial a slam dunk, given the decisively favorable results of the study. Other findings in the study include:

The number of people using the Park increases by an average of 116% on Sundays compared to Saturdays, and more than triple (from 856 to 2, 712) in the busiest areas.
More park users visit the de Young Museum on Sundays than on Saturdays (37% vs. 23% respectively).
- Surveyed visitors state they were able to find parking “relatively quickly on both Saturday and Sunday, although visitors reported finding parking on Sunday somewhat faster.” On average, half of drivers to the Park find a parking spot within five minutes.
- Traffic volumes around the Park do not increase significantly. No major intersection bordering the Park sees a significant delay in travel time, and residential streets measured were “virtually identical” on Saturday and Sunday.
- Car-free space encourages greater customer traffic to local businesses near the Park, based on figures showing half the people in the Park visit, or intend to visit, nearby businesses.

Despite the crystal clear findings, opponents of the six-month trial wasted no time in attacking the study. De Young Museum leadership and a prominent Richmond neighborhood association (led by someone who has lived in Potrero Hill for years) criticized the study on the day of its release. Once again the legitimate need for accessibility for people with disabilities to all areas of the park has been the focus of a misinformation campaign by opponents. Press releases issued in response to the study ignored the fact that the Healthy Saturdays Coalition, which includes senior and disabled advocates, is committed to ensure full access. The de Young/ARC misinformation campaign kicked into high gear, refusing to acknowledge traffic and parking counts that indicate current disabled placard parking can accommodate a six-month trial based on current usage rates. More importantly, opponents conveniently forgot that the Healthy Saturdays Coalition worked with Jake McGoldrick, even after Newsom's 2006 veto, to pass sweeping disabled Park access reforms, including increasing placard parking and a new accessible tram to run the length of the car-free space. The Coalition remains committed to ensure disabled access is protected in any version of car-free JFK, temporary or permanent.

In a less highly-charged political environment, a six-month trial would be the next logical step in a feasibility study. The Academy is not open yet and the garage in the park is never full, so a six-month trial would be low risk, especially considering the favorable findings of Newsom's study.

Mayor Newsom carefully positions himself as a “Green Mayor” in the national media, yet his track record on environmental issues is woefully lacking based on San Francisco standards. Newsom claims to be an environmentalist who supports open space and then vetoes a six month trial of recreational space in one of America's premier parks.

It's time to hold Mayor Newsom accountable for his actions. As Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City puts it: “Now that we have the facts, Mayor Newsom should join the ranks of the world’s most environmentally friendly cities and fulfill the promise he made when he hosted World Environment Day two years ago and finally make San Francisco into a model sustainable and livable city,” We need to let our “Green Mayor” know that actions speak louder than words.


Last spring Supervisor Bevan Dufty surprised environmentalists, families, and park advocates by opposing the six-month trial. Healthy Saturdays passed the Board of Supervisors 7-4, without Dufty's vote, and was later vetoed by Mayor Newsom. Dufty's opposition was surprising because he cites retaining families in San Francisco as one of his priorities and because car-free Saturdays are popular with voters in Bevan's district. In fact, a measure for permanent car free space carried the majority of the votes in Bevan's district in 2002, yet he opposed a mere trial last year.

Fast forward a year and many environmentalists and park advocates are again looking for Supervisor Dufty's support for the Healthy Saturdays trial. In the past year, Dufty has shown an increasing independence from the Mayor's Office, twice siding with Ross Mirkarimi's police foot patrols legislation and twice voting to override a Newsom veto. Dufty has also shown an increasing interest in solving city wide issues. His recent work to save the habitat of the North Beach Parakeets is an example where he worked to solve an issue outside the boundaries of his district. Many park advocates are hoping that Supervisor Dufty will consider the very positive findings of Newsom's recent Golden Gate Park study and support a six month trial as the next logical step.


Mayor Newsom and Supervisor Dufty have both expressed concerns about going against the will of the voters, citing the results of the 2002 referendum on car-free JFK Dr. But that vote was dramatically different. First, it considered a permanent car-free space, not a trial as is being proposed now. Second, it was proposed at a time before the 800-car garage (fully accessible on car-free days) was up and running, serving the cultural institutions and Park users with excess capacity. Finally, and most importantly, the study now proves that opponents' claims of adverse effects of car-free space on the neighborhoods or institutions have been proven dead wrong. A trial is the natural next step, now that a study has shown only positive impacts of car-free space.

All sides on this issue should agree that public space, public health, and the environment are San Francisco values. These values may be feared by some in Washington but we expect them to be celebrated in SF City Hall. Posturing and politics won't save the environment or keep families in San Francisco, and no excuse will justify a second veto of a simple trial of Healthy Saturdays now that we have the facts in front of us.