On Tuesday, voters in San Francisco had the chance to weigh in on one of the most divisive culture-war issues of the past two years.
I’m speaking, of course, of whether the city ought to permit cars to drive through Golden Gate Park. John F. Kennedy Drive has been closed to traffic since the early days of the pandemic, part of a national movement to give city-dwellers more space to breathe by keeping streets car-free.
But this particular street has been through a fight that, frankly, could only have happened in San Francisco. In April, Mayor London Breed proposed legislation to make the car-free designation permanent. Speakers testified for 10 hours; 10,000 city residents responded to a survey. From the San Francisco Chronicle: “The road’s fate has been the subject of intense organizing in recent months, with rallies, letter writing and direct lobbying of supervisors trying to sway the outcome.” Two members of the Board of Supervisors who opposed the designation said it was unfair to people with disabilities and the elderly, and that the closure constituted “recreational redlining” and was “segregationist” because it was unfair for people who lived far from the park. The law passed 7 to 4.
It wasn’t over yet: Activists in favor of returning cars to the park, along with the city’s museums (the de Young is located in the park), sponsored a referendum, the Access for All Ordinance, to reverse the supervisors’ decision. That proposal was called Proposition I.
Then, the city supervisors put their own legislation on the ballot as Proposition J, which asked voters to “affirm the ordinance” the board had adopted that May. (This tactic of putting dueling resolutions side by side, designed to defang citizen initiatives and maintain the status quo, was also deployed on Propositions D and E, which concerned affordable housing.) This meant that campaign volunteers for a car-free JFK had something positive to campaign for.
If both measures passed, the cars could re-enter the park, or not, based on which one got more votes. If both propositions failed, the status quo (no cars) would continue. Got that?
At this point, you may be thinking: Is this the best way to decide whether or not to permanently pedestrianize 1 ½ miles of road in a park? Two years of study and survey, 10 hours of testimony, a city council vote, and two separate referenda? Consider this: As San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener observes, it could have been worse!
Good-government advocates in California have often blamed the state’s dysfunction on a surfeit of direct democracy—the endless parade of ballot initiatives and recall votes that keep Sacramento on a short leash. The most consequential example is Prop 13, the 1978 law that permanently suppressed property taxes, creating a host of unforeseen consequences. But it’s routine for Californians to find a laundry list of confusing and important ballot questions to sift through at the polls. In 1988, there were 29 of them—and that was just at the state level! In San Francisco, a city of 815,000, you need only 9,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.
It is a cousin of the participatory democracy practiced in many cities to resolve matters large and small. Each system seeks to go beyond the standard “elect people to govern” idea in search of a more authentic voice of the people. But it’s hard to know when you’ve finally heard that voice. Community boards are unrepresentative; public-meeting speaking queues are a luxury for the retired and the unoccupied. Asking the entire populace during a federal election is one way to gauge popular support, but then again, when should the whole city have a say in the design of a single road? Why not just the neighborhood? What about commuters? Who will speak for the flora and fauna?
San Francisco is not alone in reckoning with these questions. In Philadelphia, planners spent seven years working up a new traffic plan for Washington Avenue, a dangerous five-lane road in South Philly, before unveiling a “final” design in 2020. Then, following a series of conversations with residents and the opposition of a local councilman, the city backtracked—and spent another two years at the drawing board before unveiling a final, final “hybrid” design this March. Still five lanes. Neighborhood activists who worked on the city’s long consultation process were mad.
In San Francisco, Robin Pam, an organizer with Kid Safe SF and a mother of two who supported the JFK Drive car ban, was concerned—internal polling showed both propositions failing. That result would keep cars out of the park, but also would be the dispiriting opposite of a mandate. Her group worked with more than 300 volunteers who campaigned for Yes on J. On Tuesday, it was a landslide: 61 percent rejected the move to reopen the drive to traffic (I); 59 percent of voters affirmed the city’s decision (J).
Pam, for her part, admired the city’s thoroughness, and said it was a “model of how city government should operate.” Then she revised that statement: “Well, it shouldn’t take two years. But what worked well was that they closed the street first and then they made those updates,” such as adding more ADA parking spaces.
Election Day was cold and rainy, but Pam popped into Golden Gate Park and saw a retired couple taking a stroll on the car-free road anyway. They stopped at a public ping-pong table, and to her surprise, proceeded to play a very competitive game. “There’s so much potential,” she reflected, “starting in our parks—but hopefully many more public spaces in the city can be designed for people.”
Of all the community input metrics required to validate the city planner’s vision, you would be hard pressed to surpass San Francisco’s method of putting street design on the ballot during the midterm elections. (Though, critics could counter, turnout is higher in presidential election years.) Certainly, it’s not a precedent you’d want to stick to going forward—there are too many streets, and too few citywide elections, and even people who feel passionate about street design will tire of plebiscites. But perhaps it’s good to have this one on the books: It shows that even supposedly “divisive” and “controversial” projects often enjoy a wide degree of support. That won’t save city leaders from answering to the people next time they attempt something like this, but it might give them the confidence to try.