JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park Was Historically a Car-Free Corridor

Before a single “yes” or “no” vote was cast for Proposition J this month, the JFK Promenade had a decades-old history of being a car-free corridor.

San Francisco voters resounded in support of keeping JFK Drive a car-free corridor in this past election. A local measure, Prop J, was put on the November election ballot that, if passed, would ensure the continued “recreational use” of the 1.5-mile stretch of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park. Conversely, an opposing measure, Prop I, was also included — which advocated for allowing vehicles on the car-free corridors found on the Great Highway and JFK Drive.

In data collected from the San Francisco Department of Elections, Chris Arvin’s map showing voter turnout showed 63% of registered voters said “yes” to keeping the promenade free of personal vehicles; 37% of voters said “no” — with most of those coming from precincts coming from the outskirts of SF and the farthest away from the promenade. Proposition I saw nearly a mirror image of these figures, just inverted. 65% of voters said “no” to allowing personal vehicles back on these roadways… and the 35% that did say “yes” were mostly concentrated in the exact same areas where people voted against keeping the JFK Promenade in existence. 

It’s fantastic that we can finally lay this back-and-forth around keeping the JFK Promenade to rest. But it shouldn’t have been such a point of contention, to begin with.

Why? Well, perhaps most importantly, there was historic precedence for keeping this stretch of JFK Drive off-limits to personal cars. And it was widely successful.

Starting in 1967, the eastern half of JFK Drive — a section of the street that includes the now-permanent JFK Promenade — was closed to cars every Sunday. The idea began during that year’s Summer of Love when an estimated 100,000 self-knighted hippies descended on the Haight Ashbury, including the name Main Drive in Golden Gate Park, which was later changed to John F. Kennedy Drive. The road was closed to ensure public safety as pedestrians crowded the roadway.

This specific stretch of roadway was closed traffic every Sunday afterward; in 1998, the regular temporary closure was written into the Golden Gate Master Plan, which was later adopted; 2017’s “People’s Day In The Park” was both a 50th-anniversary celebration of the closure of Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to car traffic and a call to extend the closure throughout the weekend.

Fast forward three short years after the aforenoted celebration — a party that drew tens of thousands to the car-free corridor on April 2nd of 2017 — the Covid-19 pandemic came crashing down with a life-changing thud. San Francisco’s Slow Streets Program would later turn this exact part of JFK Drive into a car-free corridor… with no specific end to it established.

Thankfully, SF voters kept pushing for legislation to secure its permanence, culminating in the passing of Proposition J and the failure of Proposition I earlier this month. 

With whale watching, plaza lounging, art watching, and live music playing now realities on this roadway through Golden Gate Park, the evergreen JFK Promenade now sits as a permanent example of why Herb Caen’s 1972 column, The Walking Cane, is so salient in nature.

Feature Image: Golden Gate Park and the eastern part of JFK Drive pictured from above in 1969. (Courtesy of Peter Linenthal of the Potrero Hill Archives Project, via OpenSFHistory)

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