With more than 100 people packed into a sweltering room, tempers ran hot at a three-hour meeting held by the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency to get feedback on the agency’s new transit lanes and turn restrictions along Mission Street.
The changes, which were rolled out in March, include the creation of transit-only lanes, the prohibition of left turns for the entire corridor of 13th to Cesar Chavez streets, forced right turns at certain intersections, and the removal of a few bus stops within two blocks of one another.
Despite outreach efforts from the transit agency, which director Ed Reiskin said were among the agency’s most extensive, many people at Monday’s meeting said they felt unwarned about the changes, disrespected once they offered opinions, or generally unheard at all.
While many commentators – pedestrians, transit users, and a few drivers – voiced approval, many business owners and drivers were livid.
“SFMTA is out of touch with small business needs in the Mission,” said Sylvia Alvarez-Lynch, who said she also works for the transit agency. “Right turns only makes it almost impossible for businesses to survive…we need to take our neighborhood back.”
Added Eden Stein, the president of the Mission Bernal Merchants Association: “We are fighting for the accessibility of our neighborhood, for it to remain vibrant and thrive.”
Since the program’s inception, many have complained that Mission Street small businesses have suffered a decline in business, which they attribute to a loss in parking and loading spaces. Several parking spaces were removed to make room for right turn pockets, though according to the transit agency, new parking from decommissioned bus stops outstripped the removal of spaces, and parking meter use has remained steady since the changes were put in place.
The transit agency’s Matt Brill said the city has been trying to accommodate adjustments for commercial loading zones, a major concern for businesses, and encouraged proprietors with further concerns to reach out for help with adding zones.
Stein acknowledged that there had been progress toward compromises, but said the forced right turns, especially on Cesar Chavez Street, had divided the Mission corridor.
For some, the main effect of the changes has been that their bus rides have been faster and the streets seem more pedestrian friendly.
“It feels like it takes less time than it used to,” said Eric Castro. “It feels safer when I have to cross the street.”
Mission Street resident Lauren Sailor, who also approved of the changes, said she has observed from her window that drivers are able to clear a roadway for emergency vehicles faster, and also advocated for the transit adjustments.
“The street is calmer and safer for people who can’t afford a car,” she said. “These people are still deserving of an efficient way to get around the city.”
Artist Miles Epstein said he acknowledged that the changes have been difficult for drivers but was concerned about safety.
“The number of people run over in this city is too high,” he said. “If you’re walking down the street, you don’t want to be threatened by a dangerous road.”
Elias Zamaria also liked the changes.
“I’m in favor of anything that makes Muni faster, even if it causes a little inconvenience to drivers,” he said.
Regardless of transit speed, drivers have been confounded by the turn restrictions, and many expressed frustration with the inability to turn left from or drive through the whole corridor. The agency reported that collisions in the corridor had dropped, but the announcement was met with mutters of “false” and “not true” from some of the audience members.
“Traffic deaths are a public health issue,” said Cathy DeLuca, a policy manager for the pedestrian safety group Walk San Francisco.
“Bullshit!” someone shouted, setting off more dismayed and angry shouts.
Campos and transit agency moderators tried several times to calm the passionate crowd.
For some, relying exclusively on transit is simply not an option.
“I need to drive, I’m sorry. I have to take four kids to school,” said Tracy Brown Gallardo. “But what I am most outraged by is that I didn’t get any notice. I had to hear about it from the restaurant owners I hang out with. They are losing money.”
“It’s shameful what’s happened to Mission,” said Iswari España, who is running for District 9 Supervisor. “I’ve witnessed at least three accidents…I never received any notice whatsoever…we don’t feel like we’re being listened to.”
Taxi driver Jason Jordan had no complaints about the transit-only lanes, but wasn’t pleased with left turn restrictions.
“It’s not like there’s a lot of business left for us,” he said. He also commented on the difficulty of explaining to a drunk passenger the need to make three right turns instead of a left.
Bernal Heights resident Bruce Irving said he both rides Muni and drives.
“I like the red lane,” he said, but added, “29th has become a snarled mess. There’s got to be a compromise.”
Though there were plenty of exceptions, in general the senior, minority and disabled people that transit agency data shows are dependent on bus service in the Mission were largely absent from the transit advocates who spoke in support of the changes. Transit agency director Reiskin acknowledged later that one of the hardest demographic to reach out to is Muni riders.
And despite plenty of diversity among opponents to the changes, many speakers critical of the agency were Latino. Some seized on the divide as a reflection of displacement pressures in the Mission.
“There hasn’t been one immigrant transit rider. Those red lines might as well be lashes on my back,” said William Ortiz Cartagena, who works with the Mission Economic Development Agency.
“This is redlining in the Mission,” said Gabriel Medina, also with MEDA.
Zamaria, who had spoken in favor of the changes, disagreed.
“I think a lot of people are pulling the race card to push emotional buttons,” he said after the meeting. “People are thinking too much with their emotions and not their rational mind, lumping all these changes together.”
Toward the end of the meeting, many who had cheered and clapped for pro-transit-lane comments appeared to have left.
“We are sick of people coming into our neighborhoods to tell us what they want and then just like they did today they leave,” said Miguel Bustos.
Reiskin and District 9 supervisor David Campos, who helped arrange the meeting, both expressed hope for a compromise.
“The forced rights seem to be the biggest concern,” Riesken said. “I heard loud and clear that we need to act quickly.”
Some in the public also seemed to have hope for finding middle ground.
“Don’t quit on nobody, don’t give up on their side, don’t give up on our side,” said Robert Antonelli. “We need to work this out together.”
The agency will meet with smaller groups and conduct further street outreach before presenting the matter to its Board of Directors for review within a few months.