City workers installing the transit-only lanes in early 2016. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

A door-to-door survey of 73 Mission businesses reveals deep unrest

Nearly three years after the city installed red lanes for buses on Mission Street, merchants still hate them. Fewer cars on the street, they said, has translated into fewer people visiting their shops, and a drop in sales that threatens many of the businesses.

A door-to-door survey of 73 businesses on the Mission Street corridor from 16th to 24th Streets revealed that the changes have been especially hard to stomach for older businesses, many of which are owned by Latinos and Asians. Moreover, few feel they have any organization or city official to turn to.

No longer do Mission Street businesses complain about the loss of their local clientele. That’s because many of these customers were already long gone by 2016, when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency installed the lanes to ease traffic flow and make public transportation more efficient.

Managers and owners of longstanding businesses now complain that their customers, many of whom have been pushed out of San Francisco, no longer regularly drive back into the city to eat, shop and enjoy the Latino corridor.  

There is talk of late of shunting tech buses out of the red lanes — but the Mission merchants we polled found this to be a largely irrelevant suggestion. Their overriding concern is that the red lanes have made out-of-town customers’ visits nearly impossible. 

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“People come with their families from Vallejo, Santa Rosa, Redding, because they can’t find there what we offer here,” said Silvia Ferrusquia, the owner of Latin Bridal. “You can’t tell them to come on BART, because then how do they get back with a bridal or a quinceañera dress?”

When they arrive, she said, many can’t find parking and just end up canceling their paid appointments.

The red lanes mean that if no parking is available on Mission, turning off and making a circle to find parking is more difficult. Left turns are banned along the corridor so customers circle the side streets.  

The southbound side of Mission Street is painted with the red carpet, and it may be no coincidence that most of the vacancies on Mission Street can be found on that side.

Bonita Trading Co. owner Eda Yeung. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Eda Yeung, owner of Bonita Shoes, attributes part of the decline in business to online commerce, but also to the red lane and the public it serves.

Yeung, whose Spanish is as good as her English — and a notch below her Chinese — sells everything from ranchero leather boots to women’s dress shoes to children’s dress shoes.

“The red lane brings a different crowd of people to the Mission, people that come for the entertainment, the theaters, the restaurants, but they are not our customers,” she said.

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“We are very upset with this,” added Flora Anand, owner of Mission Emporium and the nearby House of Jeans. “Everything is being done for the buses and the taxis, but not for the rest of the people.”

Servers from food joints that rely on clients who drive by to pick up food said the the red carpet lanes don’t allow for such pickups so their sales have also fallen.  

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Only 18 of the 73 business representatives interviewed had a more positive view of the changes, praising the quicker access to and from the city center, and the order it brings to this side of the neighborhood.

Luis Vargas, a Peruvian shop owner at Marvin’s Computer & Smartphone Repair, alluded to cultural differences that affect the way in which his fellow merchants have reacted to the red lanes.

“Latin Americans are not used to follow rules, to have parking supervisors following at every stop,” he explained.

While most businesses complained about their client’s inability to make a quick pick-up, Vargas said that had benefited the security of his electronics business. “People used to stop, get off their cars, rob us and then escape quickly,” he said.

But Vargas was among the few that saw any pluses in the red lanes. Many were just neutral about the red lanes and most of those were new businesses on the northbound side of the corridor.

Further down the street, in Mission Bernal, Eden Stein is still holding on at Secession Art & Design boutique and gallery. One of the more vocal complainants at the SFMTA Board of Directors meeting in May 2016, she has seen surrounding businesses go away — as she warned back then.

“Harder accessibility hurts our businesses,” she said. “We used to be en route to work or school, now you need to come directly and go out of your way to get to us.” Outside of an advertising campaign by the SFMTA and Univision to bring shoppers to the street, not much has changed since, she said.

“We are thankful for public transit, but we need a more balanced view,” she added.

La Canasta Produce manager Alfonso Santiago. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

A faster public transit?

To be sure, the SFMTA rolled out the red lanes to make public transportation more efficient.

Data collected by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency since the project began shows a reduction in travel time of two minutes along the corridor, with perceived time savings of 10 minutes, according to the riders interviewed by the agency. The same study shows that vehicle traffic has decreased by about 20 percent on average on Mission Street.

Paul Rose, a spokesman for the SFMTA, said that Mission Street was designated a high-injury corridor, where pedestrian and auto collisions were more common compared to other streets of San Francisco. Since the installation of the corridor, studies by the SFMTA indicate the number of injury collisions are down 23 percent  on the strip from Duboce to Cesar Chavez

Steven Siqueira, a driver of the 14 Rapid bus, said an improvement in fluidity may have been the case right after implementation, but he now barely notices the difference.

“It used to help before the Uber and Lyft explosion,” he said. “Now they are always on the red carpet, picking up passengers, double-parked, and then you have to deal with pedestrians crossing right in front of you.”

Although Uber and Lyft have been around longer, the impact on traffic in San Francisco — and likely on Mission Street as well — spiked in 2016, the year the red lanes went in.  

Passengers of the 14 and 14R lines surveyed during their rides did not notice anything more than a five-minute difference in getting from one place to another. Many complained that this improvement in transit time was worth little if they had to wait longer for the bus to pick them up.

“Nobody’s on time nowadays, everybody’s late,” said Victoria Hernández, a Mission resident on her commute back from South of Market. “I just ride on whichever one comes first, so I don’t have to deal with the cold.”

Rubén Sánchez, who rides either of the 14 lines to the Outer Mission, said the swift, quick rides are only apparent outside of peak hours. “The bus runs faster then, and you save time, but not a lot of people who are in a rush take the bus,” he said.

“People don’t like to walk, anyway, so they just take a Lyft, that makes up more traffic in our same line,” he added.

The SFMTA had no immediate solutions outside of better signage directing visitors to the Hoff and Bartlett parking garages. Merchants offered some solutions — yes, better signage, but also additional garages. They also said the street needs a better procedure for truck deliveries, and better communication in general. The latter, some admit, they too could contribute to.

“They did give us a heads-up before the red lane was installed, but the Latino community did not wake up to it to say enough is enough, or did not care enough until it was too late,” said Carla Rodríguez, a saleswoman at SF Tropical bazaar.

The 14R on Mission near 22nd. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Unsure where to turn

Whatever side of the debate they fell into, only seven merchants said they belonged to any umbrella organization that furthers their interests. Some had tried and lost trust in organizations and one said the association she belonged to had disappeared.

“We used to be part of a Chinese merchants group,” Bonita’s Yeung said, “but so many retail stores have closed that the union had no more members.”

“No one represents our small businesses anymore, and some merchants don’t even care about it, they don’t talk about it” complained Ferrusquia, from Latin Bridal. “That is how our traditions go away, and our community disappears.”

Juan Gutierrez from the Sandwich Place scoffed at the notion of representation. In the 40 years he has been in the Mission, he said, he had never met anyone from the city government or organizations that helped business owners in the district.

“They’re not representing nobody, and if I were representing the Mission I’d be talking bologna. And I sell bologna, and I’m good at it,” he said.

He once joined the Mission Merchants Association, he said, but gave up on being a member when he saw how inactive they had been.

Five of the merchants surveyed mentioned they had turned to the Mission Economic Development Agency for legal support when going through specific problems with their landlords.

Ernesto Cabello, owner of Ernesto’s Hair Salon, said the MUNI red carpet lanes have ruined his business. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

For now, many seem caught in watching business disappear

“If you wanted something new, something fresh, you came to the Mission. Whatever it was. Nowadays, no one comes and businesses are going under,” said Gutiérrez as he cooked meat, spread mayonnaise on slices of bread and waited for customers at The Sandwich Place, which his family has owned for 40 years.

Before the addition of the red bus lanes, customers would park, grab a sandwich and drive off in minutes. Now those customers don’t want to bother.

“How are you going to destroy something that has been in the Mission for so long?” Gutierrez asked as he wrapped a hoagie in paper.

Ernesto Cabello of Ernesto’s Hair Salon, between 16th and 17th streets, sat alone on a recent weekday. Once, he said, his salon had been filled. Now, he can sleep in the middle of the day because he has so few customers. Mention the red lanes and he snaps awake.

“When I first opened three years ago, this was all full,” he said.” They’ve made a disaster out here in the Mission,” he said. “San Francisco is just not made for these red lanes.”

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  1. The solution for people that just have to have cars/drivers, is to put a subway underneath Mission, linking to Transbay. Less above ground busses, more spots for cars, faster transit. However, like with the Van Ness mess, the merchants would hate that idea as well. Nobody wants real solutions, sadly.

      1. The disruption caused by the construction of that subway in the 1960s and 1970s drove the previous businesses away paving the way for the current Latino-serving businesses to come in.

  2. As a bus rider, I wish they had smoothed out the roadway before just painting all the bumps and dips red. The rides are so bouncy it’s hard to read a book, write a text, or do a Sudoku puzzle.

  3. The closet communists who run San Francisco today, are as clueless as the blatant communists of 100 years ago as to how destructive their unsustainable magical thinking is. One day the straw will come that will break the camels back. It’s not if, but when.

  4. It sounds like what used to help the businesses was easier double parking; the red carpet lanes definitely made that harder. I don’t think we want to actually encourage double parking, but why can’t we just convert a bunch more of the curb spaces to 3 or 15 minute loading zones?

    1. Some (most?) business owners would oppose the removal of parking spots as well. Loading zone might be nice for places that specialize in pick up orders but not the bridal shops of cowboy shoe shops.

      1. Ok, but if you’re making a special trip from Vallejo to the bridal shop (which, I learn in the course of checking its exact location, has a 2 star Yelp average and an owner who yells back at unhappy customers, so that might just have more to do with the lack of business than bus lanes) surely you can park at the 351-space Mission-Bartlett Garage a block and a half away. There’s also a lot on Capp, parking at the El Capitan Hotel, 16th and Hoff Garage, 17th and Folsom garage, the Lilac and 24th St lot, etc… Nobody drives to the Mission from as far as Redding, discovers there’s a bus lane there, and turns around and goes home empty-handed; that’s not a coherent thing that actual human beings do.

        The authors of this article had the time to talk to 73 businesses, but I wish they had talked to 73 Muni riders as well.

  5. I drive to Mission st often. Parking is really not that hard. either a side street or the parking garage on 22nd works just fine. maybe people don’t like to walk a couple of blocks and they are used to just parking in front of their destination. however I have lived here all my life and parking on Mission wasn’t really a dream before the red lanes either. Also interesting to note that Latino population in the Mission is about the same now as in the 70’s. I think these businesses are underestimating the impact of online shopping on their business. I will also note that none of these businesses have seemed to change or evolve in the last 20 years and many of them still sell the same dated wares in further deteriorating spaces. Perhaps their clientele have found better options.

  6. It seems to me that one of the losses for the corridor is just being reminded of what is there. I used to drive frequently down Mission Street and would see the stores and restaurants and remember “Oh yeah, I should go back to Taqueria Cancún, they have great vegetarian burritos,” or “I forgot about that other thrift store, because I am still crying over the loss of Thrift Town, but I should check that one out.” But now you can’t just drive down Mission Street. You are either forced to turn right, or can never turn left. So I just avoid it, with the outcome being that I forget what’s there. (And if I’m on public transportation from the Mission, it’s usually BART.) If they are going to have the red lanes, they should find a real way to promote and support the businesses which are affected. Maybe free parking with validation for the local parking lots?

  7. This public transit user cares what drivers want or need to about the same degree that most drivers care what public transit users need – which is not at all. Red lanes should be reinforced with physical barriers to keep cars out so that the lanes really work to?speed busses That said, having the red lanes on South Van Ness always made more sense to me, especially since there was a dramatic improvementwhen bus service was moved there temporarily.

  8. Is there any data supporting the claim that red lanes are responsible for these declines in business?

    How do red lanes hinder access to these business — besides the removal of a few parking places? I walk, bike, and take the bus all the time, and I don’t have a problem getting to any of these businesses. What’s the theory?

    (I believe the SFMTA studied how people get to Mission St, and most use transit or walk.)

    I think if you drove all the way from Vallejo or Redding, and you couldn’t find cheap / free parking, you’d pay to park. There are several pay lots in the area.

    And the lack of left turns just means you have to do clockwise circles instead of counterclockwise. So what?

    And why can’t you take a dress on BART? Don’t they come in boxes that fit in large shopping bags?

    1. And, what about all the additional customers that would beablt to get there because of efficient transit. I tend to eat out at West Portal, even though the Mission is no farther, because it is much easier to get there – no car or parking required.

    2. ZM hit the nail on the head. You used to be able to drive all the way down Mission street and check out what’s there. People drive to the Mission from other SF neighborhoods, not just folks from BFE. As a former resident of the Richmond district, I used to drive to the Mission 3-4 days per week or more. As a Mission resident, I would often take Mission street to get toward the 280. Often people look at neighborhoods in their cars on the way to a meeting or friends houses and then visit the area later after seeing cool stores/restaurants. These are the type of folks that the red lanes effected. It may not be a ton of people, but can represent 10-20% of sales which is enough to put struggling businesses out of business.

      Put the red lanes on Van Ness!

      1. You can still drive your private car all the way on Mission. If you want to be a drive by shopper have at it. The same stores have the same cheap dated products they’ve always had so feast your eyes on the past.

      2. That’s the problem — too many people driving, which causes congestion, pollution, collisions, slow transit, unsafe streets, etc.

        Get out of your car and walk around the neighborhood. That’s the best way to find cool stores / restaurants.

  9. “Since the installation of the corridor, studies by the SFMTA indicate the number of injury collisions are down 23 percent on the strip from Duboce to Cesar Chavez.” This alone is a great reason to support the red lines. Anecdotally I can tell you that Mission Street feels much safer and calmer since the red lanes went in.

    My business has been on Mission Street for almost 10 years. I wish they’d talked with me during the survey.

    Also I’d second the comment about driving to town to buy a bridal dress. If you can afford to do that, you can afford to park at one of the many parking garages a block away from Mission Street.

  10. The improvements from the red lanes totaled a whopping 2 minutes for people who commute through our neighborhood. Much of those savings came from eliminating stops at odd numbered streets, inconveniencing seniors and people with disabilities. That minimal speed up for others was balanced on the backs of Mission corridor locals, people and businesses.

    The SF Examiner had a piece about extending the Central Subway to the Presidio through the Marina. It disclosed that the MTA had proposed red lanes on Chestnut, but community opposition put the kibosh on that plan. Why is it that the Marina gets to stop these treatments while the MTA steamrolls over the Mission?

    Could this be the basis for a Title VI equity complaint?

    1. Marcos is right on that eliminating stops is a rotten deal for seniors and people with disabilities, as well as for people carrying bags, traveling with children, or riding MUNI late at night or early in the morning.

  11. Not much data here to back up merchants’ claims, especially since SFMTA found that most people shop on Mission by foot or bus or BART. Pretty typical merchant hatred for anything not a car, but seems to me their real enemy is Amazon and a failure to evolve.

  12. These red lanes are hideous, remove parking spaces and do nothing to speed up buses.

    More buses/trolleys are needed, esp. after 10.

  13. So these merchants by their own admission are failing because their customers moved away, but they’re blaming the city instead of moving with their customers or changing to accommodation their new neighbors? What a bunch of crybabies. Why are we supposed to care? Let them fail. Adapt or die, that’s basic capitalism.

  14. My business has been on Mission for 6 years and most of my customers are initially found via foot traffic or from the bus stop directly out front. My loyal repeat customers mostly don’t have cars anyways and if they do they always seem to find parking when needed. When they must pick up furniture purchases we help by dollying them out to the loading zones on the block. They make it work. We make it work. I haven’t seen any change in business that I attribute to the red lanes, but rather to online purchases and fluctuations in the economy since Trump took office.

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