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. 

“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.  

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.”