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

Mission District anti-gentrification activists made one thing clear to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Tuesday night: They do not want the bus-only red lanes the transit agency has planned for 16th Street.

“You gave us two years to stop them from being painted — now tell us how!” said Rick Hall, a member of United to Save The Mission, a coalition of neighborhood activists, echoing the sentiments of many in the room.

The tense meeting, attended by roughly 40 people at El Centro Del Pueblo at 16th and Valencia, concerned MTA’s “16th Street Improvement Project,” which was approved in January 2016 and proposes a slew of changes and additions to the 16th Street corridor. Those include bus-priority traffic signals, pedestrian signals, bike lanes, and of course, the bus-only red lanes.

The project is slated to wrap up in 2021 and is expected to cost $67.5 million. It is being undertaken in two phases. The first focuses on improvements from Third Street to Potrero Avenue, and the second phase will be along the busier stretch from Potrero to Church Street.

The staunch resistance to the red lanes is buttressed by the common complaint of Mission Street merchants that the lanes are to blame for a decline in business. Businesses argue that the lanes have limited parking on Mission Street and that restricting left turns onto the corridor further limits accessibility.

“We can’t support the new project until you fix the problems of the old one,” said a woman who gave her name as Susan.

The meeting, organized by the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club and United to Save the Mission, saw MTA officials on the defensive as they had to explain the project had already been approved by the MTA board, and that the improvements will, in the end, make commuting along the corridor easier.

Sarah Bernstein Jones, a project manager with the SFMTA, admitted that the effects of installing red transit lanes on Mission Street on small businesses and their customers “wasn’t something that was focused on in depth.”

But, with the forthcoming 16th Street project, she said MTA will focus on balancing the needed transit improvements with needs of businesses and community members.

While the meeting wrapped up amicably, there were a few heated exchanges. At one point, Kate McCarthy — an MTA Public Outreach and Engagement Manager — suggested that the frustrated community members seek recourse through Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office.

“We have no legal recourse to make you do or not do red lanes anywhere,” retorted Carolina Morales, a legislative aide in Ronen’s office.

McCarthy then said that the MTA Board is “unlikely to undo” the project’s approval without “political pressure” via Ronen’s office.

“I feel like there is a little bit of a distraction here,” Morales told McCarthy. “It feels like it’s damaging the relationship a little bit,” adding that McCarthy was sending the message that Ronen had the power to prevent the lanes from being painted. “That’s not the case.”

Another undercurrent of the discussion was that the MTA board approved the project without significant community process. The community members felt as though the improvement was a sop to benefit future commuters to the burgeoning Mission Bay neighborhood that has been home to San Francisco’s biotech and tech industries and will soon feature the new Golden State Warriors arena.

Many community members, including Paula Tejada (right), shared their discontent with what they said was MTA’s lack of process for this project. Photo by Julian Mark.


“Why we’re so agitated and why we’re so upset is because this is not about transit first — this about equity first,” said Lucia Obregon, a community leadership development manager with the Mission Economic Development Agency. “The Mission has been planned on top of without its input.”  

But others, like Cat Carter, a Mission resident and a member of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, said she supported the red lanes and argued that they do, indeed, promote equity. Carter said the lanes cut her commute down from 60 minutes to only 30 minutes.  

“It’s not the gentry on the bus,” she said. “It’s a lot of families, a lot of locals, a lot of seniors, a lot of disabled people, a lot of low-income people … a lot of different people getting around.”

The ridership of the 14-Mission, Carter asserted, don’t have the time to come to meetings like the one held last night.

“Who pays you?” yelled several people in the room, including Hall, the activist.

Kevin Ortiz, an organizer with United To Save The Mission, had to tell participants to take a deep breath at points during the meeting.

“Nobody is against having the ability to take transit,” he said, explaining he uses the bus to get to work. “I’m all for transit — but not at the expense of community and the lack of process that’s gone into it.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. There are literally HUNDREDS of units of affordable housing for low income families (e.g. larger 2 and 3 bedroom units) that are currently under construction, either on or in the vicinity of 16th Street: 490 South Van Ness (81 units) 1950 Mission (157 units) 1990 Folsom (143), and 2060 Folsom (127 units). MEDA is a co-developer of the latter two. None of these four projects will provide a single off-street parking space for tenants. It’s safe to assume that future residents of these buildings will be reliant on the bus for commuting to work and patronizing local businesses. It’s very shortsighted and reactive of MEDA and USM to advocate against the transit only lines, but I’m not surprised at that.

    I get it, not everyone can depend on a bus or a bicycle for their transportation needs, but not everyone can depend on a car either. If one simply must use a car to get around the Mission, 14th and 15th Street are still available as alternatives, much like Guerrero and South Van Ness are available for motorists as an alternative to the transit and bicycle thoroughfares of Mission and Valencia Streets. (I myself commute by car to an office on Valencia and 16th Street every workday).

    I will concede that the SFMTA is not a paragon of transparency and good governance.

  2. The reality is:
    1. The SFMTA is not to be trusted. They have a dismal record of listening to community. They have allowed Tech busses to run rampant over community streets contributing to wear and tear to our streets with no recompense. These buses make it easy for well paid Tech workers to gentrify the Mission and SFMTA has allowed no public input into their decision making process on this matter.
    2. The Mission is achanging, gentrification is pushing out low income, the elderly, people of color and others who have called it home for generations. Unfortunately, no one she’d a tear for the Mission, just as they did for the Western Addition (now called NOPA) and they will for BVHP. Too busy leaving or counting their money. Business that catterred to the old Mission will close. Business favored by New comers will Thrive, Bus Lanes or No.
    3. San Francisco does’nt work for the little folk any more. You want action, organize a 1,000 people and pay a visit to the Mayor. And Ms Ronen, our Supervisor, she tries and is good hearted, but she is only 1 on a council of 11. All you have to do is look at the number of affordable versus market rate units in the pipeline to see the proof.

    Have a nice day.

  3. At some point a count of who supported, opposed or was undecided about the red lanes was taken among those present and the vote was heavily weighted against the red lanes.

    This story about the expansion of red lanes does not exist in a vacuum. SFMTA just admitted to massive expensive and dangerous mistakes and coverups that have been widely reported in the media. Many complaints about these abuses were reported for months by the public and exposed in the media. Why did it take so long for our city officials to listen to the public? It is not hard to understand why people do not trust the SFMTA plans to impose more changes on the communities that oppose them.

    Long before SFMTA management admitted to wrong-doing, coverups and lies, and long before the bridges, overpasses and Transbay terminal started crumbling, a long line of public commenters, whistleblowers and investigative reporters have gone on the record of warning city officials about abuses at the SFMTA. We know it is a failed department. The news reports daily on the breakdown of the transit and traffic systems. Why did it took City Hall so long to figure it out and admit what we all knew?

    The real lesson our government needs to learn from the disaster is:
    – The public is not stupid and should determine what the SFMTA does with their money.
    – The public should request the changes. SFMTA staff should execute them.
    – If the public wants a traffic light, or a scramble as a protective measure they should get what they ask for, not speed bumps, traffic circles and bulbouts.
    – If the riding public should determine the seat configuration on the new buses not the SFMTA.

  4. There are many factors negatively affecting retail businesses in San Francisco, so I doubt very much red lanes are a significant factor. Some things that probably are? Online shopping and Higher ground rents. In any case, data is what is lacking here. But these community groups don’t seem interested in data that contravenes their heartfelt belief that transit friendly changes are their neighborhoods’ nemesis. In fact, they are under siege in a financial sense, so any changes, even good ones, seem threatening to them.

    1. I have to wonder if some Mission merchants realize they’re in competition with other businesses and business districts.

      Just one block over, business seems to be booming on Valencia Street since it was redesigned 10 years ago: wider sidewalks and traffic calming, street trees, activities like Sunday Streets, etc. Castro was redesigned a few years ago as well, providing more competition.

      Mission Street hasn’t received any corridor improvements to remain competitive while the City spent millions of dollars making Valencia more welcoming.

      1. Agree completely with both observations. In an ongoing deluge of change, even good change is suspect to groups that would prefer to dig in than look at data. It’s turning into obstruction for obstruction’s sake because successful thwarting can be perceived as a victory, even if the outcome is negative for the thwarters.

        An earlier example of this flawed logic is Chris Daly’s refusal to allow city trees to be planted in his district because he regarded them as the beginning of gentrification. Better to keep his district dirty and dangerous to preserve its authenticity than do anything to incent people from other parts of the city to visit and spend money.

        As for Mission street, it’s looked dingy and depressing for the 20+ years I’ve been living on Folsom near 22nd – and the red lanes have neither accelerated or slowed the street’s decline. I can’t imagine that red lanes on 16th street would do anything but improve what’s currently a traffic nightmare.

      2. The Castro is closing up shops at an accelerating rate. Just recently long time and (once?) popular Firewood on 18th.
        No red lanes up there.

  5. Can someone please explain to me how “the community” would put the narrow interests of a few businesses that are already shaky and at risk of closure over the broader interests of transit riders, residents, seniors, people with disabilities, poor people, a priori, no questions asked?

    When there are two valid competing interests at play, and organizations only represent one of those interests under color of “the community,” then I’d say that those organizations do not accurately represent the interests of residents of “the community.”

    To wit, the Mission Street redesign, in addition to red lanes, halved the number of Muni stops along the Mission corridor. Do we need to do the research to conclude that Mission street businesses get more customers by foot and transit than by private auto? Making customers walk twice as far, a feat more challenging for seniors and people with disabilities and mobility challenges hardly seems to be representing the interests of “the community.”

    Now the land use patterns on Mission and 16th are different. TO the extent that red lanes might have contributed to destabilizing small business on Mission, the blocks of 16th from Guerrero to South Van Ness are much less reliant on autos. To the contrary, that part of16th has gentrified to the extent that Ubers/Lyft deliver more customers than private autos. Yet on the narrow roadway, these TNCs snarl the 22 Fillmore. Unlike the 14, where red lanes were superfluous to BART if someone is in a hurry, there are no rapid alternatives to the 22 Fillmore. Far from being a gentrified line, the 22 Fillmore runs from Potrero Hill to The Mission to the Western Addition before the line changes color at Geary. From South Van Ness to Potrero, land use intensities drop and auto reliance by businesses becomes somewhat greater warranting different considerations.

    :The organization of organizations approach of “United to Save the Mission” has been tried for decades now. With that model of organizing, the record of substantive loss has been near universal. When USM coming down on business interests over residential and transit rider interest, USM, Calle 24 and the LDC have taken steps to continue that terrible legacy.

    There is no objective case for prioritizing the interests of businesses over flesh and blood human beings. These interests must be balanced according to the land use realities on the ground, not ideological groupthink imperative.

  6. Joe,

    Remember that line from that movie?

    “I say it here and it comes out there?”

    Anyway, I bitched while watching out my window that
    while the City had did a great job to begin (and, no way
    finish) a bike lane pilot project under my window at
    14th and Valencia, they had not bothered to scrub the
    new work and instead, allowed it to become crusted with
    the crap and debris of the neighborhood.

    Hey, they listened for 30 minutes and there was some kind
    of new machine out there (what that cost?) that didn’t seem
    to spray water but nevertheless made that image?

    They made 3 passes under my window for show and I did
    not hear them cleaning any of the remainder of the brand
    new multi-million dollar project.

    Hey, I’ve tried the Supervisors.

    Only the Mayor can order and get done this completion.

    It is beautiful.

    It is incomplete.

    It is filthy.

    We have plenty of water.

    Please, dear God, London … use it!

    Go Warriors!


  7. So, where’s the water?

    The City just spent millions on a pilot bike lane project
    under my window on Valencia and it is now a filthy mess.

    I’m walking to get my paper every morning and the new
    paint and curb jobs are getting filthier and filthier.

    Suddenly, I recalled when we used to have these hug
    water scrub machines that came through once a week or?

  8. These red lanes and no left turn intersections are all about making it easier for ‘through commuters’ going downtown or to Mission Bay. They definitely make it much harder to frequent local businesses in the Mission. I’ve lived here for 15 years and that is my experience.

    1. I’ve lived here for just as long. I ride the 49 to work every day and the red lanes have shaved at least 10 minutes off my commute in each direction, every day. That’s worth its weight in gold to me.

      But also, visiting local businesses on Mission St has never been easier for someone who lives in the Mission, because a bus can now just zip you wherever you need to go between 14th and 30th in a few minutes.

  9. If red bus lanes are the cause of empty storefronts on Mission as activists charge, what explains the all the shuttered businesses on Cortland and upper 24th? Small merchants this site has interviewed blame e-commerce. But hey, it’s hard to yell at Amazon, and easy to yell at MTA.

  10. These red lanes make the commute easier? When you’re forced to take right turns on Mission. It’s never been so bad I was born and raised here

    1. They make the commute easier for people on the buses. Statistically, buses carry more people than cars. I gave up my car for walking and public transit. That’s how I got around SF 60 years ago as a child. I realize it’s a luxury to not need a car even though riding the bus is far from luxurious.

    2. Alberto, if you drive to work in San Francisco you are creating greenhouse gasses and are super rich so San Francisco doesn’t want you.

      1. Some drive cars out of lack of choice, some cannot walk distances, not everyone has the ability to take public transportation. So let’s drop the I’m better than you argument and support red lanes not because others are evil, but because they make sense.

        1. >Some drive cars out of lack of choice, some cannot walk distances, not everyone has the ability to take public transportation.

          And so we should encourage every other person to not drive, we should make every other option than driving easier so for those that HAVE to drive, the can arrive at their destination and have parking.

          If you HAVE to drive, it makes sense you’d want less cars on the road.

    3. Alberto, It makes the commute a lot easier and safer for the 60,000 people who use the street daily by riding the bus.

      1. The maximum time savings on the 14/49 due to stop elimination and red lanes between Cesar Chavez and 13th Street is two minutes. That hardly “makes the commute a lot easier.”

        1. An average savings of two minutes on packed bus line is huge. Those two minutes mean Muni can run the same passenger capacity with 4 few buses in service each day. Those are enormous cost savings which easily dwarf any costs and inconveniences associated with the new dedicated bus lanes. It’s because these new bus lanes have been such a success that Muni planning on adding more of them. Bus service is very expensive to operate and Muni has some of the slowest bus service in the world. It makes no sense at all to run inefficient slow bus service by making packed buses yield to a few dozen drivers. All major Muni lines should have dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal priority. We need efficient public transit, which is impossible when packed buses are idling in traffic.

          1. You can’t seriously expect for me to believe that a 4% savings on run times can provide 4 vehicle/day’s worth of savings.

            There are 15 14 Mission buses on the streets now. Are you suggesting that in the past before the red lanes that there were 19 buses on the streets?

            That is not credible.

        2. But 2 minutes times 60,000 riders a day, is 2000 hours of saved commuting time for bus riders.

          1. You realize that for commuters in a hurry to get from downtown along Mission Street, that the 14 Mission surface lines track the rapid grade separated BART line, right?

            I agree that the time savings economically for riders outweighs the interests of small businesses. But the trade off need not be made because of BART.

            And then there are the impacts on senior riders and riders living with mobility challenges due to stop elimination that never gets included in the trade off equations.

  11. I went to that meeting and on the same block as Centro del Pueblo on 16th St. I think part of the reason it seemed like there was “staunch resistance” to the red lanes was because it was a very intimidating environment. It was really only a few loud, angry people driving the whole discussion. People were hissing right from the very beginning of the meeting when the staff were being introduced. The moderator was clearly biased against the lanes, people were yelling and clapping and jeering at the SFMTA staff. I know there were many who *did* support the lanes in the crowd, but felt intimidated by the angry mob environment.

  12. Doesn’t the city have the sales tax data from before and after the red lanes were implemented on Mission? Why don’t they use it to get closer to the truth on whether the red lanes actually hurt business or not? The willful refusal to use actual data is nuts.

    1. The Mission is changing and the businesses along Mission suffer from that. I don’t think you could disentangle one from the other.

      1. I agree that this sort of data would be really difficult to interpret. Legacy retail, in general, is suffering in the age of Amazon and ‘fast fashion’, independent retail especially. Compounded even further with an ever-changing neighborhood. Perhaps using 2 chain-store locations as a control group for same-store sales before and after the transit lanes could work, but other than McDonald’s we don’t have many locations to A/B.

        I understand the red carpet lanes on Mission have caused some issues for some people but in my experience, they’ve opened Mission back up again (by making the 14/49 faster than walking) as a place I’d run a quick errand of hit a bar/restaurant a few blocks further down the road.

        I can’t say what happened at this meeting but I will say you’ll never see someone as mad as a small business owner that just learned they can’t park in front of their store anymore.

  13. Not only don’t most 14-Mission and 22-Fillmore riders have time to come to these meetings, they wouldn’t have found out about it anyway. Latino Democratic Club made no attempt to promote their meeting to riders, post signs at bus stops, or anything. They wanted a stacked meeting so they could generate this article, and they got it.

    Real community outreach that included Muni riders found 88% support for transit-only lanes on 16th.

  14. these people aren’t “activists”, they’re motorists who don’t ride the bus. the 14 ridership clearly didnt become whiter and richer as a result of the red lanes.

  15. “I’m all for transit — but not at the expense of community”

    And that just goes to show United To Save The Mission has no clue what “community” they’re supposed to be serving. Sitting on the bus on 16th St is a slow miserable experience. The community, which overwhelmingly does not get around in single-occupant vehicles, wants and deserves better transit.

    1. 100% agree. And using tech workers in Mission Bay as a justification for blocking *transit* improvements? High-paid folks drive themselves, ride shuttles, or take uber/lyft—they most certainly aren’t the crowd riding through the Mission on buses. SMH