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Mission Madness: How Effective is the Big Meeting Format for Outreach?

SFMTA's Matt Brill addresses a boisterous crowd on Mission Street. Photo: Streetsblog
SFMTA's Matt Brill addresses a boisterous crowd about Mission Street. Photo: Streetsblog

Roberto Hernandez, the "Monarch of the Mission," didn't put down the microphone when his two minutes were up. Heavy set, with his trademark fedora, he had already gone several minutes past the cut-off alarm, shouting about how someone with seven children can't possibly ride the bus, reminiscing about riding a bike before there were bike lanes in San Francisco, and generally cursing SFMTA and the Mission Street transit-only "red lanes" that he connected with the ills of gentrification. At least, that seemed to be what he was saying, in addition to something about lowriders. It was difficult to understand, thanks to all the boos, hisses, and cheers, with roughly half the crowd shouting, "your two minutes are up!" or "cut off his mic" and the other half shouting, "Let him speak!"

It's a scene that seems to play out every time SFMTA holds one of these large community meetings about whatever fill-in-the-blank project. Someone will take over the mic, break the rules, and whip the room into a lather.

But Monday night's meeting was especially bad.

It must have been 85 degrees at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. That's probably because 200 people crammed into the space to support--and bemoan--the SFMTA's transit-only "red carpet" lanes installed last March on Mission. Or maybe the heat was from the smoldering rage, seemingly intensified by the thudding noise from a dance class above that vibrated throughout the meeting room, which is also an art space.

That said, before the raucous meeting officially got underway, Streetsblog was able to talk one-on-one with a few of the attendees and presenters.

Blow back continues to SFMTA's red-painted, transit only lanes on Mission. Photo: Streetsblog.
Blowback continues to SFMTA's red-painted, transit-only lanes on Mission. Photo: Streetsblog.

Marie Sorenson, a Mission resident who doesn't like the red lanes and claims they have "ruined Mission Street," handed out postcards that read:

StopSFMTA. The agency is out of control. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse SFMTA unleashes a Major New Crisis on Mission Street. They are coming for your street next! Confusing everyone with meaningless signs and paint...stop SFMTA - tell city Hall you have had ENUF.

"Business is down 30 to 60 percent," she said, but couldn't provide evidence for the claim. This reflects a common assertion--usually unsubstantiated--from businesses when streets are given transit enhancements or bike lanes.

Sam Murphy is a photographer who lives in Bernal Heights and who came to the meeting with her bike helmet in hand. "Mission is safer," she said. "I use it on my route from home to Noe." She said the bus lanes--and reduction in auto lanes--makes it safer for cyclists too. "You don't have buses weaving in and out" to get to the curb, she said. She came to the meeting to hear what the proposed "tweaks" to the lanes were all about.

Ben Udelson, who works in pharmaceuticals, came to the meeting because of parking on Mission. "The bus bulbs take parking spots," he said. He also wants parking to stay cheap at "about $2 per hour, because private companies would charge $6 to $8 an hour."

Basem El-Kurd, the owner of Mike's Groceries and Liquors on 21st and Mission, was not happy about the transit lanes and came to the meeting to "learn what's going on. We're having difficulty with deliveries because parking is hard to come by."

Edward Reiskin, Director of Transportation of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), stressed, in a side interview with Streetsblog, that there's no intention to remove the lanes and the meeting is "to get a better understanding" from the public and to look at "what's working and hear what people think." Supervisor David Campos, who asked SFMTA to hold the meeting in the first place, said "contrary to the misinformation, this is not about eliminating the transit lanes. It's to hear from the people on all sides of the issue."

Campos spoke during the meeting's introduction. "I asked that this meeting happen in this community, rather than at City Hall," he said. "I put out a Facebook statement that maybe didn't reflect our goal... our goal is to hear all the impacts: the positive, the negative, and all in between."

He also asked the audience to disagree without "being disagreeable." But even that statement was met with a cat call. Reiskin pointed out that Mission was identified as a "high injury corridor" and that the new bus lanes have already sped up travel times and reduced the number of injuries.

Roberto Hernandez and Supervisor David Campos at the Mission meeting. Photo: Streetsblog.
Roberto Hernandez and Supervisor David Campos before the start of the Mission meeting. Photo: Streetsblog.

SFMTA reported handing out over forty speaker cards, for a meeting that lasted well into the evening. Roughly half the speakers were against the transit lanes, with one accusing SFMTA of intentionally trying to drive out businesses and another urging the city to "just bring back Mission like it was."

But for every objection, there were speakers in support, including from advocacy groups such as the San Francisco Transit Riders, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and Walk San Francisco. "The transit lanes are making Muni better for more people and resulting in fewer crashes," said Cathy DeLuca, Walk San Francisco's Program and Policy Manager, speaking over boos and groans from the audience.

SFMTA also plans to conduct "merchant walks in the project area, and a survey of residents and visitors on Mission Street" to get a more comprehensive picture of residents' concerns.

Which begs the question: maybe it's time to abandon the "big meeting" strategy of outreach altogether. After a similar meeting about transit changes on Taraval, Supervisor Katy Tang opted to hold smaller group meetings to hear reasoned comments and less shouting. And BART is already taking a different strategy: setting up outreach tables in train stations rather than community centers.

And maybe that's the way to go. Because with all the heat, shouting and anger, it's unclear exactly what this meeting accomplished that can't be done far more effectively by other means.

Christina Castro, who spoke in favor of the lanes for the San Francisco Transit Riders, catches her breath at the back of the sweltering room full of angry people Monday night. Photo: Streetsblog.
Christina Castro, who spoke in favor of the lanes for the San Francisco Transit Riders, catches her breath at the back of the sweltering room full of angry people Monday night. Photo: Streetsblog.

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