Many merchants often dread street construction projects because they fear it will keep shoppers away from their stores, rarely considering the impacts everyday automobile traffic has on business. They’re more likely to defend automobile traffic and parking based on the myth that most of their customers drive .
But on Stockton Street in the Union Square shopping district, the response to construction on the Central Subway project from some business owners is turning that illusion on its head.
“One of the unexpected surprises during construction is the merchants’ positive reaction on how the shopping experience has been improved with the removal of automobile traffic in spite of the significant construction in the area,” SFMTA Central Subway Project Manager John Funghi told the SFMTA Board of Directors yesterday.
During construction, access on Stockton Street is limited to people walking and biking, Muni buses, tour buses, and taxis, reducing the amount of noise and danger present on the road from private automobiles. Even with officers directing traffic and pedestrians rerouted into a temporary narrow passageway, the benefits seem to outweigh the negative impacts.
“I think any time you remove cars from the road, it does improve the pedestrian experience,” said Linda Mjellem of the Union Square Business Improvement District. “Construction’s never clean. There’s dust and noise, and I think everyone understands that.”
A lack of merchant support has historically been one of the largest obstacles to implementing projects to calm auto traffic, replace parking spots, or otherwise restrict car access in favor of more people-friendly streets. However, the tide seems to be turning as business owners see that the sky doesn’t fall.
One shining example is the “mega-parklet” promenade project  that has been approved to extend the crowded sidewalks on Powell Street. A pilot project gained merchant support despite the loss of parking and construction is expected to begin later this year.
Ironically, restricting automobile traffic to improve speeds on the 30-Stockton and other Muni buses that use the Stockton corridor has been the flagship alternative offered by opponents of the massive capital project. Private automobile traffic has often been reported among the top factors slowing Muni service.
At the SFMTA Board’s last public meeting, Director Cheryl Brinkman pointed out that drivers seem to be adjusting to the changes on Stockton.
“When it was first closed to automobiles, Post Street was a mess the first week,” she said. “But as time went on, and cars realized they couldn’t go down Stockton Street and they had to turn left on Post, it’s dissipated.”
Even shoppers who do drive appear to be able to access the parking garage just as easily, noted Mjellem. “There’s nothing that would indicate that people are frustrated and that they’re not coming. They’re still coming,” she said.