Confusion over a transit project designed to improve bus service on San Bruno Avenue in the Portola District, pictured, has angered Cantonese speaking area residents.

Flare-up between SF and Chinese merchants reveals Muni’s inadequate translation services

A small, simple transportation project meant to speed up buses for 42,000 San Franciscans has sputtered out of control.

A small, simple transportation project meant to speed up buses for 42,000 San Franciscans has sputtered out of control.

A community of merchants on San Bruno Avenue grew outraged. Transit officials back-tracked. The dance of transit versus parking played out for the umpteenth time, but also widened the chasm of distrust between a predominantly Chinese-speaking community and city government, those involved said.

The cause? Like any good relationship — in this case, between The City and its people — it boiled down to communication, they said.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is walking back parts of its San Bruno Avenue Improvement Project after spotty Cantonese translation at a community meeting, and months of missed outreach opportunities, said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the neighborhood.

“I have a group of long-term merchants that feel lied to, disrespected, and ignored,” she said. “I share their anger myself.”

The San Bruno Improvement Project, much like other transit projects in San Francisco, was set to make small tweaks to city streets to make lasting, impactful changes to bus lines serving thousands of people.

In this case, 39 parking spaces were eliminated to allow more room for the 9R-San Bruno Rapid and the 8/8-AX Bayshore bus lines to have more room to stop for 42,000 daily riders, and for pedestrian safety improvements meant to help all.

The San Bruno Improvement Project was approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors in the fall of 2016, and the spaces were removed to little fanfare in 2017. So why the dustup now?

Neighbors grew concerned when SFMTA began to add final construction touches to the project in October, including sidewalk changes to make loading bus passengers easier, and proposals to move a bus stop from outside a Walgreens.

But translation errors and other miscommunications led to neighbors thinking an additional 39 parking spaces would be removed. The confusion was brought to light by two local Chinese-language newspapers this week, the World Journal and Sing Tao Daily.

“There is a misconception” that roughly 39 spaces will be removed now, Erica Kato, an SFMTA spokesperson said. But, she added, “that’s not true.”

There was already much confusion.

In late October, Ronen wrote a stern letter to SFMTA tasking them with restoring parking to the community. Merchants claimed the SFMTA initially communicated fewer parking spaces would be removed.

Throughout November, Ronen tried to smooth things over between SFMTA and the San Bruno merchants. But at a planned Nov. 21 community meeting at the Portola Branch Library, things went awry.

SFMTA had no official translation staff present. The transportation project’s manager spoke some Cantonese, but only sparingly, people who attended the community meeting told the San Francisco Examiner.

In the end, Ronen’s legislative aide Jennifer Li ended up playing translator. That also proved problematic, considering Li was trying to serve a role as a neutral party between the community and the transportation agency.

“They had no interpreters,” Li said. “It does put me in a thorny position. I had to say, ‘by the way, I’m not SFMTA. By the way, I’m not SFMTA.’ I had to say it like five times. I had to say, ‘This is not what Supervisor Ronen believes.’”

Hazel Lee, president of the Shanghai Association, which represents the merchants, said the meeting was “disrespectful.”

“They’re angry,” Lee said of the merchants. No written materials were provided in Chinese, even though many of the merchants only speak Cantonese.

“At least with paper we could translate, but even in English we don’t [sic] receive a letter,” she said.

Federal guidelines dictate SFMTA must employ strategies to engage minority, low-income and “limited english proficient” populations in its planning and programming because the agency receives federal funds, according to SFMTA documents.

That means, according to SFMTA, they must “ensure meaningful access to transit-related programs and activities by persons with limited-English proficiency.”

The agency does employ translation staff, SFMTA confirmed. It is unclear why such staff were not deployed at the November meeting.

But SFMTA is missing out on many simple ways to engage monolingual Chinese communities, said Queena Chen, co-chair of the Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project, a longstanding advocacy group.

“They do such great work, but they have a hard time explaining their logic,” Chen said.

Chen was quick to point to how many robust avenues English-speakers have to be notified of late buses and trains, for instance: There are live updates on Twitter, outreach on Facebook, and digital alerts of myriad types in English.

But San Francisco’s Chinese community primarily uses the mobile phone-app WeChat to communicate with relatives back in China, and with each other in The City. SFMTA has no Chinese-language WeChat presence.

The Chinese community also uses QR codes frequently, which are elaborate patterns much like a barcode that can be scanned with a cell phone camera to open a website. If SFMTA used such codes on Muni buses, she said, Chinese seniors may better learn about transit projects.

“It’s an extra step in reaching out to the Chinese community” that SFMTA hasn’t taken, Chen said. “It’s these little issues that add up and lead the community to stop trusting government agencies.”

Even SFMTA’s use of a non-translator at a community meeting was problematic, she said, because “a full translator is able to use more technical terms for people to understand.”

Chen said that even she, as an American-born Chinese person, only has “elementary school level” Cantonese proficiency; for monolingual communities, that’s not good enough to explain complex projects.

Ronen said after she deals with the still-growing rift between San Bruno merchants and SFMTA, she will consider addressing translation concerns for the agency citywide.

In the meantime, SFMTA has restored six parking spaces along San Bruno that were previously removed, the agency said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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