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A majority of San Antonio City Council committee members who will review a bike lane option for a 1-mile section of the Broadway redevelopment project told the Rivard Report this week that they are supportive of the idea.
The consideration of bike lanes, requested by Mayor Ron Nirenberg last week, has received pushback from area property owners and praise from cycling advocates. Some advocates have created their own proposals for the street’s design, but Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and other Council members take issue with interfering with City staff’s proposal.
Nirenberg and others say excluding bike lanes from a mile of Broadway downtown would set a bad precedent for how the City designs its streets for future multimodal use. They say there is room for some kind of protected bike lane if other uses – especially those for cars – are sacrificed. Council’s new Transporation and Mobility Committee likely will consider changes to the City’s design in August.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who chairs that committee, said she’ll “make sure that’s on the agenda first thing.”
Hopefully, she said, the changes will be made “now that the mayor has stepped in.”
The City’s preliminary designs for the $42 million, voter-approved Broadway improvements project excludes bike lanes in the two most narrow, southernmost portions of the street in favor of wider sidewalks, vehicular lanes, and on-street parking that doubles as a service lane for deliveries, bus stops, and ride-share drop-offs/pickups. After speaking with cycling advocates this year, City and consultant designers arrived at a compromise to divert cycling traffic to Avenue B and North Alamo Street, where there is less vehicular traffic and more room for deluxe, separated bike lanes. The City has yet to identify funding for those projects.
Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), members of the committee that will review the issue, signaled support for the inclusion of bike lanes on Broadway this week.
“I think the Councilwoman [Gonzales] is absolutely right to bring this discussion to the forefront because No. 1, we now have a policy of Vision Zero, we now have a policy of ‘complete streets,’ and this is a huge public investment that we’re making on Broadway,” Sandoval said.
Vision Zero was adopted in 2015 to eliminate pedestrian and cyclist deaths on roadways, and the City has a complete street ordinance that requires it to consider alternative modes of transit on street construction – but does not obligate it to actually build infrastructure to accommodate all modes on all streets if not feasible.
“I’m grateful that the opportunity has come up to talk about it because it does pave the way for us to do these kinds of things in my district,” Havrda said, adding that her constituents want to see more complete streets. “I know that there’s … some blowback but we have to walk the walk.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) and Treviño, also members of that committee, support City staff’s proposal as-is.
Squeezing bike lanes into this section would compromise the safety of people using other modes of transportation, Treviño said last week. His district includes downtown and roughly north of downtown to Interstate Loop 410.
“The proposal … to put the bike lanes on streets [one block] off Broadway; I don’t think that’s all that bad,” Perry said. “We have to look out for our businesses … they have to have it convenient for shoppers and others who frequent these businesses [on Broadway].”
City planners expect the commercial – and increasingly residential – corridor to explode with activity as public and private investment continues.
Street design is a zero-sum game; there’s only so much public right-of-way with which to work. Two miles of Broadway north of Interstate 35 to Hildebrand Avenue (the second, northernmost, and unfunded phase of the 2017 bond project) is wider, 110 feet, and the design includes protected bike lanes. The first phase, lower Broadway, narrows to 78 and 72 feet.
Of the four modes of transportation possible – personal vehicle, bus, micromobility (bike and scooter), and walking – getting three out of four would be a win on that narrow section of Broadway, said Art Reinhardt, interim deputy director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department (TCI). So inserting bike lanes would mean the quality of the other modes decreases, he said.
Reinhardt said a substandard bike lane – one with less protection – is possible, but “I think we’re at the point where we want to start doing great [bike] facilities.”
As per the mayor’s request, TCI staff and consultants are looking into the bike lane option by removing a vehicular lane from the lower section, Reinhardt said.
City Council resumes its regular schedule of general and committee meetings in August after its monthlong break.
The Math of a Street
While there is no code-established minimum width for sidewalks, vehicular lanes, and bicycle lanes, designers and engineers follow best practices established by experts, Reinhardt said.
Traffic lanes for non-highway roads are usually designed at a minimum of 12 feet wide, Reinhardt said. TCI has reduced that number before, planning 10-foot lanes for two-way traffic and 11-foot lanes for a one-way street to accommodate buses. The narrow lanes have the added benefit of slowing people down, he said.
Broadway also needs two lanes going in each direction, Reinhardt said, at least through the 78-foot-wide portion. VIA also designated Broadway as one of its future advanced rapid transit corridors, so having only one traffic lane in each direction would pose problems, Reinhardt explained.
“We feel pretty strongly that you need two travel lanes in each direction,” he said. “It’s a downtown urban environment so you have a lot of drop-offs and people will stop. … If the bus stops, everything backs up.”
The 72-foot-wide portion, from Third Street to Houston Street, does not need four lanes because buses turn off Broadway at Third Street, he noted.
City staff’s current Broadway street design for Third Street to Interstate 35 provides four lanes for vehicles, with the two outer lanes measuring 11 feet wide to accommodate buses and the inner lanes at 10 feet wide. There are also 10-foot-wide sidewalks, a 4-foot-wide tree space, and cut-out spaces for parking and drop-off purposes. There are no bike lanes, but Reinhardt said adding a protected bike lane would negatively impact the rest of the street design.
“The whole thing is not about bikes,” he said. “It’s about creating the best environment. When you look at the four modes … to overly sacrifice one for all, that’s the challenge.”
Daniel Day, a bicycle advocate and transit blogger, is pushing for dedicated bicycle lanes along Broadway. Though the City has proposed putting protected bike lanes along Avenue B instead of on Broadway, Day said he feels that option doesn’t show a willingness to truly embrace cycling as a transportation option in San Antonio.
“The frustration we have is why do they still keep putting us on the back burner?” he asked. “Why do they want us to ride our bikes on areas where dumpsters lie?”
Reinhardt said the cycling community perceives Avenue B as an alley, rather than a viable street, but businesses will continue to develop along Avenue B.
“We know developers have some great plans for Avenue B,” Reinhardt said. “I think part of the perception right now is when you see it, it’s like, ‘Ah, that’s the back alley, I want to be where the action is at.’ But in 20, 10 years, [that will change].”
Day created several different designs using a free online tool called Streetmix. In one of his most recent designs, he included two vehicular lanes, a center turn lane, a two-way protected bike lane, a parking lane, and 10-foot-wide sidewalks (with 4 feet allocated for trees).
Day’s design gives each direction only one travel lane, which can cause a significant backlog on Broadway, Reinhardt said.
In another one of his diagrams, Day presented an option for a detached bus stop, a 7-foot-wide sidewalk, and trees on only one side of the road. While the layout may create more room for cyclists and bus riders, engineers are trying to keep sidewalks at a 10-foot-wide minimum, though most experts call for 14 feet in urban areas, Reinhardt said.
Reinhardt added that keeping trees along Broadway remains a top priority, both for shade reasons and “traffic calming.” The trees make the road seem narrower, which slows down drivers naturally.
David Lake, founder and principal at Lake/Flato Architects, said broader sidewalks and service lanes – pull-off points for deliveries, bus stops, and other uses – are “pivotal to retail success.”
The discussion has shifted toward bike lane feasibility, Lake said, but the City and community are missing the point.
The diagram he produced does not include bike lanes. It has three vehicular lanes with a center lane that can be converted to flow either north or south depending on traffic (a so-called “reversible lane”) and a parking/service lane. Curb extensions or “bump-outs” would further narrow the street and slow traffic while providing less distance for pedestrians to cross the street, he said.
Bike lanes would be nice to have, he said, but “it should be about how do we grow and make Broadway a great street.”
Lake said the City should pause to complete the ongoing traffic study before continuing its design process and make sure that it’s compensating for the boom of activity and traffic that CPS Energy’s nearby headquarters and other developments will bring.
Reinhardt said the reversible center lane idea has been implemented in other parts of the city, but there isn’t a heavy, one-way flow of traffic during the day to justify that tool. In a slow-moving, urban setting, he said, it could create confusion.
“It’s a great concept,” he said, “[but] this to us does not seem like the ideal context, overall, for reversible lanes.”
At the end of the day, staff will follow whatever direction the transportation committee points to, Reinhardt said.
“We all want the best Broadway,” he said. “If the room is there, we want to build it. But we don’t want to sacrifice everything.”