A few years ago, a passenger in a pickup truck slapped my wife Monika on the back and then threw a beer bottle at her as she rode her bike south on Broadway amid vehicle traffic. Since then I’ve tried without success to get her back riding the streets of the city’s urban core with me.
Late last year she picked out a sleek new Trek hybrid, complete with lights and a friendly bell. We went for safe rides on the protected Mission Reach, and last week she declared herself ready for the Tuesday evening SATX Social Ride, the city’s biggest weekly recreational cycling event. There is safety in numbers, I assured her. Hundreds of participants with all levels of experience on all sorts of bikes are led by founder Jeff Moore, ride organizer Yvette Hernandez and other experienced cyclists.
A Monday press release from the City of San Antonio changed our plans. City Councilman Mario Bravo (D1), Public Works Director Razi Hosseini and Transportation Director Tomika Monterville would preside over a ribbon cutting ceremony for new cycle tracks, or protected bike lanes, constructed along Avenue B and connecting to the lower four blocks of North Alamo Street via McCullough Avenue.
I don’t attend many ribbon cuttings, but In this instance, I felt compelled to attend, having advocated for years, without success, for protected bike lanes on Broadway. The new bike lanes on the adjacent streets were meant to give cyclists an alternative option.
The 10 to 12 blocks of new bike lanes on those adjacent streets remain a work in progress, as we learned while weaving in and out of construction barriers and parked scooters on our way from Southtown to Avenue B, only to learn the ribbon cutting event had been canceled. There is no firm date set for the opening, but I’d guess it’s only a matter of weeks before the work is completed and the lanes are opened.
Cyclists will find protective concrete planter boxes along the route, many already planted with oak trees, mountain laurels and other vegetation. The soon-to-be completed project financed with $6 million from the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone is a promising yet modest start. Still, the bike lanes protected from vehicle traffic by barriers are a huge improvement over the simple street striping that characterizes most of the city’s bike lanes.
The project begins at North Alamo and Travis Streets and continues four blocks north to McCullough Avenue, where two blocks of protected bike lanes take riders west to Avenue B, and then six blocks north to Jones Avenue. If you haven’t been in the River North area recently, check it out. Years of vacancy and vagrancy have given way to refurbished buildings, new apartments, beer gardens and a vibrant nightlife.
The original promise to the cycling community after the city nixed the bike lanes on Broadway, part of the 2017 bond project approved by voters, was to extend the North Alamo bike lanes all the way north to where that street joins Broadway, near the Brackenridge Golf Course.
That can still happen, according to David McBeth, assistant city engineer at the city’s Public Works Department, but the extension would have to be included in the city’s under-development Bike Network Plan, a planned two-year revamp of the never-implemented 2011 Bike Master Plan, an undertaking that is set to gain traction soon with extensive involvement of the cycling community and other stakeholders under Monterville and the Transportation Department.
Not everyone is pleased with the addition of the bike lanes and narrowing of vehicle traffic. Early enforcement will be required, at least through a transition period. After riding to Avenue B and Ninth Street, the site of the canceled ribbon cutting, Monika and I dismounted and moved to the sidewalk as a driver in a huge pickup truck driving the wrong way inside the protected, two-way bike lane came toward us, glaring at me as I raised my arms in a WTF? gesture. Heading north, we encountered parked cars blocking the bike lane.
Experienced cyclists are accustomed to such challenges, but if the city is going to convince the cyclists reluctant to ride on surface streets, it is going to have to begin enforcing the Safe Passing Ordinance. Cyclists can do their part by complying with the Bike Light Ordinance and obeying traffic lights.
“It’s a connectivity issue, making bicycle traffic another mode of transportation,“ said Joe Conger, the transportation department’s public relations director, acknowledging that the Avenue B and North Alamo Street project is just one piece in a larger puzzle. “This is a car-centric culture, no doubt, but we also have vulnerable road users, pedestrians and cyclists, and we want to make sure they have the same opportunity to get from Point A to Point B.”
The Bike Network Plan will have to result in an integrated network of safe bike lanes reaching from downtown out to the four compass points in the urban core. City planners will have to acknowledge that no amount of hike and bike trails will substitute for a network of commuter bike lanes that allow people to safely navigate the urban core. Kudos to urban planner and cyclist David Bemporad for his new trailways map, but even he notes the lack of safe commuter options on the city’s surface streets.
Some on city staff remain anti-cycling or badly out of touch, in my opinion. Click on the city website’s Interactive Bike Map user guide and you’ll be greeted by a block of legalistic text that borders on hostile in tone, likely written by attorneys who do not ride bikes.
It will take big changes in mindset and strategic planning to make the city more bike friendly. The Bike Network Plan is the next and probably last chance to make that happen.