A pilot program that will close two Westside residential streets to through traffic could start as soon as early June, making room for more pedestrian and bicycle activity, city officials told the Rivard Report.

The Public Works Department program will close off two low-traffic streets – and connecting side streets – to through vehicle traffic, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to utilize the extra space while maintaining 6 feet apart from people they don’t live with.

With historically low traffic and residents spending more time at home, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a nationwide appreciation for – and increased use of – sidewalks, parks, and trails. But as those amenities get crowded, it gets harder to maintain social distancing, so San Antonio is joining cities such as New York and Denver in experimenting with closing off streets to cars to allow cyclists and pedestrians to take over.

“We’ve never done anything like this. We’re going to learn,” said Razi Hosseini, director of the Public Works Department.

Cincinnati Avenue west of Woodlawn Lake and West César E. Chávez Boulevard east of Apache Creek will be closed to thru traffic as early as June 1 for about four weeks, Hosseini said. A street in the Monte Vista neighborhood north of downtown was considered for the program, but an agreement among the neighbors to implement the program could not be reached.

Internal meetings between City Council members and Public Works Department took place this week, and flyers informing residents on the two streets will be sent out later this week or early next, Hosseini said.

“If it is well-received [by the] public, we may end up doing this next year or during summertime when school is out,” Hosseini said.

San Antonio’s pilot program came about after a collaboration of groups of volunteer urban planners, architects, and health experts recently proposed an initiative called Share the Streets to the City.

“We came at this as planners from a public health perspective,” said Jim Bailey, principal of Alamo Architects and one of the founders of ActivateSA. ActivateSA and the Population Health Advisory Committee, both grassroots advocacy organizations, developed the proposal to close off some streets to allow more pedestrian and bicycle activity.

The initiative also aligns with the City’s public health goals. Those include encouraging exercise as a way to combat negative health outcomes associated with inactivity – especially with stay-at-home orders in place – such as heart disease and diabetes as well as promoting social distancing to stem the spread of the virus.

This map illustrates with a dotted line where streets through traffic would be prohibited near Wooldlawn Lake along Cincinnati Avenue.
This map illustrates with a dotted line where through traffic would be prohibited near Woodlawn Lake along Cincinnati Avenue. Credit: Courtesy / ActivateSA
This map illustrates with a dotted line where streets through traffic would be prohibited in the West Side along West Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard.
This map illustrates with a dotted line where through traffic would be prohibited on the West Side along West César E. Chávez Boulevard. Credit: Courtesy / ActivateSA

“Right now, we’re focused on protecting public health from the pandemic,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), whose district includes the pilot program on Cincinnati Avenue. “But we need to think about public health in the long term, too. We don’t know how long physical distancing will be a part of our lives.

“We do know that residents need a way to enjoy the fresh air, stay healthy, and maintain their mental health while practicing physical distance. Staying home can come at a cost to people’s mental health, yet getting out and about within your neighborhood can do a lot to lift your mood and dispel a sense of isolation.”

Since stay-at-home orders were implemented in March, more residents have taken advantage of open, green spaces across the city.

Data from Leon Creek Trail shows a nearly 30 percent increase in visitors, including cyclists and pedestrians, in March compared to February, and 50 percent more compared to March 2019. The City’s Parks and Recreation Department also reports more trail users on the Mission and Museum reaches of the San Antonio River.

While car and truck traffic has eased during the pandemic, pedal-powered traffic has increased. Bicycle retail and service shops such as Bike World have seen an influx in customers seeking new rides or needing repairs on their dusted-off bikes. San Antonio Bike Share also is offering discounts on rides and memberships.

ActivateSA’s proposal to close some streets is designed in part to facilitate cycling as well as pedestrian activity.

Signs and barricades would be placed at the blocks leading into the streets showing that they are closed to through traffic, along with warnings to watch for pedestrians, Bailey said. “And then we could encourage neighbors to [put out] balloons and cones to further slow traffic.”

Residents, delivery trucks, and all other internal vehicular traffic would still be permitted to use the street, he said.

The original proposal included Belknap Place in the Monte Vista neighborhood as a potential pilot street. But Ryan Reed, president of the Monte Vista Historical Association, said the neighborhood will not participate in the first round of pilots starting next month.

This map illustrates with a dotted line where streets where streets through traffic would be prohibited in Monte Vista along Belknap Place.
This map illustrates with a dotted line where through traffic would be prohibited in Monte Vista along Belknap Place. Credit: Courtesy / ActivateSA

He said some residents have concerns about safety and diverting traffic to other, smaller streets. The neighborhood and City will need to launch a “door-to-door campaign to disperse information” before Belknap Place can be included, but he didn’t rule out taking part in some way in the future.

In addition to the pilot streets, ActivateSA’s proposal identified 31 census tracts that could benefit from such a program, said Amanda Merck, a research specialist for UT Health San Antonio, VIA Metropolitan Transit board member, and ActivateSA member.

Residents in census tracts that have lower park and vehicle access, high population density, low income, and high rates of obesity and diabetes could benefit the most from having more space to walk or ride bikes in their immediate area, she said.

This map highlights 31 census tracts with low park access, greater than 4,000 people per square mile, greater than 20 percent poverty, and greater than 3 percent zero-vehicle households.
This map highlights 31 census tracts with low park access, more than 4,000 people per square mile, poverty rates exceeding 20 percent, and more than 3 percent zero-vehicle households. Credit: Courtesy /. ActivateSA

“Some cities are only doing this in neighborhood streets – single-family housing areas where traffic is already pretty low,” Merck said. “Families that live in apartment complexes, that live on bigger roads with higher speeds … they are not seeing the benefits of this and unfortunately, those also tend to be the neighborhoods that lack park access.”

In addition, she said, many people in these neighborhoods don’t have yards. If the initiative expands beyond the pilot program, she hopes those residents won’t be left out.

The City will conduct surveys to collect feedback on the pilot program, which could be expanded to at-risk communities similar to those identified by Merck, Hosseini said.

“If it really works, ideally we could extend this to other parts of the city,” he said, including commercial areas.

Other cities are closing portions of thoroughfares populated predominantly by businesses, converting travel or parking lanes to be used as bike lanes, sidewalk extensions, or outdoor space for restaurants.

Sandoval and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) worked with ActivateSA and City staff to identify pilot program areas. Because the pilot doesn’t require a lot of money or staff resources, a full City Council vote is not required but a more formal, citywide program might, Hosseini said.

“Given the amount of potential pushback, [programs like this] should have some type of vetting process to go through,” Gonzales said, adding that a citywide initiative should be reviewed by a City Council committee before any potential vote.

Still, she supports the pilot program in her district on West César E. Chávez Boulevard. As a mother of three young children, Gonzales said she sees the value of getting outside.

“I’m glad to see this grassroots effort in our city,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in an email. “The Share the Streets initiative will provide a safe place for residents to practice social distancing and be active without having to leave their neighborhoods.”

John Bailey, San Antonio’s climate advisor from the Natural Resources Defense Council who is not related to Jim Bailey, has looked at how other cities around the world have adapted to changing traffic patterns and trends amid the pandemic.

The Share the Streets initiative is a “great opportunity to do something that can add real value to people’s lives in this very stressful time,” John Bailey said. “I’ve been connecting some of the City staff here to other staff around the country that’s been doing this successfully.”

His role in San Antonio’s participation in the American Cities Climate Challenge gave him a head start in establishing those connections, he said.

“There’s been great communication between transportation departments and advocates to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

One example of what didn’t work occurred in March, when New York City closed off a few blocks and added a strong police presence.

“It changed what should be a public amenity to a very highly enforced place that was very uncomfortable for lots of people,” Bailey said, so officials there realized they needed larger spaces – or longer streets – for people to naturally space out and monitor themselves.

The City of San Antonio does not expect to deploy more police officers to the closed-off streets, Hosseini said. That could change if the pilot program demonstrates a need for enforcement.

In some ways, the pilot program is an extreme version of traffic calming and street-sharing strategies that many have championed before the pandemic. This may show people the long-term benefits of such strategies, but that’s not the goal of this initiative, Jim Bailey said.

“This is a response to a public health crisis,” he said. “That’s what our document is for – nothing else.”

Sandoval said she hopes the pilot program will change residents’ perspectives towards walking and biking.

“You see so many cars every day, and so few walkers and bikers I think people get the impression that San Antonio residents just don’t own bikes or don’t like to walk,” she said. “I think a project like this will demonstrate that, in fact, the opposite is true: There are lots of people who want a safe opportunity to walk and bike around their neighborhood.

“Further, I think this will remind people that streets are what we make of them. We can make them differently, if we want. And at the end of the day, I hope it reminds people: We make streets to move people, not cars.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org