When Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales was first campaigning to represent District 5 in 2013, she said she heard stories from residents about pedestrians who died crossing the street.
Someone told her their mother died while walking to St. Alphonsus church, Gonzales said. Another shared the story of a young boy who was killed in his neighborhood while crossing the street.
“I thought, ‘Why is this happening?’ We should have the ability to walk safely in our neighborhood,” she said. “Why is it so dangerous?”
More than 100 people gathered Monday evening at Alamo Beer Co. for a panel hosted by Tech Bloc, Lime, and Bike San Antonio about improving roadway safety. Panelists Gonzales, Art Reinhardt of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department (TCI), VIA Metropolitan Transit strategic planner Tim Mulry, and Bike San Antonio board member Bryan Martin discussed how to work together and build safer streets in San Antonio. Sam Sadle, senior director of government relations and strategic development at Lime, moderated the panel.
Gonzales was an early champion of the Vision Zero initiative, which the City adopted in 2015. The initiative aims to eliminate traffic fatalities, but San Antonio has yet to see a significant reduction in injuries and deaths on its roads. On average, 170 people die on San Antonio roadways and sidewalks each year, and that number hasn’t dipped much in the past four years, Gonzales said.
“We haven’t really moved the needle,” she said.
Much of the lack of improvement comes from San Antonians’ obstinance, Gonzales said. The city’s infrastructure revolves around automobiles, and people continue to choose to drive because it’s the easiest option. But the City cannot expect to see progress with alternative transportation options while also focusing its attention and resources on single-occupancy vehicles, she said.
“We can’t continue to say we’ll make it really easy to drive and give you all the options,” she said. “We just can’t. Our funding is limited and I believe we need to spend more attention on funding transportation alternatives. We have a city that is not sustainable for another 100 years. We need to start making those changes now and options that make it harder for people to drive.”
TCI interim Deputy Director Reinhardt said while driving remains the easiest way to move around, the City will struggle to get public buy-in on projects that promote alternative transportation.
“It’s really hard to do these other modes types of projects and get community support when we’re out in front of a neighborhood and talking about why we need to restrict parking for a dedicated bike lane or block access – it’s really hard because it’s so easy to drive,” he said. “But we know if we don’t plan for that, in 20 years we’ll be looking back thinking, ‘Gee whiz.’”
Though San Antonio is large, Reinhardt said the City has been able to focus its efforts on improving safety by looking at fatality and injury data. Between 2011 and 2015, 33 percent of all fatalities occurred on just 1 percent of San Antonio roadways.
“Those aren’t randomly occurring events,” Reinhardt said. “They really helped us hone [our focus]. Since 2017 we focused on those areas, improving connectivity. We can’t expect someone to get off the bus and go half a mile down and cross at the signal.”
Martin pushed for more bicycle infrastructure to keep cyclists safe on San Antonio roads. Bike SA is advocating for protected bike lanes on Broadway, Commerce, and St. Mary’s streets – corridors that cyclists say need more investment.
“We had two cyclists pass away already this year,” he said. “It’s a big issue and we need to remember at the end of the day, when we see a cyclist on the road, that could be someone’s father, mother, what have you.”
Gonzales said bike advocates need to broaden their reach to include all non-car commuters. She hopes that Lime and other scooter companies could be the voice in the alternative transportation safety conversation that cycling advocates have lacked for decades. She said she was disappointed in City Council’s recent decision to limit e-scooters in San Antonio.
“It’s what we needed as transportation alternative advocates – a partner that really knows how to utilize technology and push an agenda that is more transportation-related,” she said. “One of the things about cycling and walking and the dominant system we have with public transit is that they’re all very old methods. I thought this would be a fresh way to work with another partner, and my hope is that it would lead to better infrastructure.”
Mulry said VIA wants to ensure its part of the overall discussion about improving road safety. That means working with the cycling community, with the City, and with any other alternative transportation that may pop up to help VIA customers travel safely to a bus stop.
“We know buses are safe, but it’s only safe when you get to the bus,” he said. “It always comes down to collaborating with other entities, making sure everyone is collaborative.”
Ultimately, San Antonio needs to see a significant culture shift before Vision Zero truly starts to take hold, Gonzales said.
“We need more advocacy at the local level,” she said. “It’s unique in San Antonio that you don’t have to lobby your electeds, because we’re already in support, but you need to lobby in many ways your own peers, so they change their behavior and get on board as well.”