Building complete streets in San Antonio will require changing minds and attitudes as the city attempts the transition from an automobile-focused system to one that accommodates all transportation modes, experts said Friday at a CityFest panel on mobility.

The hour-long panel discussion presented by the Rivard Report included experts from across the country focused on transportation, public transit, and pedestrian safety. The controversy surrounding whether to construct bike lanes as part of a $42 million reconstruction of Broadway Street was a pivot throughout the conversation.

Art Reinhardt, interim deputy director of the City’s Transportation & Capital Improvements department, said San Antonio currently has a transportation mode split of about 90 percent automobiles. A shift toward multimodal transportation will take a shift in the city’s car culture, Reinhardt said.

“What we’ve looked at specifically with Broadway is trying to compensate for that and kind of move that needle so the proposed design skews about 75 percent cars and 25 percent everything else,” he said. “We can’t change it overnight.”

The three-mile project is slated to be developed without bike lanes on the lower mile of Broadway, where the street narrows as it enters downtown. However, a zoning vote in connection with the project could bring bike lanes up for City Council discussion again early next year.

“For the people that are here in San Antonio – or any city – [an automobile-focused transportation system] is the world they’ve always known,” said Jeff Arndt, CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit. “So that’s a big challenge.”

Moderated by Rivard Report General Assignment Reporter Jackie Wang, the panel was rounded out by Emiko Atherton, who works in Washington, D.C. as director of the National Complete Streets Coalition; Leah Shahum, founder of San Francisco-based Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate all roadway fatalities; and John Bailey, climate advisor for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Atherton said cities in Texas should focus on making federal and state funds go further while also steering those dollars toward multimodal projects instead of highway infrastructure.

“You have a lot of money as a state,” she said. “You spend most of that on highway capacity. We know, more and more, that building more lanes doesn’t actually do anything. It doesn’t help congestion. It doesn’t help people get [to their destination] faster. It just induces more demand.”

A panel discussion on San Antonio’s mobility future is moderated by Rivard Report reporter Jackie Wang (right) at San Antonio CityFest.

Here are other takeaways from the panel:

  • After an audience question about whether municipal “complete streets” policies should be updated to reflect evolving street design standards, Reinhardt said the City would consider updating its policy, adopted in 2011, within the next fiscal year. The U.S. Department of Transportation defines complete streets as ones that support safe use and mobility for all roadway users, no matter their age or abilities.
  • Similar to Houston’s investment in high-occupancy vehicle lanes in the 2000s, which drew skepticism at the time, San Antonio should strive to build infrastructure improvements that can have the effect of shifting behavior, Arndt said. After the HOV lanes were constructed more residents from Houston’s outlying suburbs began riding public transit, he said.
  • Looking at polling on the issue of transit, public support appears to outpace the rate of change at the policy level, Bailey said. “Public support is sky-high for transit, walking, and biking improvements, by a mile. I think it [takes] political will to make the funding decisions, and I think we will see that soon in San Antonio.”
JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.