Councilman Rey Saldaña walks to the front of the bus to ask the driver a question about the current route. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilmember Rey Saldaña navigated his multiple meetings and commute using VIA. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Downtown San Antonio is in the beginning stages of a housing boom and the commercial amenities that accompany such growth are not far behind. I have lived downtown for more than 20 years and the change I have seen is incredible. It has gone from an under-developed, sleepy tourist town to a bustling South Texas metropolis.

But with this growth comes a downside, especially for downtown residents. The air is polluted with vehicle emissions, the roads are congested, and parking is almost non-existent most of the time. It hasn’t helped that the city has given away parking places in high-rise garages to entice companies to move downtown. Residents are having a hard time leasing monthly parking for their vehicle since many downtown apartment complexes don’t provide this amenity.

City Council recently approved a deal with Frost Bank and Weston Urban that will add a new high-rise office tower to San Antonio’s skyline. It will be the first major downtown office tower to be built in more than 25 years. As part of the land and building swap, Weston Urban is building out 260 residential units on properties controlled by the City, which, in turn, will spend $51 million to buy Frost Bank’s existing office tower to consolidate office space. Construction on the building, being designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, is slated to begin in fall 2016 and complete by spring 2019.

The San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, the first phase of which should be done by 2018, has also ignited interest in living, working, and playing downtown.

To accommodate for increased traffic these developments will bring, and to keep downtown accessible to people who can’t afford the high costs of parking, San Antonio should have free circulators and peripheral parking – that is, parking on the outskirts of downtown. These simple elements will improve air quality, congestion in the streets, and the parking dilemma. Other cities have free bus circulator services in their downtown and it has become very successful. The money to supplement this service could come from the businesses that benefit the most; restaurants, hotels, retail, and other attractions via a special tax or transportation development district. Riders can be transferred all over the city; to museums, schools, the River Walk, El Mercado, parks, entertainment, and special events.

Such a circulator was recommended to VIA Metropolitan Transit eight years ago, but it has since become an urgent necessity now.

free ride san antonio VIA Metropolitan Transit's new E route is free Tuesday though Saturday evenings.
VIA Metropolitan Transit’s new E route is free Tuesday though Saturday evenings, 6.p.m. to midnight.

VIA began a pilot program in March that provides free shuttle service for locals and visitors in a small part of downtown. “The E” runs every 10 minutes from 6 p.m. to midnight, Tuesday through Saturday. The “entertainment” circulator route connects the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, Majestic Theatre, Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, Aztec Theatre, La Villita Historic Arts Village, Convention Center, and Rivercenter Mall as well as the bars, restaurants, and retail in between. This is certainly a step in the right direction but it needs to be expanded and include routes to peripheral parking, where folks can park for cheap or free out of the downtown core and ride the free shuttle.

VIA’s board recently voted to extend The E pilot program for another year until September 2016 and to look into expanding its reach north up Broadway Street to connect with the Pearl and south to connect with the Blue Star Arts Complex.

I know many visitors and suburbanites that would be very happy not to have to drive into downtown. A reasonable fee to park in designated areas in the periphery could also help subsidize the free shuttle. Connector parking lots could be located on the Westside near VIA’s new Centro Plaza, to the north under the highway overpasses, to the east at an expanded Robert Thompson Transit Center, and another on the Southside.

How Other Cities are Providing Free Downtown Transporation:

The R-LINE is downtown Raleigh’s free bus service that connect employees, residents and visitors to retail, restaurants, entertainment venues and parking in the city’s Central Business District (CBD). The service has its own distinct look and feel from the regular GoRaleigh bus service. This makes the R-LINE distinguishable for riders from a distance.

An R-LINE bus comes every 15 minutes on Wednesdays from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 7 a.m. to 2:15 a.m. the next morning, and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The R-LINE is an example of the Raleigh Transit Authority’s commitment to expand transit service in Raleigh and the City of Raleigh’s commitment to make Raleigh a “green” city. For more information visit

Here is a sampling of cities that enjoy free shuttle services downtown:

  1. Baltimore
  2. Nashville
  3. Annapolis
  4. Columbus
  5. Orlando
  6. Englewood, Colo. 
  7. Washington DC
  8. Minneapolis
  9. Bellevue, Wash.

*Top image: Councilmember Rey Saldaña rides the bus. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Joan Korte is a 25-year member of the Downtown Residents Association and has lived downtown as long. She is a member of many community organizations, has sat in on several feasibility studies as well as...