The First Baptist Church in Dallas. Photo by Kevin Barton.

Charter Amendment No. 1 was approved on May 9. Voter approval is now required for future rail projects that would use city funding, property, or right-of-way. Those who advocated for the amendment argued that it was important to give citizens the chance to vote on large capital projects. Considering that same mandate was not extended to roads and highways, those who opposed the amendment perceived it as an effort to kill the future of transit rail in San Antonio.

San Antonio’s population is expected to almost double in the next 25 years. Rail may or may not be dead, but the chance of a successful rail project anytime in the near future is certainly handicapped. As a consequence, San Antonio very likely has one less transportation option as we plan how to best accommodate those one million new residents.

The Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) met in Dallas April 29 to May 2. CNU 23: Meeting the Demand for Walkable Urban Places provided a national perspective on the emergence of walkable places, and their role in defining economic opportunity, quality of life, and sustainability in the United States.

CNU is an organization of architects, planners, engineers and activists committed to developing quality urbanism that is sustainable, walkable, desirable, and equitable. The central focus of CNU 23 was understanding the market demand for walkable urban places. CNU has advanced urbanism for more than 20 years, and during that time has worked through its own growing pains. Today though, CNU is focused, committed, and bold in their work to develop quality urbanism. CNU has transitioned from its early beginnings of greenfield development of Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) to today’s focus on infill and adaptive reuse.

Presentations covered a wide range of topics, such as equity, environmental protection, transportation, sustainability, affordable housing, and finance; but for me, the most compelling presentations explained the market demand for walkable urban places.

Of all the research and work presented, one study captured the future of walkable urban places most succinctly. “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in Americas Largest Metros” studied walkability and economic indicators in America’s 30 largest metropolitans. The study found walkable, urban places demand a price premium that cannot be fully explained by value, but rather by a supply imbalance. In urban areas across the nation, a shortage of walkable commercial and residential space is supporting a walkability premium for the few places that do exist. People want walkability, but supply is not keeping pace with demand. Less than 1% of urban land mass is considered walkable, where walkable is defined as having a WalkScore of 70 or greater. As a result, not only do walkability premiums exist, that premium is continuing to climb.

Not surprisingly, the study found Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle as the cities with the best walkability. Of the 30 largest metros, San Antonio ranked 27th. About 43% of Washington, D.C. residents live within walkable urban places, where only 6% of San Antonio residents live within walkable urban places.

This fact might be trivial, it would be easy to be indifferent, except there are consequences. The study also found a correlation between walkability and economic performance. There is a direct correlation between walkability and two important indicators: per capita GDP and educational attainment. Decreased walkability was associated with lower per capita GDP and lower education attainment. This report did not attribute cause and effect. In other words, it was not clear if walkability influences educational attainment and GDP in a city, or if cities with more educated and productive people build more walkable communities.

Walkability in downtown Dallas. Photo by Kevin Barton.
A walkable neighborhood in downtown Dallas. Photo by Kevin Barton.

However, other research presented makes it clear that cities are competing for both talented workers and jobs. Millennials, the next working generation, are selecting a place to live, then looking for work. Employers and jobs are following them. Their lifestyle preferences are different than earlier generations. Millennials are less interested in driving and suburban lifestyles. They are gravitating to walkable urban places. As a result, cities are re-creating the walkable urban places that were discarded after World War II.

It is clear that cities are using walkable urban places to attract educated workers and higher paying jobs, but it also clear that walkable urban places offer opportunity for low income residents. Automobiles are expensive to operate and maintain. Parking drives up the cost of residential and commercial real estate. Two parking spaces add 25% to the cost of affordable housing. Excessive parking is mandated by most zoning codes, and burdens low income residents without delivering value.

Walkable urban places with quality, well connected transit provide low income residents access to education and employment opportunities that typically are not within their communities. Walkability and public transit address social equity and economic mobility in ways that auto-dependence never has.

There is a connection between the amendment, CNU 23 and San Antonio’s future.

Transit is a critical component to walkability. It connects compact walkable places together, and provides the city-wide and regional access needed to make economies and metropolitan areas function at their full potential without the damaging effects of auto-dependence. Rail is just one transit option. Bus is the second.

San Antonio has a lot of rail critics, and the dominate argument is that bus is superior because it is cheaper and more flexible. Buses are certainly cheaper and more flexible, but that does not necessarily equate to better. If buses were truly better at creating opportunity, wealth, and success in urban areas, we would be able to hold up examples of that success. There would be cities in the U.S. with walkable urban places built solely on the back of bus transit. I am not aware of one. The five most walkable cities all have rail, and the cities with the most extensive rail also have the most walkable places. Coincidentally, they also have the highest GDP and education attainment.

Charter Amendment 1 reflects more than just anti-rail. It also reflects resistance to walkable urban places. Creating walkable urban places in San Antonio will require commitment from more than city government or developers. Citizens who want quality, walkable urban places in San Antonio must also show their commitment, and citizens must be engaged and vocal. And, here’s where the CNU can help.

CNU members have extensive experience in writing new development codes, advocating for and designing transportation solutions, and developing commercial and residential properties to create walkable urban places. The CNU is one potential way to organize local efforts to create walkable urban places. CNU Central Texas is the local CNU chapter representing the San Antonio/Austin regional area. Membership is open to anyone of any discipline who wants to learn about and help create walkable places.

CNU 24 is in Detroit, June 8-11, 2016.

*Featured/top image: The First Baptist Church in Dallas. Photo by Kevin Barton.

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Kevin Barton

Kevin Barton is an Associate Professor-Professional Track in Computer Information Systems at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. A retired USAF Chief Master Sergeant, his experience living in Asia, Central...