It won’t be easy for San Antonio to live up to the symbolic resolution that City Council passed Thursday, making it one of 300 U.S. cities to support the Paris climate accord.

“This is only a resolution – it’s not creating law,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said after the 9-1 vote with one Council member absent. “What follows is the policy-making … and we look forward to tackling that.”

What this new mayor and more progressive City Council majority know is that they hold in their hands the opportunity to demonstrate a newfound commitment to environmental protections and climate stability that can set an example for the generations that follow.

We owe it to our children to make it a nonpartisan priority to do everything feasible to protect the environment and reverse 150 years of industrial and consumer pollution of the air, water, and land.

How can locals leaders make a difference? There are many ways, and every one of them likely will be met with resistance from individuals, businesses, and political forces content with the status quo.

For starters, we can become a city that recycles. We are not one now. Residential recycling has improved over the last decade, but business, commercial and industrial recycling is strictly voluntary with few of the thousands of local businesses, hotels, restaurants, and bars participating.

Trash piles up in an alley in Camelot II.
Trash piles up in an alley in Camelot II. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Millions of glass bottles and aluminum cans and tons of plastic bags and packaging that could be sold to recyclers are dumped into the landfill each year. That leads businesses to buy newly manufactured packaging and cans, producing more greenhouse gases and warming of the planet.

San Antonio could easily join other cities and ban plastic bags at retail outlets. How hard is it, after all, to keep a few reusable bags on hand for trips to the grocery store or other shopping destinations? People traded at markets for centuries without plastic bags. They get used once and then end up in the landfill, the San Antonio River, or the city’s many creeks.

One challenge for Nirenberg and new Council members is to convince other municipalities in Bexar County to adopt the same standards as San Antonio. Otherwise, anything accomplished in San Antonio will be blunted by indifference in the smaller cities.

It’s really the responsibility of the state, of course, to implement standards, and while legislators want to reduce city governance on issues ranging from annexation to rideshare, state leaders have shown no inclination to take the lead on stabilizing the climate.

One measure of how much remains to be done – and is not being done – can be appreciated with a review of the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate stabilization plan.

Perhaps the single biggest opportunity for Nirenberg and the Council lies in addressing growing transportation challenges as the city anticipates population growth of one million people by 2040.

Attendees navigate across South Alamo Street with San Antonio BCycle.
A cyclist navigates across South Alamo Street with San Antonio B-Cycle. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio does not make it easy for the bus rider, pedestrian, or cyclist who prefer to get around the city without a personal vehicle all the time.

Only now has public awareness of our lack of sidewalks become a matter of public focus. The 2017 municipal bond includes significant funding for sidewalk construction and maintenance, but the City is starting from way behind.

The city lacks a network of bike lanes, even unprotected bike lanes, to help the cyclist navigate the urban core. Miles and miles of bike lanes created with white stripes have been allowed to fade away or disappear, putting cyclists at real risk with drivers unwilling to share the road. Cycling advocates have found little support at City Hall.

Councilman Rey Saldaña checks his phone trying to locate the route he is currently on. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) checks his phone to locate his current route on the bus. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Even modest efforts by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) to increase the City’s financial contributions to VIA Metropolitan Transit to improve frequency of buses on major routes has been met with resistance. Imagine the value of a program that would allow students to ride the bus for free, with buses running often enough that commutes did not require hours.

I was in Seattle when city planners there introduced free bus service in the urban core to reduce the number of individuals driving private vehicles into the congested downtown. The buses were filled with white-collar professionals, Millennials, and working-class people. A real measure of any mass transit system is whether the users match the city’s demographics.

My best days are the ones where I leave my vehicle at home and walk or pedal to work. I am, admittedly, a poor bus rider. I just can’t stand waiting in the South Texas heat for 20-30 minutes. I’d rather summon Uber or Lyft.

We will be a car and truck city for at least the next couple of generations because of our ever-sprawling boundaries and lack of transportation infrastructure, but if we start now to develop and implement a mass transit strategy, one that includes light rail, accelerated bus rapid transit and HOV lanes, San Antonio will see a real difference within, say, the potential eight year span Nirenberg can be in office. 

For now, VIA remains the most underfunded urban bus system in Texas. It can’t afford to modernize its fleet at the same rate as other cities. It can’t afford to run buses on routes with the kind of frequency that would attract more riders. It can’t afford to add shade structures to every bus stop. And there is no regional plan for developing light rail that would make VIA eligible for the tens of millions of federal transportation dollars that have gone to Dallas and Houston for their systems.

Students board a bus at Northwest Vista College in District 6.
Students board a bus at Northwest Vista College. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Individuals do not have to wait for government to take the lead. The simple act of buying a reusable water bottle for use at work and out in the community means fewer plastic bottles being discarded at venues that do not recycle. Individuals do not have to wait for this city or the state to ban disposable plastic bags. Just buy a couple of reusable bags and stop using the throwaway ones.

Almost every one of us is guilty of not living up to our own standards. Why not use the election to redouble our individual commitments?

SAWS offers a lot of innovative programming and technical advice for homeowners who want to move from non-native turf grasses and automatic sprinkler systems to native plants and gardens that result in dramatic drops in water bills and provide the environment for pollinators, from bees to butterflies, to thrive once again.

Sooner or later, the City ought to adopt more restrictive year-round watering standards. Trying to conserve water simply by charging a nominal increase in price for major water users is ineffective. People can afford to pay and do pay. If every one of us operated on that philosophy there would not be enough water for everyone.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) speaks with Mayor Ron Nirenberg in City Council Chambers.
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) speaks with Mayor Ron Nirenberg in City Council Chambers. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Saldaña will now find he has allies on the Council willing to listen to new ideas, willing to try different things, willing even to experiment and fail. Nirenberg will find he is no longer voting alone on some progressive measures. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who holds advanced degrees in chemical and environmental engineering and in public health, is an ideal candidate to take the lead on climate and environmental issues, just as Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), an architect, has brought the importance of design and the built environment to the forefront.

Whether San Antonio’s resolution proves to be one where the City truly resolves to make changes – some hard, some not so hard – will be a measure of this new mayor and City Council. It would be nice if we could achieve the necessary gains voluntarily, but that won’t happen. Most people have to be led to change.

This mayor and City Council were elected by voters who want change. Now it’s time to show the support beyond the polls. The single biggest factor for officeholders will be the amount of public support they receive for taking risks and making changes.

Count me in.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.