It’s no surprise that people trained as traffic engineers who commute from their homes to downtown offices and back tend to think vehicles first, everything else second.
Even when planners do think about pedestrians, cyclists, and, now, scooterists, they are studying an abstraction. Sitting in traffic, they gain little firsthand experience. Living in the urban core and moving around without four wheels is not something most residents or City Hall workers do.
As the design for lower Broadway has progressed, if that is the right word, hardly a word has been uttered by planners about the poor state of public health in San Antonio and its proven links to a society designed to keep people in cars. The benefits that come when people can safely walk or cycle are indisputable.
Here and there, we encounter what I call “complete stretches” or “complete blocks,” such as those on Avenue B, on North Main and Soledad streets north of Main Plaza, and on South Alamo Street in Southtown. Most are unprotected bike lanes that come to a sudden end and throw vehicle traffic and cyclists back together without warning.
The debate over bike lanes on lower Broadway, from my perspective, has been a lesson in poor public engagement. City planners and leaders in the development community have been meeting about the street design for five years, even before the 2017 bond election when voters approved a $42 million package to start the transformation of Broadway.
I invite readers on both sides of the debate to read an article we published in early 2014 that quotes officials with the City and VIA Metropolitan Transit and the development community. The streetcar project was still alive, but note everyone’s general comments about the future of Broadway as a complete street.
Read the article Monday morning by senior reporter Iris Dimmick. She quotes Bryan Martin, interim president of the Bike San Antonio advocacy group, who notes that the 2017 bond language did not include language about on-street parking, but did lead cyclists to believe there would be room for protected bike lanes.
“Reconstruct Broadway … with curbs, sidewalks, driveway approaches, bicycle amenities, lighting, drainage and traffic improvements as appropriate and within available funds,” reads the project scope.
That vague wording gives planners all they need to ignore demand for protected bike lanes.
There are two false arguments at play here that Councilman Roberto Treviño, whose district includes lower Broadway, and Razi Hosseini, the City’s interim director of Transportation and Capital Improvement, are making.
The first is that protected bike lanes can only be had at the expense of vehicle traffic flow. False. The proposed 10-foot-wide sidewalks have been adopted as some sort of absolute without any data underpinning their value. Sidewalks of that width on both sides of the street will only fill for Fiesta parades.
The most pedestrian dense space in the city is the River Walk, and there are no sidewalks that wide. Yet businesses flourish. East Houston Street in the blocks closest to the Majestic Theatre has sidewalks of that width, but they fill only when theater crowds enter or exit. The rest of the time pedestrians share the sidewalk with vagrants, street evangelists, and Segway riders.
I attended a conference in New Orleans earlier this month where it was hot and more humid than San Antonio, yet walking a mile or two in the urban core is a much better experience there. One is constantly in the company of other pedestrians. Most sidewalks are modest in width, even in the tourist-centric neighborhoods.
Lower Broadway today is an inactive mix of commercial space, offices, vacant buildings, and a few random retail destinations. Here and there, promising redevelopment is under way. There is nothing short-term or even mid-term to suggest that so much space in a narrow corridor should be given over to sidewalks.
The second false premise comes from the recent Pape-Dawson traffic study, which is a snapshot of the status quo. The study delivers a picture of what is, not what could be. Those who cite it in their defense of a street designed principally for vehicles seem to regard the “cycling community” as a fringe group. That is misleading at best. Who can say how many people would take to protected bike lanes?
There is little talk of calming traffic or incentivizing people to come downtown without a vehicle. More narrow sidewalks as far south as the intersection of Travis or McCullough would give planners space for bike lanes. After that, traffic slows to where a mix of vehicles and bikes is safer.
Travel to Mexico City or New York City, two of the most densely populated and complex urban landscapes in the hemisphere. Planners in both cities have moved aggressively to reduce vehicle traffic by building integrated networks of bike lanes. Both cities are struggling with car-centric cultures and collision rates, but the volume of cyclists using the network has exploded. That is no surprise. There are countless destination cities outside the United States where protected bike lanes host huge communities of commuters and recreational users.
The lower Broadway debate appears to be a lost cause. Mobility advocates lack the political firepower to match the development community at City Hall. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales appear to be the only elected officials on City Council who support bike lanes on Broadway.
Like others, I will welcome bike lanes along Avenue B and North Alamo streets if and when they actually get built. They will be no substitute, however, for San Antonio turning one of its most important surface arteries into a complete street.
There seem to be no plans to transform any of the principal streets that lead into downtown San Antonio into complete streets. For that, we will have to content ourselves with visits to other cities.