From left: Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson/Nygaard, President and CEO Jeff Arndt of VIA Metropolitan Transit, Policy Chief Marisa Bono with the mayor's office, and Kevin Wolff, county commissioner of Precinct 3.
(From left): Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson/Nygaard, VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt, Mayor Ron Nirenberg's Policy Chief Marisa Bono, and Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) participate in a ULI panel on the future of mobility. Credit: Jackie Wang / San Antonio Report

San Antonio must avoid Austin’s mistake of putting off combating traffic congestion and address transit issues now, a California-based transportation expert said at a Tuesday panel on the future of mobility.

Jeffrey Tumlin, a principal and director of strategy at Nelson/Nygaard, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that works with municipalities to solve transportation issues, has worked in cities all over the world, including in Dallas and Austin.

On Tuesday, he joined VIA Metropolitan Transit President and CEO Jeff Arndt, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Chief of Policy Marisa Bono, and Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) at the Urban Land Institute’s luncheon at the Pearl Stable.

Austin’s mounting congestion is forcing officials to make difficult choices to increase mobility, such as dedicating lanes on major streets to buses. That’s a tough idea to sell to people whose only option currently is to commute via car, Tumlin said.

“[San Antonio] is growing rapidly and has a little more flexibility in its mobility system,” Tumlin said. “But that means now is the best time for San Antonio to make those difficult choices. Austin waited too long.

“I love having a car,” he added. “It’s the most amazing, convenient form of mobility to date. I can go as I please, it’s my storage locker. It’s great, but also phenomenally wasteful in space.”

When people opt to take a bus or bike rather than drive their own vehicle, they take up one-tenth of the space, Tumlin said, and if cities want to address traffic congestion, they need to invest in providing viable alternatives to cars. There are no “sides” to this debate, he argued, as mobility is a single system that includes cyclists, bus riders, drivers, and pedestrians.

Bono said San Antonians aren’t going to swap their car commute for public transportation until it is reliable, cost-effective, and efficient.

“Until we can show San Antonio residents how this can benefit them, cars are too convenient,” she said.

Wolff said when he moved to New York City, he insisted on bringing his own car. He then discovered the 30-mile drive from Manhattan to Long Island took three hours.

“I reached my threshold of pain, and guess what? I fell in love with mass transportation,” he said. “We’re going through that transition. We’re not there yet, but we need to be planning as if we had already reached our threshold of pain.”

Bono said cities that have adapted well to growing mobility needs accepted innovation like rideshare and autonomous vehicles, and San Antonio needs to embrace new technology such as payment integration systems and data collection.

She added that San Antonio is still one of the most economically segregated cities in the country, and for that to change public transportation needs to improve. The nonprofit ConnectSA, created earlier this year by Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, aims to compile a comprehensive, multimodal transportation plan for San Antonio.

“A multimodal mobility plan will open doors for all San Antonians in terms of job opportunity, educational opportunity, safety,” she said. “That’s something that people in San Antonio are ready for and need. I think [economic segregation] is always the unspoken elephant in the room, but it’s what holding us back in economic development and as a community.”

Tumlin said a city’s transportation network has an immense impact on social equity, as it affects public health, access to employment, safety, and access to services for seniors and the homeless.

“If we’re serious about equity, the last thing we should be measuring is congestion, and instead directing resources to where it will save lives,” he said.

Walkability should be one of San Antonio’s first priorities, followed by “fun” destinations and entertainment districts that help attract and retain young talent, Tumlin said, pointing to areas like the Pearl, where design invites people to walk and socialize.

His advice parallels that of Toronto urbanist Gil Penalosa, who at various San Antonio CityFest panels last week told attendees people’s happiness should be paramount in designing mobility.

Tumlin, who last visited San Antonio a decade ago, said a lot of progress has been made in that time.

“It’s always been charming, always known how to have fun, but it was more gap-toothed,” Tumlin said. “There were pockets of activity, but empty lots and abandoned buildings, and now it’s getting some cohesion.

“I think it’s finding itself and finding its best San Antonio.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.