San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg met with City staff and consultants on Tuesday morning to discuss his hope that protected bike lanes would be included on a section of Broadway Street as part of a $42 million redevelopment project.
“We left the meeting with the intention to look at more options to accommodate all modes [of transporation] on Broadway,” Nirenberg said. “I requested additional traffic analysis but also specifically new schematics with the primary objective of including a micromobility [bike and e-scooter] lane.”
Nirenberg noted that he wanted defined bike lanes that provided a true delineation for passing vehicles and not the narrow white stripes of paint that pass for bike lanes in parts of the city.
Nirenberg was following through on a campaign promise and a pledge he made two weeks ago in a Rivard Report article that he would talk to staff and champion bike lanes amid pushback from several area businesses and property owners that tend to favor on-street parking and wider sidewalks. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district includes Broadway, has continually balked at Nirenberg’s suggestion to change the design, which would include the area of the road north of Interstate 35 to Hildebrand Avenue, according to current plans that are nearing completion, but not for the mile leading south into downtown from Interstate 35.
It’s fairly rare for an elected official to step into the design process for a street, Treviño said, but not beyond their authority to seek clarification or ask for staff for more data and options before a project is executed.
“As mayor, I have to provide a safe space for people who want to challenge the assumptions of the way we built the city in the past,” Nirenberg said. “We have to be very clear about the kind of city we’re going to build and this is one iconic moment for us to do that.”
The mayor has the power of the bully pulpit, but members of City Council cannot direct City staff. That would have to come from City Manager Erik Walsh after receiving policy direction from Council or a Council committee.
The final design does not require City Council approval, Nirenberg said, but it’s possible that the new Transportation and Mobility Committee could bring up the issue in the future and give City staff the direction to change it.
“Everyone ought to be commended for their commitment to the project, including Councilman Treviño,” Nirenberg said. “We’re arriving at different conclusions because I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of challenging the assumptions.”
The Broadway project was approved in 2017 by voters as part of the City’s $850 million bond package. Though the project description didn’t explicitly say the main artery into downtown would have a bike lane or that it would be a “complete street,” Nirenberg said voters likely thought it was implied.
City staff has prioritized pedestrian and vehicular safety, according to a TCI spokesman during a public presentation last month.
“The City and our stakeholders all want the same thing — the best possible Broadway corridor for all. We will continue working together to achieve that goal,” Art Reinhardt, interim deputy director of the City’s Transporation and Capital Improvements department, said via email.
“Sacrificing walkability by narrowing sidewalks and removing trees/landscaping will not meet the project goals; therefore, the only option is to look at the number of travel lanes again,” he said.”This additional due diligence is necessary to ensure we have done everything possible to deliver a successful project.”
A traffic study of Broadway and surrounding streets is still underway, he said.
Nirenberg said he expects to see new schematics in the next few weeks, but is not sure if there will be a public input meeting.
Regardless, they will be made public, he said. “This certainly won’t be done behind closed doors.”
It’s not the first time TCI staff and consultant MIG were asked to take another look at the feasibility of including bike lanes. After seeing the preliminary schematics that left separated bike lanes out in the lower section, cycling advocates cried foul. After several news articles, City staff said they would work with stakeholder groups to review the design.
As a compromise, City staff proposed separated bike lanes on Avenue B and North Alamo Street that run one block parallel to Broadway. Reinhardt said that could be completed by 2021, alongside the lower Broadway segment, but it’s unclear how much that will cost or how the City would fund it. The Midtown TIRZ (tax increment reinvestment zone) committee, which uses increased tax revenue from the Midtown area to fund improvement projects there, signaled preliminary support, Reinhardt said. Area property owners have agreed to help with some costs.
“TCI and the design team have been incredibly responsive and we have looked into these issues,” Treviño said.
There’s more room to provide safer, separated bike lanes on those streets, Treviño said, rather than insert narrower, sub-standard ones into Broadway.
“You’re going from parts of Broadway that’s 110 feet to 72-feet wide … it’s a big difference,” he said. “The math problem is you’re now squeezing a lot of elements in. … Then it conflicts with priorities.”
Broadway is currently car-centric with minimal landscaping and some sidewalks measuring just 3-feet-wide and impeded by utility poles. (The lower section of Broadway, as proposed, would bury utilities.)
The most narrow section is 72-feet-wide, which means the desired minimum 10-foot sidewalks (standard is 4 feet), on-street parking/rideshare dropoff points, and four lanes of vehicular traffic would not accommodate the type of fully separated bike lane that could be achieved on Avenue B and Alamo Street, Treviño said.
But Nirenberg is convinced that with sacrifices of street and sidewalks width, some kind of protected bike lane is possible.
The top priority – above vehicular lane width, parking, and sidewalks – is safety, he said.
“You’re compromising safety for the bike lanes and your compromising safety for those that use wider sidewalks,” Treviño said, such as those that use wheelchairs, families, and the elderly.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) chairs the Alamo Area Mobility Policy Organization’s Bicycle Mobility Advisory Committee that reviewed the project and recommended bike lanes.
“I feel very strongly that we should have protected bike lanes the entire stretch [of Broadway],” said Gonzales, who was newly appointed by Nirenberg to chair the Transporation and Mobility Committee. “Absolutely we should sacrifice parking [for a bike lane] and I think we should sacrifice an auto lane.”
Gonzales said the City needs to balance street safety with multimodal use, but bike lanes shouldn’t be what gets deleted first from designs.
“City staff is reluctant to change their message [and design] … I’m sure for their own professional reasons,” Gonzales said. “But bike lanes won’t make the street dangerous.”
Development north of downtown, including apartment buildings, the Pearl, and other improvements, have renewed interest in the Broadway Corridor, and some in the development community along Broadway have said that delays in the project – such as altering the design – delay other investments in the area.
At some point, change is coming to the area, and what happens on Broadway, Nirenberg said, will lay the groundwork for how the City will prioritize complete streets in the future.
“This is a challenge that we have to meet which will bode well or ill for the rest of the future of the implementation of Connect SA,” he said of the nonprofit set up by the City and County, which was tasked to come up with a comprehensive mobility plan.
“No dirt has been turned on Broadway,” he added, so there’s still time.
Treviño agrees that Broadway is a defining moment in how the City handles transportation projects in the future, but doesn’t believe bike lanes are an end-all, be-all solution.
“We want to be thoughtful,” he said. “If the only way to do every project in the city is to do a one-size-fits-all approach, then we’re shortchanging our community. … Not all streets are built the same, not all streets can have the same things.”