San Antonians need to shake things up and change their mindsets to make the city more livable, safer, and enjoyable for people of all ages, urbanist Gil Penalosa said Friday in a keynote address at an annual professional development seminar hosted by the local chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar International (WTS).

A capacity crowd that included many transportation professionals gathered at Hardberger Park’s Urban Ecology Center to hear Penalosa, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and other experts speak at the event, titled “Planning Cities for Pre-K and Grey,” which focused on how transportation, planning, public health, and quality of life are connected.

Penalosa is the Toronto-based founder and board chairman 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit that works to make cities livable for all residents, including the youngest and oldest. He extolled the benefits of parks, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes, and how these provide opportunities for everyone who wants to exercise, play, and connect with each other, and to feel more invested in their community.

Parks should be plentiful, well-lit at night, and offer activities for young children, the elderly, the disabled, and low-income individuals. He said sidewalks should be wide and be free of obstacles such as poles and electric scooters. Penalosa added that bike lanes should be separate from pedestrian pathways and should connect neighborhoods.

Penalosa called on elected officials, engineers, and planners to be bold and willing to change their outlook and approach to developing urban areas of all kinds.

“We need to create cities around people,” he said.

Wolff, who joined Penalosa for the discussion, cited improvements to the city’s urban core that in recent years have enhanced residents’ quality of life: the San Antonio River’s Mission and Museum reaches; the San Pedro Creek restoration; the Pearl; the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts; new housing, office, and retail spaces; sidewalk improvements; and the planned conversion of Broadway as a “complete street.”

“If you can’t do all that with density, you cannot do what [Penalosa] is talking about,” Wolff said.

Wolff said now the aim is to develop similar regional centers around places such as La Cantera, The Rim, and the University of Texas at San Antonio, as well as at the Medical Center, as identified in the SA Tomorrow plan.

“If we can figure how to do what [Penalosa] is talking about in some of these major urban areas, then we can get somewhere,” Wolff said.

Wolff said he would like to see the County and City develop even more trails and parks, specifically sports parks.

“That’s the connecting link, as we all spread out, that can be used for bikes or walking along the creeks,” he said. “We  … have a lot more work to make it happen.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Penalosa offered an array of ideas, including holding síclovías more frequently, opening public school playgrounds to the community after-hours, building more islands in the middle of large streets to encourage safer crossings for pedestrians, lowering speed limits in certain areas, and fuel-efficient bus rapid transit systems that stress better connectivity and frequency.

One panel at Friday’s WTS seminar reviewed recent developments related to transportation legislation. Some of the panelists lamented the Legislature’s vote to ban red-light cameras at intersections. One provision lets Balcones Heights, Leon Valley, and other cities currently contracting with red-light camera operators, to continue those contracts until they expire.

Margarita Hernandez, special projects manager with the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department (TCI), called the ban disappointing. She said red-light cameras have proven useful toward reminding motorists to be more cautious at intersections.

“What really, truly changes your behavior is when you get cited for something,” she added. “Unfortunately, this tool was taken away, but we’re just going to view this as a setback.”

Vic Boyer, San Antonio Mobility Coalition president and chief executive officer, said the 86th Legislature benefited highway construction and improvements, but not mass transit.

Lawmakers pushed back the expiration date of the Proposition I highway funding supply from 2024 to 2034. But Bexar County’s legislative delegation did not get far with its proposal to raise the Advanced Transportation District (ATD) sales tax through a local petition and election process.

Local mass transit leaders say more ATD funding will help VIA Metropolitan Transit with initiatives to increase rider connectivity and frequency.

“If you’re into highways, it was a pretty good session,” Boyer said. “If you’re into mass transit, we’ve got work to do.”

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.