What makes a city with more than 140 miles of trails, a 15-mile-long River Walk, and a plan to build more sidewalks along busy corridors, actually so bad for walking?

San Antonio is ranked 37th among large U.S. cities by Walk Score for walkability. The score comes from analyzing a metropolitan area’s walkability and how easily people can use their own two feet, rather than a vehicle, to get to the places they need to go — work, school, the grocery store or the doctor’s office.

The relatively low score means that despite miles of sidewalks, crosswalks and paths throughout the city, San Antonio has less-than-favorable walkability.

Less walking has an impact on people’s health and the environment, but it’s also bad news for attracting business and economic development in a sprawling and fast-growing city built more for cars than the human beings who live here.

Opinion polls show people want to walk when they can, and the desire for walkable neighborhoods is high. Perhaps as evidence, San Antonio residents regularly take to the extensive trail system for recreational walking. But when it comes to using their own two feet with a destination in mind, getting from place to place on foot is difficult in many parts of the city.

Designing a city for vehicles to ferry people to those places results not only in unsafe and undesirable pedestrian conditions across the city but also an ever-expanding need for more roads, highways and parking lots, according to architect and urban planner Andrés Duany.

These are not new ideas. “Because regardless of the number of lanes that are built, there are never enough lanes,” said Duany, presenting his thoughts on the concept of new urbanism and walkability to a San Antonio group of planners and designers more than 30 years ago. 

Instead of adding lanes that encourage more traffic, Duany argued that cities should develop more walkability through dense mixed-use planning and by designing short blocks and narrow lanes for both vehicles and pedestrians to use. For San Antonio, it’s not enough to point to the River Walk and its “wonderful downtown” for walkability, he said.

“There is another San Antonio outside of that area, which is identical to the mess that is occurring in most other cities,” Duany said. “It’s the pattern of suburban sprawl. That is the San Antonio which no one takes you to visit and is unremarkable in every way.” 

Useful walking

With an official Walk Score of just 34 out of a “walker’s paradise” of 100, San Antonio is behind places like Austin, El Paso and even Dallas, and far behind top-placers New York City, Chicago and Portland. When it comes to cycling, San Antonio scores a 45.

Some individual neighborhoods score much higher for walkability than San Antonio overall. Downtown (82), Five Points (80), Arsenal (79), Tobin Hill (78) and King William (78) top the list.

Acquired by online real estate listing service Redfin in 2014, the Walk Score is calculated by looking at walking routes to nearby amenities along with population density and road metrics to determine pedestrian “friendliness,” according to Redfin. 

In other words, it takes into account how far people have to walk to actually get somewhere and what the experience of walking in everyday life is really like. It does not base the score on counting the number of sidewalks in a neighborhood.

Jenna Stoeltje, development manager at the real estate investment management company Embrey, agrees with that approach. “People don’t really want to walk just to walk,” she said. “They want to take a walk if it’s useful.”

Vehicles travel through a roundabout at the intersection of Blanco Road and Fulton Avenue on Thursday.
Vehicles travel through a roundabout at the intersection of Blanco Road and Fulton Avenue on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Stoeltje became a disciple of urban walkability after reading Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time by city designer Jeff Speck. She hosted a discussion based on the book last fall with the San Antonio chapter of the Urban Land Institute

In his book, Speck outlines a “general theory of walkability,” which proclaims that in order to be truly walkable, cities must make walking useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

Quality of life

Walkability is what people want — and need. 

A 2021 poll by the National Association of Realtors showed that people want to live in a walkable neighborhood, with three-quarters of those polled saying it is very or somewhat important to them to live within walking distance of places within the community such as shops and parks.

That plays out in where people choose to live. Stoeltje pointed out that walkability also impacts recruiting, retention and ultimately economic development. 

“I think if San Antonio wants to be a truly competitive city, we have to offer different types of lifestyles here,” she said.

“If we’re trying to attract certain businesses — industries that rely a lot on a young, highly educated labor force — a lot of those people want to live somewhere where they can get an urban experience and a walkable experience and San Antonio just does not offer that.”

For many in the area, walking is a necessity rather than a choice. In Bexar County, 7.2% of households have no access to a personal vehicle, and 35% have access to only one. And for most who rely on public transportation, walking or cycling the proverbial “last mile” to and from bus stops is a must. 

There’s also the physical and mental health factor. People who live in walkable areas report they have a better quality of life, according to the realtor study, and are less likely to have diabetes or obesity, according to Science Daily

Sidewalks aren’t enough

The pedestrian and cycling advocacy group Activate SA defines a walkable neighborhood as one that has reliable and comfortable infrastructure for pedestrians, infrastructure that is safe for them to use and attractive destinations within walking distance of a residence. 

Examples of these places in San Antonio, according to the group, include Southtown and Monte Vista. Mature trees shading those neighborhood streets also help to solve the problem of walking during San Antonio’s hot summer days.

But other neighborhoods within the urban core don’t meet all three criteria to make them walkable. Those include areas along the six-lane Culebra Road west of Interstate 10, despite the sidewalks and other improvements added in 2010, said David Bemporad, a planner at ActivateSA. 

“The Culebra corridor has wide and sometimes separated sidewalks, with attractive recreational, institutional and commercial destinations along it — but is so unsafe for pedestrians that it is not walkable” due to its higher vehicle speed limits, Bemporad said.

Another example is far North San Antonio, where there are many neighborhoods with housing clusters, winding streets and a single — sometimes gated — entrance; workplaces, schools, shopping or other destinations often aren’t accessible by foot. 

Despite plentiful sidewalks and lower speed limits, there’s nowhere to go unless the people who live there pile into the minivan.

One standout for the future of walkability in San Antonio appeared to be forming along Broadway Street south of Alamo Heights past the Pearl to downtown. That is until the Texas Transportation Commission voted recently to turn the roadway back into a state highway, effectively tabling the city’s plan for lane reductions, wider sidewalks and protections for cyclists along a 3-mile stretch.

How Broadway will end up looking is still unknown, but neighborhoods in the urban core, like the Pearl and Government Hill, tend to be the most walkable areas in any city. Downtown San Antonio, with its grid system of streets and density, is no exception.

“San Antonio does have an incredible core that is very vast,” said Mario Peña, co-founding partner, certified planner and architect at Able City. “And sure, it’s been cut up by highways, unfortunately. But there’s a really enormous urban grid that has an incredible variety of densities.”

Pedestrian safety

There’s a very real financial incentive for municipalities to develop with walkability in mind. Walkable streets encourage everyday business activity, generate greater tax revenue per acre and offer a higher return on investment than auto-oriented streets, according to a report by the public advocacy group, Strong Towns.

To achieve true walkability in a city, urban planners say changes must be made to zoning laws and building codes that allow for more mixed uses and density within an area. 

The city of San Antonio is currently updating its building codes, last approved in 2015. Among the nearly 300 proposed amendments being considered through a year-long process is at least one that calls for more mixed-use zoning options that could be used to further implement the SA Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan

For now, the city appears to be focused mostly on the safety aspect of walkability, in the form of sidewalks and crosswalks. In 2016, officials kicked off Vision Zero SA, a program to implement public awareness campaigns and install safety improvements in an effort to reach zero fatalities or serious injuries on San Antonio roadways.

Most of Vision Zero’s $6.2 million budget this year is going toward designing 28 mid-block crossings where a high number of pedestrian fatalities and injuries have occurred.

Pedestrian mobility also is a major part of the 2022 bond package. If passed by voters in May, about 76% of the total package would fund drainage, streets, sidewalks and parks, with $1 million directed to pedestrian mobility in each of the 10 city council districts.

Suburban housing

When the architect Duany talks of development that is not walkable, he shows off aerial photographs of serpentine streets and homogenous homes in housing subdivisions that began to change the American landscape after World War II.

Decades later, residential developers are still working overtime to meet the demand for such neighborhoods.

But this common suburban model presumes everyone owns a car, Peña said, and it’s a model that restricts the movements of major segments of the population, especially the old and the young. 

Developer Ed Cross acknowledges that real estate development and engineering industries have been focused on the car-centric version of planning for many years.

“That model still works, and it still works great — they cannot keep up with demand,” he said. “And they’re never going to change their model unless there’s another model that works better.”  

He is working to change that focus with a New Urbanist, transit-oriented development known as Vicinia, located at Military Drive and Potranco Road, in the far northwest part of San Antonio. His project broke ground in late 2019 and is modeled after developments such as Addison Circle near Dallas and the Mueller community in Austin.

While Cross believes San Antonio’s building codes have all the “tools” necessary for creating density in a suburban development like what he’s planning with Vicinia, he has faced other challenges in achieving the pedestrian-friendly environment he envisions. 

Cross said he’s having to work hard to convince traffic engineers trained in building streets for the efficient movement of cars to rethink that approach, reduce speed limits and make room for on-street parking and bike lanes.

“Slowly but surely, that change is happening,” he said. 

Long commute

But when Cross drives west on Highway 90, he can see that the growth of typical suburban housing is “exploding” between San Antonio and the town of Castroville, which he calls “the next Boerne” for how fast it’s developing.

New subdivisions like Meridian, Luckey Ranch and Alsatian Oaks are filling a demand for the kind of single-family housing that’s not available in the urban core, he said.

But walkability beyond a short jaunt home from the school bus stop or taking the dog around the block does not exist there.

Shortly after Jamie Bradley changed jobs in January, from small-town barista to administrator with a commercial real estate firm in San Antonio, she was shocked at how long it took her to get home.

What was a 10-minute walk to work from her place in sleepy downtown Castroville, or a quick drive, is now a 20-mile highway commute from an office near Interstate 10 to Luckey Ranch that can take up to an hour. Bradley began surveying her friends for advice on how to fill the commuting time. 

She looks forward to the day she lands a dream job in a city like New York, where everyone walks and uses convenient public transportation, and she can’t wait to someday trade her pickup truck for walking shoes.

For now, though, the need to take her mind off traffic tie-ups has her looking for audiobook recommendations. “You gotta do something while you’re just sitting,” she said.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.