Photo taken in early 2012 during the dredging and re-shaping of the river along the Mission Reach. This wide, flood plain section of the river is known as Lake Davis. Photo by Rudolf Harst.
Photo taken in early 2012 during the dredging and re-shaping of the river along the Mission Reach. This wide, flood plain section of the river is known as Lake Davis. Photo by Rudolf Harst.

I am an ex-San Antonian who visited in May and pleasantly biked on the San Antonio River expansion three times. I live in New York City now, where I bike regularly for transportation and recreation. I attended Brackenridge High School long before the expansion and played tennis on the courts near the river after school, which resembled an overrun weed filled drainage ditch over which sickening whiffs of hops from the Lone Star Brewery wafted.

I thought about how much more pleasant it would have been to do required running my coach made us do along the river instead of warped city sidewalks. Thus, it is very refreshing to see the changes the San Antonio River Improvements Project brought. So, I braced myself as I read the recent Rivard Report bike-related articles and the inevitable blame bicyclists would receive.

I was fortunate to bike when the river path from the Blue Star Complex to Espada Park was not crowded, so I did not experience major congestion the articles discussed. As I read these articles my premise was reinforced that our problems with transportation begin at the pedestrian level and escalate up the mobility cycle. Yet it seems most articles and discussions on transportation that focus on shared space, almost without exception, place a disproportionate amount of blame on cyclists, whether the complainants are drivers or pedestrians.

Cyclists ride north right before sunset on the Mission Trail. Photo by Scott Ball.
Cyclists ride north right before sunset on the Mission Trail. Photo by Scott Ball.

I must mention that I regularly experience terrible pedestrian/commuter behavior as a regular bus and subway rider and as a pedestrian on congested sidewalks and at intersections in New York. Urban biking is increasing in many major cities, still cyclists are treated as either an afterthought during planning or a nuisance after designs are finalized, hence the ongoing conflict. A couple of things are important for everyone to keep in mind when engaging in such discussions  if we are to have meaningful progress on such issues:

  1. Collectively, we have an individualistic approach to public space use for transportation regardless of how we travel, but this acknowledgement seems lacking from discussions.
  2. We seem to be naturally engaged in an us-versus-them mindset over limited resources for such spaces, regardless of the issue involved.

With some truly bold, creative thinking and outreach efforts, we can work to overcome these tendencies.

I have not lived in San Antonio since my early adult years, so I am not familiar with the workings of various agencies, commissions, political, and civic organizations that converge to advance large-scale projects like the river improvement project.  I am curious to learn, however, about the planning that went into the expansion. Who was involved? Were bike advocates invited to participate? Were (or are) there possible considerations for repurposing parts of the trail to accommodate higher-speed users? Why are many surprised about the popularity of higher-speed activities on the river, given the lack of such space throughout the city? I am curious to hear if those who have concerns about the current state were engaged during the planning phase. I believe educating a wider audience on the background could be helpful to address issues that may lead to suggested changes on the path or future projects.

A friend rides ahead on the Mission Reach. Photo by Craig Mills.
A friend rides ahead on the Mission Reach. Photo by Craig Mills.

Education about the rules of the road is important for everyone, but so is careful planning and questioning. Officials presumably discussed the expectant popularity of the park. Did they discuss plans for either a wider or separate path to accommodate bicyclists? Quite possibly, this could have alleviated some of the current problems if separate bike space had been planned. However, bikes are often not given careful consideration when separating cars from pedestrians. Yet in a classic case of “If you build it, they will come,” the width of the river path seems narrow given the anticipated activity of strollers, walkers, runners, bikers, and bladers that would seek this space for various activities at different rates and speeds of use.

Some might suggest that there is no space to build a wider path along the river, but this is where the unique thinking and advanced planning techniques could help. Such a situation evokes the legacy of Robert Moses, the masterful, if controversial, builder of parks and roads who completed many unimaginable projects with considerable ingenuity to “Get Things Done” throughout an already heavily-developed New York City and metropolitan area. This is not to advocate for an usurpation of property to build a wider or separate path. However, with so much parkland abutting the river on the Eagleland and Mission Reach, it seems that land could be repurposed to create a separate bike lane to alleviate much of the conflict.

Both Rivard Report articles referenced the pedestrian death caused by a cyclist in Central Park in September as proof of the growing possibility of a serious accident along the river. This accident is, of course, unspeakably tragic and has generated considerable discussion among bikers, pedestrians, and the legal community. The layouts of both park roads and density of usage are considerably different, however, and each has its unique problems that do not yield similar equivalents. To be sure, Central Park’s road is much wider – it is an actual road that opens to vehicular traffic at certain hours – more localized and central, and hillier, which encourages continuous higher speed biking, congestion aside.

A path (road) through Central Park.
A path (road) through Central Park. Courtesy photo.

San Antonio’s River Walk, by contrast, is a curvy sidewalk, which naturally forces bikers to slow at points. This is not to minimize either the risk of collisions that can occur on the path, or the fear a pedestrian might experience as an unsuspecting cyclist whizzes by. Nonetheless, the width of Central Park’s roadway makes continuation of high-speed biking more possible in a way that does not seem possible with any reasonable level of pedestrian traffic on the Mission Reach path.

It is extremely unfortunate that in San Antonio, where the car is king, the few large open spaces like the River Walk exist and such a relatively small amount of pavement is allotted for the amount of activity the park supports. I have kept up enough with recent transportation events in San Antonio to know projects that help render people less dependent on cars, like the closed bike lane on Flores Street and the resistance to carshare and streetcars, to name a few, receive little support and, at times, outright hostility. Until the broader community recognizes the link between such projects and a more efficient, livable city, the car will enjoy its unquestioned primacy.

My hope is that instead of maintaining an adversarial relationship with bicyclists, pedestrians and park advocates can unite with bicyclists to advocate for a separate bike lane. Investment in quality of life improvements in the park will be worth the effort. Because, let’s face it, without an outright ban against bikes, they will be on the path. Perhaps the concerned groups will study a bike path’s feasibility and work together to get things done.

*Featured/top image: Photo taken in early 2012 during the dredging and reshaping of the river along the Mission Reach. This wide floodplain section of the river is known as Lake Davis. Photo by Rudolf Harst.

Related Stories:

Sharing the San Antonio River A Growing Problem 

Slow Down and Share the Path, Cyclists

Síclovía No. 7 Turns East to Dignowity Park

Riding Bikes to the Quarry: A Slightly Treacherous Adventure

Kayaking in King William and Along the Mission Reach

Craig is an ex-San Antonian who lives in New York City where he has worked in charter school management and economic development. He is currently an adjunct professor at NYU. He is very interested in urban...