An estimated 300,000 people attended the 2016 MLK March in San Antonio's Eastside. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

There is a link between transportation equity and social justice. Providing safe, equitable transportation to ensure all people have the opportunity to participate and prosper is the mission of the Transportation Equity Caucus. The caucus partners with a long list of civil rights and social justice organizations to advocate for safe and equitable walking, cycling, transit and complete streets. These issues might not have been at the forefront during the MLK March on Monday, but in hindsight, the march makes a strong argument for walking.

An estimated 300,000 people marched the 2.75 mile route. That’s a lot of people, more than 20% of the entire population of San Antonio, to move along a route with just four travel lanes. Nonetheless, 300,000 people marched the route over a period of 4 to 5 hours. From a traffic engineering point of view, this provided a robust demonstration of the benefits of walking.

First, the march demonstrated the efficiency of walking. Single occupant vehicles remain the dominant mode share for commuters, accounting for 76% of all commute trips nationally. There is legitimate concern related to the cost of constructing new roads to meet demands of the anticipated 1 million new residents projected to arrive in San Antonio over the next 25 years, and the environmental damage expected from the single occupant vehicles driven by those new residents. Regardless, single occupant vehicles dominate our streets.

So, let’s consider what the MLK march might have looked like if the 300,000 participants had all driven by themselves this past Monday, just like 76% of us do every other day of the year. The math is simple enough. Depending on the standard and service level selected, the capacity of a single lane is 600 to 2,200 vehicles per hours, but a commonly accepted standard is 1,700 vehicles per hour.

With four lanes, it would have taken the 300,000 participants 44 hours to drive the 2.75 miles of the march, or approximately 10 times the amount of time it took people to walk. Of course, this makes one truly absurd assumption, that there would not have been any disruptive events. For example, a driver who loses attention during that 44 hours, a collision, or a mechanical failure, any of which would trigger congestion. A single lane shut down could add up to 11 hours to an already very long two days.

There remains an alternative. Just add capacity. After all, the march has not always drawn 300,000 people. The march has grown steadily over the past 31 years, just as San Antonio has grown steadily. And, just as San Antonio has steadily added more and more lane miles to the city’s road network to combat congestion, we could add more and more lane miles to Martin Luther King Drive to manage congestion of single occupant vehicles during the march.

The route just needs to be improved, meaning it needs to be expanded to 35 lanes wide, to manage congestion and comfortably move those 300,000 vehicles through that 2.75 miles in 5 hours. Granted, 35 lanes sounds absurdly stupid, but it is just a little wider than the 26 lanes of the Katy Freeway in Houston. And thanks to Governor Greg Abbott, Representative Joe Straus, Propositions 1 and 7,  and the San Antonio Toll Party, we can build those additional 31 lanes for free. Well, maybe not free, but at least toll-free and hopefully without HOV or managed lanes. It will still cost about $213 million to improve Martin Luther King Drive, but that is a lot cheaper than the roughly $500 million expansion to U.S. Highway 281, or $400 million to build interchanges on Loop 410 at SH 151 and U.S. Highway 90. There is a long list of San Antonio highway projects in the multi-hundreds of millions of dollars price range, so one more mega highway project is no big deal. It is what we do.

Before we fixate on 35 lanes, any smart planner knows you need a study to predict future travel demand, and then inflate that by a good margin. By 2040, San Antonio will be home to 2.6 million people, so the march could be 500,000 people. With that level of demand, 35 lanes would not be sufficient to even maintain existing congestion. Travel delay along Martin Luther King Drive could grow from 10 or 15 seconds to as much as 30 seconds during peak travel times. A total of 60 lanes will be needed to maintain existing levels of service, and another $172 million to build those lanes.

Don’t worry about budgeting for repair and preservation. We build highways, but we don’t plan for their preservation and repair until the bill comes due. It’s just what we do.

There are people who will argue building a 60-lane highway through a neighborhood is a bad idea. Such a project would destroy the fabric of the neighborhood, encourage speeding, degrade air quality and create dangerous roads that are hostile to pedestrians and kill a lot of people that are inside and outside the cars speeding through the neighborhood.

Sure, people will complain, but remember any road as big as 60 lanes will have to be built and managed by TxDOT, and TxDOT has been building highways through poor neighborhoods for more than 70 years. It is what they do. And, as evident on one of TxDOT’s latest highway improvements, Culebra Road, these improvements are good for encouraging people to drive fast, but they are not so good for safety.

Yes, a lot of people will die, but a disproportionate amount of those people will be pedestrians, who statistically are poor and a minority. The words “safe” and “reliable” are in TxDOT’s mission, and they are very serious about “reliable,” although not so serious about “safe,” as evident by the fact that Texas roads kill more Americans than other state. To ensure “reliable,” officials will lean on state law that requires pedestrians to pretty much always yield to drivers. And, if pedestrian fatalities happen frequently enough to gain public attention, TxDOT, law enforcement and local officials will run an education campaign to tell people walking to yield to people driving pretty much all of the time. It won’t save lives, but it is what we do.

Air quality is going to be a problem. We know that because air quality already is a problem, and all those single occupant vehicles are a major contributor. We are not really all that worried about air quality itself, but we are worried when the federal funding used to build the highways, which is used to subsidize sprawl and promote more driving, is drying up. As the Alamo Area Council of Governments will tell you, the risk of federal highway dollars drying up is pretty much a hollow threat, so long as we commit to exhaust pipe testing and idling ordinances to make it look like we are serious about improving air quality. Then we’ll get the money to improve more streets into highways that kill more people and pollute more air. But, that is what we do.

Or, we can save $385 million, lots of lives, the environment and a neighborhood by walking. Kids and volunteers can have that one day a year where they can recklessly dart into the street and not be killed or maimed by someone speeding through the neighborhood. We can join together in community and march for equity and social justice. We can improve our health and happiness by … walking. We can carry the message from the Transportation Equity Caucus and demand complete streets that are safe and pleasant for people walking and cycling. We can fund a quality public transportation system and build an urban environment that makes public transit the first choice of motorized travel, but walking and cycling the preferred choices of all modes of travel. We could go a step further and make it so that kids can dart into the street any day of the year without being killed or maimed because there are not drivers speeding through the neighborhood, just by making the city walkable.

We can walk because, come to find out, walking is more efficient, pleasant, and safer than driving, especially if you need to move 300,000 people. That is what we should do.

*Top image: An estimated 300,000 people attended the 2016 MLK March in San Antonio’s Eastside. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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Kevin Barton

Kevin Barton is an Associate Professor-Professional Track in Computer Information Systems at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. A retired USAF Chief Master Sergeant, his experience living in Asia, Central...