For San Antonio to be at its healthiest, its residents need and deserve safe places to move more and sit less.

However, there is inequity in the city’s places designated for walking, biking, playing, and being active. City officials must look beyond maps of facility locations to the context of real people trying to make healthy life choices.

For example, a map of the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System shows an “emerald necklace” going around and through San Antonio. Yet, these trails are only open from sunrise to sunset, which means they are open less than 12 hours per day for six months out of the year.

Many working families striving to be more active and less sedentary are unable to access the trails within this limited window. Southside residents, in particular, face additional barriers because the southern-most access point of the Mission Trail – off Villamain Road – is only open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

That’s why I asked the San Antonio mayoral candidates about their plans to solve this inequity at the recent town hall forum hosted by the Rivard Report at the Pearl Stable.

“What are you going to do to transform our incredible trail system from a recreational facility to a health and transportation facility that is safe and accessible for everyone?” I asked Mayor Ivy Taylor, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina.

Listen to their full responses to the questions here.

Here’s a quick snapshot of their responses:

“I don’t know about the hours that it should be open or not, because certainly we also want to make sure that anyone that’s out there is safe,” Taylor said.

“It needs to [be] more than just a system that connects one park to another,” Nirenberg said. 

“We need to make it easier for people to get to them,” Medina said.

None of the candidates mentioned expanding hours, lighting, or patrolling trails, but we cannot ignore the great need for access to safe, active places.

Why? Here’s a quick biology lesson (from someone who is not a biologist):

Our cardiovascular system is our lifeline for delivering oxygen, vitamins, minerals, proteins, hormones, and other chemicals to our organs, muscles, bones, and all other tissues. It also is our lifeline for getting rid of carbon dioxide and other waste. Our veins and arteries are constantly squeezing and releasing – vasoconstriction and vasodilation – to pump our nutrient- or waste-filled blood. Like any muscle atrophies without use, our blood vessels lose function and become less effective without physical activity. However, the exact mechanism through which this occurs is complex and not fully understood.

Basically, sitting increases inflammation, which damages the inner walls of your vessels (endothelium). Moderately intense physical activity, however, preserves the inner walls of these vessels and prevents plaque buildup and hardening.

These benefits are separate from the numerous other benefits obtained from various other chemical, molecular, and biological processes that occur when you are physically active, such as reduced risk for diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, depression, osteoporosis, and many types of cancer.

The good news is that walking works regardless of weight status or diet, and you can walk or be active in short bursts throughout your day without having to depart from your normal daily routine.

If you have access to safe places, that is.

Educating people about the trails is moot when they are closed for half the day. Similarly, considering the trails as a resource for connectivity isn’t painting a complete picture because they are only open part-time, which is counterproductive to the essences of connectivity.

A recent SA2020 report identified four indicators in San Antonio that have stopped progressing or are going in the wrong direction: public transportation, obesity, air quality, and walkability. According to the report there is a “need to continue to make both behavioral and systemic changes in our policies and infrastructure in order to make lasting change.”

I hope our city leaders consider making lasting infrastructure changes.

In the case of our greenway trail system, the infrastructure is mostly in place, so it’s a matter of opening it to the public to use at whichever times accommodate their busy schedules.

Broadway Street was closed for Síclovía so hundreds of bikers could safely ride the streets.
Broadway Street was closed for Síclovía so hundreds of bikers could safely ride the streets. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

While there are incredible programs and events across the city – Fitness in the Park, Síclovía, Fit Pass, Fit Family Challenge, San Antonio Walks, Mobile Fit, Walk This Way, and many more – permanent infrastructure like trails and sidewalks need to be safe and accessible year-round.

I also hope our leaders can distinguish the line between physical activity for health and for exercise or recreation, which are historically only accessible for the privileged and less available for residents living in underserved areas. Physical activity for health includes walking, biking, dancing, playing, skating, doing yoga, swimming, and many other activities.

People of color and low-income populations are disproportionately burdened by pedestrian injuries and deaths.

According to Salud America!’s research review on active spaces and Latino kids, fewer Latinos (70%) than whites (82.5%) describe having neighborhoods with safe places for kids to walk and play.   

Studies show that walkable neighborhoods provide many economic, safety, environmental, health, and social benefits; however, not all neighborhoods in San Antonio are created equal, with many low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods lacking safe, walkable infrastructure.

Inequity in access to safe places to walk, bike, and play can be seen on the South, West, and East sides of San Antonio. Lack of safe places to be active means people living in these areas face disparities in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Some bright spots are occurring: In February 2017, State Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) proposed House Bill 1368 to lower the default speed limit in urban areas from 30 mph to 25 mph, as well as House Bill 1745 to allow cities to lower speed limits on certain highways without the costly burdens mandated by current legislation. Making it easier for cities to lower speed limits is critical because most crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists occur on arterial or collector roadways where default speeds are far greater than 30 mph.    

District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales is leading the San Antonio Vision Zero initiative, with the goal to eliminate traffic fatalities, especially those of pedestrians.

According to SA2020, San Antonio continues to make progress on Complete Streets, but not at a rate great enough to meet the 2020 goal. When the City didn’t meet Dignowity Hill residents’ standards for a street construction project, urban planners and residents got involved by requesting and successfully gaining more walkable streetscape elements.

Regardless, safe places to walk and be active are big part of public health and equity issues that need attention.

San Antonians would surely like to hear that City leaders are working to improve equitable access to health facilities, including expanded hours, lighting, and safety. Research shows that scheduling park programs later in the evening keeps parks occupied by people engaging in beneficial activities, thus deterring undesirable ones.

San Antonio has a new set of bond measures on the ballot in May. It’s vital for community members to get involved and keep the focus on the real-life context in which these projects will be completed. Fifty-two plus miles of trails sounds great on paper and look awesome on a map, but if people can’t walk their dogs on them before or after work, they represent a missed opportunity.

Salud America! has a bank of resources and nationwide stories to help community members work with City leaders to increase access to safe places to walk and play, particularly in Latino communities.

Follow Salud America! on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest and register on our site. You can connect with local groups and organizations that are already working to make the healthy choice the easy choice, such as the Active Living Council of San Antonioa public-private partnership of policymakers, business leaders, school administrators, program providers, and community members that developed the Active Living Plan for a Healthier San Antonio. Or you can learn from case studies of successful healthy change across the country.

Together, we can prioritize equitable access to safe, active places in San Antonio and beyond.

Amanda Merck

Amanda Merck is a content curator/research area specialist for Salud America! at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She also is a VIA board member.