Feb. 20 marks the three-year anniversary of the death of Irie Suarez, a fifth-grade student at Kallison Elementary who was struck and killed by a motorist while riding her bike to school.
Irie lived and died at Valley Ranch, a sprawling neighborhood in far West San Antonio, where new subdivisions are gobbling up former farmland. She was one of three Bexar County cyclists to die in 2020 after being hit by a motor vehicle. In 2021, there were seven such fatalities and nine last year, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
In the eight-county San Antonio metro area, there have been 55 fatal cycling accidents since 2013, and 266 incidents in which cyclists sustained “suspected serious injuries.” Those numbers made San Antonio the country’s 16th most deadly U.S. city for bicyclists, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation Fatality Analysis Reporting System data by CarInsurance.org.
As San Antonio’s population continues to grow and the roads become more congested, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous for bicyclists.
In Irie’s case, police determined she lost control of her bike while riding on the sidewalk and swerved into the street, where she was struck and killed. The incident happened on Ranch View, off Culebra Road, one of San Antonio’s most congested roads.
“If you would have met her she would have touched your heart. … You
wouldn’t have forgotten her. You can’t forget her,” Irie’s mother, Chantelle
Suarez, told KSAT-TV.
Following Irie’s death, an online petition was created and submitted to Bexar County officials, requesting the installation of protective guardrails along Ranch View.
Renee Green, director of the Bexar County Public Works Department, said that while that stretch of Ranch View doesn’t meet Federal Highway Administration standards for erecting a guardrail, the department studied traffic and pedestrian safety in the area.
In the next few months, the county plans to install a four-way stop in front of Kallison Elementary, refresh pavement markings along the road and install driver speed feedback signals, Green said.
While Irie’s death occurred in the suburbs, more common are fatal incidents involving cyclists in busy, urban areas. Tito Bradshaw, for example, a well-known cycling enthusiast, was struck and killed in 2019 by a drunk driver while riding along the 1900 block of East Houston Street. And last March cyclist Craig Gulledge was killed — one of three local cycling deaths that month — while trying to cross a Loop 410 access road near Salado Creek Greenway.
Such tragedies have local advocacy groups like Bike San Antonio emphasizing the need for safer bike infrastructure, education and awareness.
“Our mission is to make San Antonio safe to bike for people of all ages and capabilities,” said Bryan Martin, executive director of Bike San Antonio. “A lot depends on where you ride, but I’d say in general, San Antonio is not very safe for bicyclists. I ride an electric bike that goes 30 miles per hour and even that’s not fast enough for most folks in a car.”
Tina Beecham is the founder of the local cycling group Pedal SATX and co-leader of the Black Girls Do Bike San Antonio Chapter. Beecham said she rides her bike at least three to four times a week, often in the downtown area and east San Antonio. Because she’s an experienced rider, she said she feels fairly confident on the road. But she’s had plenty of close calls, including almost being hit by a truck when it erratically swerved into a parking lot.
“I talk to a lot of cyclists in San Antonio and many are concerned about safety and how the cycling infrastructure is just not there,” she said. “I think the city needs to do a better job of putting pedestrian and bike safety in the forefront.”
’20th century model’
Like many fast-growing cities, San Antonio’s transportation infrastructure was developed almost solely for cars. Making the roadways safer for people traveling on two wheels rather than four is a challenge, especially as the region’s population continues to swell, putting more people and cars on the roadways.
“The reality is that in this state people prefer using cars,” said Tomika Monterville, director of transportation for the City of San Antonio. “Texas has a lot of highways. We were the 20th-century model of what highway construction should look like. But here we are today in 2023, and we’re challenged in that communities have been decimated and disconnected as a result of our press towards building highways and roadways.”
Monterville said that through the decades, San Antonio officials eliminated safe spaces for cyclists and pedestrians so motorists could get in and out of the downtown core quickly. This approach included building a lot of one-way streets throughout the central business district.
“And that is antithetical to keeping pedestrians and cyclists safe,” she said.
Broadway Street has long been an area of contention when it comes to bicycle safety. For years cyclists advocated for adding bike lanes along the busy corridor, including launching an online petition. But in November 2019, San Antonio City Council agreed to use $6 million special area tax revenues to instead fund protected bike lanes on Avenue B and North Alamo Street — streets adjacent to Broadway — for 1 mile near downtown.
But the city’s plan to reduce the number of vehicle lanes on a stretch of Broadway further north was derailed when the Texas Department of Transportation took back control of the thoroughfare and prohibited lane reductions that would have enabled the addition of protected bike lanes.
One of the city’s main initiatives for addressing cycling and pedestrian safety is Vision Zero, an international program that started in the 1990s and aims to eliminate traffic fatalities of all types, not just those involving cyclists. San Antonio first adopted its Vision Zero plan in 2015, setting forth strategies on how to improve the city’s road systems, policies and road user behavior.
It’s a daunting and complex challenge, and Monterville said her department is focusing on education and building infrastructure to help pedestrians and cyclists stay safe. This includes working with the city’s Public Works Department to implement cycling and pedestrian safety features like mid-block crossings and bike lanes when repaving or constructing roadways.
She said Vision Zero is also intended to help educate pedestrians, cyclists and motorists about how San Antonio’s roads are designed. As part of this process, the city’s Transportation Department is working with TxDOT to identify traffic generators and activity centers, where factors like traffic volume and vehicle rate of speed are examined.
“We’re trying to create spaces where, no matter your mode of transportation, you can travel safely,” Monterville said.
Smaller-scale programs include the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Street Skills classes. This free, hour-long program for adults and teens covers examples of city cycling scenarios and best practices for staying safe.
Updating the bike plan
In addition to these programs, the city in January began updating its San Antonio Bike Plan, which was first adopted in 2011. The San Antonio City Council included $2.7 million in its 2022 budget to update the plan, which calls for such measures as improving road capacity and connectivity and analyzing traffic operations to determine the impacts of adding bicycle facilities.
Monterville said among the goals for the revamped bike plan is to develop a feasibility study, which the city hopes to complete in two years, for implementing new bicycle facilities and other multimodal infrastructure, as well as determining the costs required to maintain the infrastructure.
“That part is critical,” Monterville said. “We have to determine the cost of achieving our goals. Because we lose credibility as a city if we put in this amazing infrastructure, but don’t maintain it.”
The bike plan also calls for collecting data, such as how many people in San Antonio ride bikes and where. “We’ve collected a lot of traffic data about cars, but we haven’t been as equitable in considering counts for pedestrians and cyclists,” she said.
To collect the data, Monterville said it’s important for the city to talk with the biking community to get input on issues like where they feel the safest — and least safe — when riding. She added the city uses certain metrics to determine the expected stress levels of bicyclists, such as the width of a road and the speed limit.
“Statistics show that if bicyclists are riding on roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or higher and there are no protected lanes, the odds are you’re going to get seriously injured or die,” she said. “It’s going to happen.”
Monterville said the city’s goal is to complete the feasibility study in two years. During that time, Monterville said the city plans to host regular meetings with the biking community, but Martin of Bike San Antonio remains skeptical.
“The city adopted the plan like 12 years ago and it literally just sat on a shelf collecting dust,” he said. “And that’s why a lot of the cycling community just doesn’t trust that anything is going to really change.”
Martin said he’s hopeful initiatives like Vision Zero and the San Antonio Bike Plan make a difference. But he said he’s heard the city make these kinds of ambitious plans before and believes, “at the end of the day, it’s mostly lip service.”