I am not going to defend urban activists striping our City’s streets in the dark of night, but anyone with a sense of humor has to appreciate the creative use of toilet bowl plungers to erect a safety barrier between vehicles and pedestrians at the dangerous intersection of North St. Mary’s and East Mistletoe.

Commuters, cyclists, parents dropping off children at area schools, and others who passed through the busy intersection Friday morning were greeted by a new crosswalk with bold white stripes painted across the pavement, and new traffic lines visible on the street intended to shorten the distance between curbs and slow traffic. Brightly colored polka dots accented the newly demarcated perimeter. Bright orange plungers were affixed to the street, forming a physical border between people and vehicle traffic.

It was an unauthorized reminder, courtesy of the shadowy San Antonio Department of Transformation (SADOT) – that’s “Transformation,” not “Transportation,” for those of you who might have read past it – that city streets are for everyone, not just people in motorized vehicles. A person who acknowledged being responsible for creating the crosswalk told the Rivard Report that the group wanted to call attention to unsafe conditions for pedestrians in the area, which is part of the St. Mary’s Strip populated with restaurants, bars, and retail stores.

The City will cover the damaged area with a layer of pavement on Saturday morning, according to officials.
The shadowy San Antonio Department of Transformation struck in the pre-dawn hours Friday to paint an illegal crosswalk on the St. Mary’s Strip. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The once thriving Strip was the scene of at least one murder, various shootings, drug trafficking, and gang activity in the early ’90s. Residents complained of noise, trash, and vandalism. Other areas, like Southtown, offered new choices for nightlife.The area went dormant for more than two decades. In recent years, however, the area south of Trinity University and just west of U.S. 281 and Brackenridge Park has sprung back to life with new bars, restaurants, and live music venues joining the businesses that managed to survive. Public infrastructure investment has not kept up with the surge of private sector activity, although street improvements are scheduled in the 2017 bond program.

City crews were quickly dispatched Friday to undo the anonymous SADOT’s public works project carried out sometime in the pre-dawn hours Friday. Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni was quoted in the Rivard Report article as saying those responsible, if caught, could face criminal charges and fines.

What he didn’t say is that such urban rear guard actions should be no surprise in San Antonio. Elected leaders aspire to become a Vision Zero city, yet 65 pedestrians were killed on San Antonio streets in 2016, an increase over the 54 people on foot killed in 2015. It’s been more than two years since the City Council under former Mayor Ivy Taylor adopted the initiative, first championed by Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) and her husband Kevin Barton, both avid cyclists.

Gonzales, for one, saw value in the SADOT’s overnight stunt.

“Tactical urbanism can be a low-cost approach to giving the community an opportunity to see and feel new uses of public spaces, especially uses that improve the environment for people walking or riding bikes,” Gonzales said. “This project and the previous crosswalk on Broadway many months ago highlight a need for the City to provide a process to work with the community on tactical urbanism projects. A cooperative process that makes these projects more enduring, without creating obstacles to implementation, is needed.”

That is a minority view inside City Hall, at least until now. Pedestrians and cyclists are frustrated by the slow pace of change. It’s been nearly two years since urban activists struck with a similar stunt on Broadway at the entrance to the Pearl, yet nothing has been done to make the pedestrian-dense stretch of roadway north of Jones Avenue and south of Grayson Street more safe for people on foot. Broadway will become a Complete Street in the 2017 Bond, but that $56 million ($42 million in City funds) project will take years to carry out. An inexpensive, interim solution seemed logical, yet never happened.

What was lost in Friday’s response by City officials, who stressed the cost and inconvenience of undoing the unauthorized overnight street improvement project, is that San Antonio remains an unacceptably dangerous city for pedestrians, City Council action notwithstanding.

The Yaden family uses the chalk created crosswalk at the intersection of Pearl Parkway and Broadway Street. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
The Yaden family uses the chalk-created crosswalk at the intersection of Pearl Parkway and Broadway Street in January 2016. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

San Antonio is the 28th most dangerous city for pedestrians among 106 metro area surveyed in the Dangerous by Design 2016 study by Smart Growth America. The survey shows that minority communities and the elderly are especially at risk, here and in other poorly ranked cities.

Amanda Merck, a research specialist for Salud America! at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health San Antonio, and a periodic contributor to the Rivard Report on issues of public health in the community, wrote in some detail about the study in a Jan. 10 article, San Antonio is More Dangerous for Pedestrians, focusing on the proven measures taken in other cities to address the problem.

The Rivard Report‘s Data Director Emily Royall will be at Síclovía along Broadway this Sunday morning to continue her current effort to crowdsource map the city’s best and worst streets and roadways for cyclists. We encourage everyone enjoying  Broadway closed to vehicle traffic for most of the day to stop by our booth and share their experiences with Emily.

In the City’s defense, the 2017 $850 million bond issue includes 64 different street and sidewalks projects at a cost of $444 million that will significantly improve street safety for all users, and the right leadership is now in place at City Hall to accelerate efforts to reduce the annual pedestrian death toll. Yet it’s evident that some of the most problematic crossings could be made safer now at minimal cost.

Perhaps City officials should invite the still-anonymous SADOT members to come out of the shadows and set them to work in the light of day making our streets safer.

Don’t rule out public art, either. Bring back the toilet bowl plungers.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.