For five hours twice a year, Broadway or one of the city’s other streets is closed to cars and given over to tens of thousands of San Antonians of all ages on foot, pedaling bicycles, pushing strollers, pulling wagons, and jumping skateboards. It’s a big day for pet dogs, too.

It’s not enough. The people of San Antonio deserve more opportunities to gather and safely play in public places and celebrate our collective health, well-being and our diversity.

The YMCA of Greater San Antonio and its many partners do a great job of organizing and managing Síclovía, but the cost prevents organizers from offering the Sunday event with greater frequency than once every six months. It takes more than $100,000 to mount a single event.

A recent visit to Mexico City reminded me that city officials there close the great Avenida Reforma to vehicles for several hours every Sunday. Other cities around the world do the same. San Antonio’s elected officials and City staff should find ways to do more.

I met this week with young professionals earning graduate degrees in urban planning at the University of Texas at San Antonio‘s School of Architecture. The university’s downtown campus is typical of pedestrian-unfriendly environments in the urban core. One student noted there is no standing City committee dedicated to pedestrian and cycling policies and practices, no formal avenue for advocacy. That keeps the focus at City Hall on making streets for cars, not for people.

Earlier this week a San Antonio police officer drove up behind me as I cycled north on South Flores Street. He briefly turned on his siren to get me to leave the sidewalk. I motioned him over to talk, but he was not interested.

I was on the sidewalk for my own safety. I’ve seen San Antonio Police Department bike patrol police do the very same thing almost daily. They, of course, have a legal right to pedal on sidewalks, but like most cyclists they ride on the street when it’s safe and take refuge on sidewalks when it’s not safe – even when nothing is happening on the sidewalk to merit their presence.

In my case last week, I exited the beautiful and safe cycle track that runs alongside H-E-B’s Arsenal headquarters and its South Flores Market and continued across César Chavéz Boulevard on to the sidewalk north before threading back into traffic. Any other option puts one’s life at risk.

A bike path stretches parallel with South Flores in front of the newest H-E-B set to open December 2nd, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.
The bike path stretches alongside South Flores Street in front of H-E-B South Flores Market. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

That should be obvious to any public safety officer. Instead, the focus is on enforcement of the no-riding-on-the-sidewalks ordinance. Many of our urban streets are simply unsafe with drivers ignorant of the law that allows cyclists to share the road, or the right of pedestrians to safely cross at designated crossings. Police rarely enforce the city ordinance requiring drivers to keep three feet between their vehicles and cyclists.

Not a day goes by on East Houston Street without bike police and tourists on Segways plying the sidewalks. They’d be foolish to try to stay only on the streets.

While much work needs to be done to change the culture at City Hall to one more committed to enhanced pedestrian and cycling safety, there is one intriguing way to give locals greater recreational opportunities in the urban core.

Give us back the San Antonio River on Sunday mornings. Replace tourists sitting in for-profit barges, and let people in kayaks, canoes, and inner tubes, or standing on paddle boards, take over the Museum Reach and the River Walk.

The numbers of people would be far less than the turnout for a street Síclovía, but so would the cost. Participants would probably have to wear life preservers, or at least have them on board, and officials would have to establish put-in and take-out points and other rules governing the event.

Tourist traffic is probably at its lightest on Sunday mornings, so the impact on the bottom line of the barge operators would be minimal. More importantly, taxpayers who have invested more than $300 million into direct and indirect river improvements, resulting in both the UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2015 and, more recently, the coveted Thiess International Riverprize, would gain greater ownership over their city’s river.

Other cities share their downtown waterways with locals and tourists. On a recent road trip to circumnavigate Lake Michigan, we found locals recreating on waterways coursing through Chicago, the quaint resort towns of Holland and South Haven in Michigan, and in Milwaukee on the Wisconsin side.

Isn’t it time San Antonio gives its residents the right to the river where settlers first gathered nearly 300 years ago? Is it really only for tourists and conventioneers? Kayakers and paddle boarders are now a common sight on the Mission Reach and King William Reach of the river, but why not the Museum Reach and the downtown River Walk, too?

Ever since Mayor Julián Castro declared the Decade of Downtown and people began speaking of  San Antonio as a “city on the rise,” a growing number of individuals and organizations have focused on ways to animate the urban core with more residents, more workers, and more locals coming downtown to enjoy the arts and culture.

The river is the heart and soul of San Antonio. Finding a few hours a week to let locals share the waters would completely change the conventional wisdom that the River Walk is only for visitors.

Visitors do love the River Walk experience. Let’s give locals reason to feel the same way.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.