An artist's rendering of a streetcar running through Alamo Plaza. This route option has largely been dismissed due to its proximity to the Alamo cathedral. Courtesy rendering from VIA.
An artist's rendering of a streetcar running through Alamo Plaza. This route option has largely been dismissed due to its proximity to the Alamo cathedral. Courtesy rendering from VIA.

Let’s face it: San Antonio is an auto-oriented city in an auto-oriented state. San Antonio is so “car crazy” that, on a per capita basis, San Antonio households and businesses drive 13 percent more every day than the average large U.S. city, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

National media has taken notice. Forbes listed San Antonio in the top 10 cities most impacted by gasoline price increases and pegged Bexar County as one of the “10 Most Oil-Addicted Counties in the U.S.” Men’s Health magazine called San Antonio a “fossil fool” and put it on the list of “biggest gas-guzzlers.”

With motor vehicles being the largest source of air pollution in our region, it is not surprising that our ozone air pollution now appears to exceed recommended healthy concentrations.  This is frustrating since our good air quality was part of Toyota’s decision to build a plant here.

All this extra driving impacts motor vehicle fatalities.  According to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publication, a person living in San Antonio is four times more likely to die from a motor vehicle crash than a person living in similar-sized Portland, OR.  Portlanders drive 18 percent below the large city average due to transit investments and smart land-use planning.

Source: 2009 Annual Mobility Report, Texas Transportation Institute, Texas A&M University.
Source: 2009 Annual Mobility Report, Texas Transportation Institute, Texas A&M University.

What are the economics of this extra driving? In 1999, Economic modeling specialists conservatively estimated that if we drove like residents of other big U.S. cities, we would travel one billion fewer vehicle miles each year while increasing regional income by $56 million and employment by about 4,300 jobs.

A more recent (2011) analysis by the firm Economic & Planning Systems estimated that a 10 percent reduction in vehicular travel by households alone in Bexar County would increase jobs by nearly 7,500 and increase the regional income by about $23 million.

No wonder that it is an SA2020 goal to reduce average vehicle miles of travel per person by 10 percent.

One of the big reasons that we drive so much in San Antonio is years of neglect of the inner city.  Like an older home with “good bones,” it is necessary to do some repairs and upgrades of neighborhoods on occasion in order remain attractive in the market place.

Making the inner city attractive in the real estate market helps the whole city.  The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s computer models of land development and travel in 2035, project that, if 100,000 new residents locate inside IH 410 instead of outside Loop 1604, this will save motorists throughout the city 500,000 hours of traffic delay each year.  The same report estimates that it could take up to $2.8 billion in road construction to achieve the same travel-time savings.  Putting a value on time, eliminating this delay is like saving $8 million* per year – every year.

“Americans’ often cited ‘love affair’ with their cars may have much more to do with the design of our neighborhoods and land use decisions than with transportation,” according to a 2013 Federal Highway Administration report.

Note that 100,000 new residents inside IH 410 is only 10 precent of the 1 million new people expected in Bexar County over the next few decades. About 100,000 residents could easily fit within the City limits.  The Brookings Institution found in 2001 that nearly 21 percent of the land in the City of San Antonio is vacant.

Just because the land is available and neighborhood upgrades are made doesn’t mean that infill development will occur.  Apparently, it will depend a great deal on the preferences of Generation Y a.k.a. Millennials, those born between early 1980s and the early 2000s.  This is both the largest and most mobile single generation currently both in the U.S. and San Antonio.  According to the Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCO), 77 percent of Generation Y plans to live in an urban core.  “This is where the future of growth is – capturing Gen Y will be critical to economic vitality through 2050.”

Members of Gen Y are not “car crazy” like previous generations. There has been a downward trend in teenagers and young adults getting drivers licenses. Fully one-third of Texans aged 14 to 35 do not have a driver’s license.

A 2009 study for CEOs for Cities found that buyers in Austin and Dallas (San Antonio was not in the study) were willing to pay from $4,000 to $24,000 more for a home in a neighborhood that was more walkable than average.  Carol Coletta, President and CEO of CEOs for Cities noted, “Now, planning, zoning and development decisions have to catch up to consumers.”

RCLCO found that one-fourth of the housing market wants access to rail transit. Investigation by the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah found that 17 percent of the population increase in Portland’s Multnomah County in the ten years ending in 2010 located within one-quarter of a mile of the streetcar line.  A whopping 41 percent of the county’s growth in professional jobs also located next to the streetcar line.

A streetcar can clearly attract and focus inner city growth.  The Chair of Kansas City’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Russ Johnson noted, “Not many developers come to the city and ask to be next to the bus stop, but they do want to be on the streetcar line.”  Kansas City just broke ground on an additional streetcar line.

Several studies show that rail transit has a “land use multiplier” so that each passenger mile on a U.S. rail transit can reduce vehicular travel by about three vehicle miles.  Dr. Antonio Bento at Cornell University found “striking” effects on the miles driven by households when urban form and transit supply are considered together.

So, is the streetcar worth it?  Yes it is when you consider the impact of this center city investment and the value of providing an alternative form of transportation.  It isn’t too soon to start working on our transportation and land development needs for the 21st century.

*Correction: an earlier version of this story stated $8 billion as the amount saved per year by eliminating delay. It is $8 million.

Related Stories:

Streetcar Advocate Responds to Red McCombs

10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars

Streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit Will Speed San Antonio’s Transformation

San Antonio Isn’t Ready for a Streetcar System

 The Case for the Chavez Streetcar Route

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Bill Barker

Bill Barker is recognized as a fellow by both the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the American Institute of Certified Planners.