San Antonian J. Bruce Bugg Jr., the state’s top transportation political appointee, issued an upbeat statement about Wednesday’s sit-downs with local officials, days after the Jan. 27 decision by the Texas Transportation Commission to abruptly upend the Broadway project.
But the message can’t dress up a TTC action that represents a big setback for both San Antonio and Alamo Heights, as well as the cycling community, pedestrians and all who share a vision for safer streets in San Antonio.
“Two items emerged from the discussions,” Bugg said Wednesday. “First, city leaders acknowledged that Broadway is, in fact, owned by the state of Texas. Second, I am asking TxDOT staff to work with both cities to develop project plans on Broadway that can address mobility and safety for all users of the roadway, while preserving the capacity that exists today.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg issued his own statement Thursday morning that clearly disputes Bugg’s version of the talks.
“We are talking with Texas Department of Transportation officials to see if we can find a path forward for the Broadway corridor project that the community envisioned and voters approved,” Nirenberg said. “The city makes no concessions or acknowledgements, but did commit to continue conversation.”
San Antonio and Alamo Heights officials who met with Bugg and TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams on Wednesday are not saying so publicly, but both municipalities want to see the Broadway corridor remain a complete street project.
The TTC’s decision to block any lane reductions in favor of wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes on nearly three miles of Broadway from Alamo Heights to south of the Pearl runs contrary to every positive trend nationally, as cities work to make streets safer and more welcoming to people on foot or two wheels.
San Antonio, like virtually every other U.S. city, has experienced a boom in bike sales since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 that has continued without interruption.
Local bike shops experienced a rush of buyers that has yet to abate two years later. Manufacturers are months behind in deliveries to meet rising demand. The used bike market has taken off, and riders looking to have their bikes tuned up or repaired sometimes must wait weeks for an appointment with a mechanic.
San Antonio BCycle, San Antonio’s bikeshare company, converted to an all-electric fleet of rental bikes and added more three-wheelers. Together, those amenities have attracted a whole new cohort of riders to cycling in the city.
As gyms and workout clubs closed or reduced operations and recreational sports leagues suspended play, people took to two-wheelers to escape lockdown, enjoy the outdoors and engage in safe recreation.
San Antonio, unfortunately, has not become a safer city for cyclists in this boom time. The city’s commitment to update the never-implemented 2011 Bicycle Master Plan is still in the planning stage.
The lack of safe cycling infrastructure places San Antonio well down the ranks of U.S. cities considered bike-friendly. LawnStarter’s 2021 Best Biking Cities places San Antonio at 87th in the country, hardly a talking point for economic development officials or talent recruiters.
Many unprotected bike lanes on urban streets are bounded by faded road stripes or are blocked by vehicle parking. There is still a lack of signage and poor driver awareness. The city’s Safe Passing ordinance is seldom enforced by traffic police.
Other big cities in Texas rank even lower. Austin comes in at 104; Houston at 106; El Paso at 135, Dallas at 140 and Fort Worth at 155.
Last week’s decision by the state to block the continuing redesign of Broadway represents a major setback for the cycling community, which had long anticipated protected bike lanes starting in Alamo Heights and reaching south past the Pearl.
The vote reversed a well-documented agreement and upended a city-state working group that had been coordinating the project for years after the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) first approached officials in San Antonio and Alamo Heights in 2013 with a “turn back” proposal in which nearly three miles of Broadway was conveyed by the state to the two cities.
The “turn back” plan was a prelude to a Broadway redesign that city and TxDOT officials oversaw that spurred a surge of private sector investment in new office towers, residential housing, retail spaces, and restaurants, bars and cafes on and near Broadway.
The city’s strongest selling point for cyclists is the still-expanding Howard Peak Greenway Trails System, which now offers more than 82 miles of safe trails along the city’s complex creek network. With major funding proposed in the 2022 bond, the system should continue to expand and eventually reach 130 miles of protected trails that touch all four compass points of the city.
While the city’s greenway trails deserve to be ranked among the best national trailway networks, it isn’t a practical network for urban commuters. San Antonio remains a city where cyclists pedal urban streets at their own risk. Last week’s Broadway debacle is only the latest example of where vehicle traffic has pushed out 21st Century approaches to multimodal urban transit.
If San Antonio wants to be a city able to compete for smart jobs and talented workers, it is going to have to change. Many younger riders are more acutely tuned in to climate change and the impacts of their own personal behavior. Cycling is a welcome alternative to owning or using a carbon-emitting vehicle. Yet San Antonio’s hot climate leaves many who hold office here, who don’t cycle themselves or aren’t physically active, believing that cycling infrastructure should not be a funding priority.
They are wrong. Weather and topography, in my experience, do not deter cyclists. San Francisco, despite its steep hills, ranks first in many national cycling surveys. I once spent two winter weeks working in Denmark where a company was designing a new editing and pagination system for the San Antonio Express-News. I joined thousands of other commuting cyclists, making my way from my hotel in the historic inner city to the suburbs even on days when there was light snow.
Weather events, as we are learning this week, are here to stay. Temperature extremes are not going to stop cyclists or the need and demand for safe streets that can be shared by all.