The intersection of Loop 1604 and Bandera Road. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

We can’t ignore the harms of auto-dependence in the transit-aquifer debate. 

While the Texas Department of Transportation proposes a $1 billion project to expand 1604 to a 10-lane roadway between Bandera Road and Interstate 35, the Edwards Aquifer Protection Plan (EAPP) continues paying ranchers and other property owners to place their property in conservation easements, limiting development and other activities that may impact water quality or quantity entering the aquifer.

This expansion projects sits over the very area the EAPP was established to protect.  

While I don’t necessarily want to talk about the aquifer, there’s an important connection between water quality and transportation. 

VIA Is Doing Something Right

In 2018, the San Antonio mayor and city council approved general revenue funding for VIA to increase frequency on 18 key routes. Since then, ridership has increased.

Across the system, ridership increased 6 percent from last fiscal year, and on seven of the 18 key routes, ridership surged by over 20 percent, according to information presented at VIA’s Dec. 17, 2019, board meeting. Interestingly, the cost per boarding remained nearly the same after implementation and even decreased on five routes, according to VIA’s cost-per-boarding analysis. 

This is a major win for San Antonio.

Transportation options increase access to opportunity while reducing vehicle miles traveled, which is critical to achieve our water protection, air quality, and climate goals. 

Inadequate Measures of Transportation Performance

However, successes like these often get overshadowed in bigger transportation discussions where transportation performance is determined by the least amount of congestion, regardless of travel time, distance between destinations, persons killed, land destroyed, and air and water polluted.

Peter Norton, associate professor in the department of engineering and society at the University of Virginia, called attention to our failing performance measures at a luncheon hosted by the Urban Land Institute on Nov. 17. He mentioned that at no point in our current transportation analyses was his wait time at the airport bus stop identified and accounted for as travel delay. 

Even the nation’s most regarded transportation professionals overlook access in favor of mobility.

The Urban Mobility Report (UMR), for example, produced annually by the Texas Transportation Institute, encourages a singular focus on congestion. This report overestimates the effects of congestion, underestimates travel speeds, and conceals the effect of sprawl and travel distance on travel time, according to a 2010 report

The resulting congestion mitigation strategies are typically to build wider roadways for people to drive private vehicles more easily, making it more dangerous for people walking and biking and often encouraging more congestion, known as induced demand.

Unfortunately, many transportation agencies lack the sophistication to model induced demand accurately.  

We need to redefine the fundamental goals of our transportation system in Texas.

Harms of Auto-Dependence

Auto-dependence is dirty, dangerous, expensive, and it isn’t working. 

Driving private vehicles is resource-intensive – consider the steel, aluminum, rubber, glass, plastics, and paints needed in the mining, manufacturing, and shipping of each 4,000-pound-plus vehicle, as well as the rock, sand, and petroleum needed for cement and asphalt, and the loss of homes, agricultural land, and green space to construct roadways and parking lots. 

Automobiles spur pollution from exhaust – like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds, as well as non-exhaust sources like road wear, tire wear, and brake wear, most of which end up in the groundwater. 

That’s not to mention the safety risks posed by automobiles.

In San Antonio, 139 people were killed, 5,277 were injured, and 14,886 were possibly injured in 42,043 reported crashes in 2018

“Despite our high standards for road safety and high levels of investment in public funds in the name of safety, our traffic fatality rate is more than double most other industrialized countries,” according to a presentation by government researchers in California.

Automobile expense is another burden on San Antonio residents. To be considered affordable, transportation costs should be less than 15 percent of annual income. This is not the case for most families in the area.

Three in four (75.2 percent) of the roughly 619,000 households in Bexar County are paying more than 22 percent of their annual income on transportation, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation (H+T) Affordability Index. Long distances between destinations and lack of transportation options are key contributing factors. 

It almost doesn’t matter if housing is more affordable here than in other parts of the country because families are paying such a large portion of their annual income on transportation. Transit should be considered as an affordable housing strategy.

Traffic and congestion begins to build up on I-35.

Lack of Options

Beyond the cost of automobiles lies the next problem of commute times and accessibility. 

My bus commute from the Brooks Transit Center to the Medical Center Transit Center is more than 90 minutes one way, not including my drive to Brooks and the walk to my office. Although the Floyd Curl Green Street just opened, it is not on my route. Actually, it is one mile away from the transit center, so it isn’t on anyone’s route.

Many families have it worse than me.

Unreliable transportation across long distances can make it impossible to keep a job, get a higher-paying job, care for aging parents, buy a home, go back to school, plan for retirement, visit the doctor, and participate in social and cultural activities.

Lack of transportation options contributes to why San Antonio has the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the top 25 most populous metropolitan areas. 

Lack of options also contributes to why San Antonio faces drastic disparities in health. Across the city, there is a 19-year gap in life expectancy between wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, according to the 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment. 

Of clients’ basic needs, transportation resources ranked No. 1 among more than 140 agencies and nonprofits serving low-income clients in San Antonio, according to the city’s Comprehensive Community Needs Assessment.

That’s why we need to invest in options like frequent transit.

Transit can help San Antonio achieve multiple social, economic, environmental, and health goals, to include aquifer protection, simultaneously. 

Part of VIA’s Reimagined Plan will do just that by providing high-capacity vehicles running in dedicated lanes to connect people to their destinations easier and faster. 

As we work to invest in transit at the local level, we also need to address policy problems at the state level to better define and measure transportation performance and better design for people rather than cars.

To protect our water – and air and health – we need to limit highway expansion projects and invest in transit. Moreover, aquifer protection needs a dedicated funding stream that doesn’t require a vote every five years. 

Amanda Merck is a content curator/research area specialist for Salud America! at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She also is a VIA board member.