Pedestrian, vehicle, and scooter traffic navigate through the Pearl District.
Scooter riders navigate through the Pearl District. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The conversation about engineering a city for the future has never been more robust in San Antonio. Elected officials, city planners, infill developers, and neighborhood leaders are talking about the kind of transformation needed to retain our best and brightest young people and attract talented individuals and young families seeking a livable, prosperous city to call home.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff sent a jointly signed letter to the ConnectSA tri-chairs with a Dec. 21 deadline for the working groups to submit proposed transit solutions that can be placed on a ballot in November 2019. Yet the initiative is vehicle-focused rather than people-focused, and looking at key players in Connect SA, I see a cohort that consists largely of leaders 60 or older who do not live in the urban core or use bicycles as a mode of transportation.

If city leaders and planners really want to address worsening traffic congestion, they should design a more robust incentive plan to support greater urban density and a reduction in vehicles on surface streets.

Streets and surface parking make up 30 percent or more of the built environment, yet 10 years after then-Mayor Julián Castro launched the Decade of Downtown, not much has changed on our urban streets.

I am all for bus rapid transit on our expressways, but the conversation assumes everyone still needs to be in a motorized vehicle.

Everything around our urban streets is changing, but not the streets. City leaders have not built a network of protected bike lanes. There isn’t even a plan or dedicated funding to build such a network. Leaders seem to lack the vision or political will to do what other cities are busy getting done.

My worst fear is that San Antonio, for all its progress, will miss its moment.

Nothing typifies the current mess more than the arrival of wildly popular electric scooters. They take vehicles off urban core streets, and they infuse an element of joy and fun to urban life, connecting many of us to our inner child. Yippee! Our team of reporters and photographers navigate downtown assignments with greater speed and efficiency and fewer parking garage charges. Yet in San Antonio, the scooters are unsafe to operate on many streets, and when operated on sidewalks or the River Walk, as they commonly are, they make pedestrian spaces unsafe for the elderly, children, and people with disabilities.

So San Antonio seems to be talking about being a 21st-century city at almost every turn, even as it stubbornly clings to 20th-century development practices that encourage people to stay in their vehicles when they should be walking, pedaling, or moving in ways that make for a healthier lifestyle. We pledge to build a city with activated streetscapes for our children and their children and then continue to design and build a city for people and their cars.

Two recent keynote speakers, Toronto-based 880Cities founder Gil Penalosa at San Antonio CityFest and San Francisco-based Nelson/Nygaard’s Jeffrey Tumlin at an Urban Land Institute event here, delivered evangelical calls to action. San Antonio, they said, should embrace 21st-century practices and solutions to address its worsening traffic congestion, air quality, and unsafe streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and scooterists. Doing so would create more community, density, and sustainable economic development.

“Stop talking and start doing,” Penalosa told an audience at the Pearl Stable and again at the Southwest School of Art. “Your website says you have more than 200 miles of bike lanes. Where are they? I can’t find them.”

Painting white stripes or affixing bike decals on surface streets that also service vehicle traffic and on-street parking does not constitute a network of bike lanes, Penalosa said.

Are city leaders and planners listening? The emerging generations of workers and their families want livable, sustainable cities, and if we cannot deliver, other cities will. There is no reason why San Antonio cannot compete with Nashville, a metro area of comparable size. Both cities have unique profiles. Nashville is home to country music, San Antonio is the confluence of Mexico and the United States with a rich history.

Yet no one sees the two cities in the same league. Warehouse associate job openings at the Amazon facility in Schertz start at $10.50 an hour. The 5,000 Amazon jobs coming to Nashville will pay an average of $150,000 a year.

It is no surprise, then, that a Washington Post article published last week, The New Boomtowns, tracks the outflow of East Coast and West Coast smart workers to more affordable “secondary cities,” yet makes no mention of San Antonio.

That is unfair. San Antonio has made real progress and has much to offer. My list starts with the building of the 13-mile San Antonio River linear park and the still-expanding network of the Howard Peak Greenway Trails System, 65 miles and counting.

Next is the Pearl. Contrary to those who describe it as a playground for the elite, I would say its growing calendar of programs makes it more like San Antonio’s little Central Park, attracting individuals and families of all ages and backgrounds, many spending little money while having a lot of fun, drawn to free evening concerts, weekend festivals, the farmers markets, children’s playscapes, and the people- and pet-watching. Yes, the apartments, restaurants, and shops are pricey; so are the very same places around Central Park.

Parks, public spaces, and sidewalks are where we come together on equal footing, regardless of socio-economic status, political views, race, ethnicity, age, or sexual identity. And we come together on foot, safely. Life slows down to a more sensible and satisfying pace.

Southtown also ranks high on my urban transformation list.

Brackenridge Park, Hemisfair, a bustling tech-centric Houston Street, the planned expansion of UTSA’s Downtown Campus, the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project, the Zona Cultural, the near-Eastside redevelopment – all promise to eventually make downtown a great place at all four compass points. Except for the streets.

People on scooters turn onto East Houston Street.
People on Lime scooters turn onto East Houston Street along the tech corridor. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Nirenberg and the City Council should fund learning tours for a team of city planners to travel to other regional cities to see what is being done to retain and attract smart workers and address affordable housing issues. My own extensive travel to other cities tells me they would see how dated our development policies and practices are, while also finding out that few, if any, cities are solving the housing problem.

A more competitive-minded team of city planners could accelerate efforts to transform our streetscapes and parks and, at the same time, pledge to make San Antonio a national leader in addressing the affordable crisis.

We can do both.

A commentary published here last week by Dawn Hanson, co-founder of San Antonio Neighborhoods for Everyone (SANE), titled The Opportunity Cost of Free Parking in San Antonio, cited the city plan to invest $7 million in the North St. Mary’s Street “Strip” as an example of planners listening more to business owners and developers than citizens. The plans call for more on-street parking and more unprotected “daytime” bike lanes; in other words, another “incomplete street” that planners disingenuously call a “complete street.”

City policies that require housing developers to provide minimum vehicle parking ratios only encourage more vehicle traffic and congestion.

There is $42 million in bond money to redesign Broadway, but city planners again are listening to some developers and local businesses and their hunger for on-street vehicle parking over the voices of citizens and the cycling community, led by City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), a Vision Zero and safe cycling advocate. The project’s initial designs once again call for a bastardized version of a “complete street” without protected bike lanes.

As planned, I see it as the Broadway Tragedy.

“San Antonio needs to have an honest conversation with itself: Is it really going to be a Vision Zero city, or is it a city with zero vision?” asked Penalosa in his talk.

That’s a harsh question, perhaps the very kind of question we need to ask. Bringing some young professionals who commute by bike into leadership seats with ConnectSA would be a great start in our search for an answer.

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.