As the warm bus slowed to a stop on North Zarzamora Street, passengers sitting toward the front moved back to allow a passenger in a wheelchair to use the seating area. The bus was crowded and this was the second person using a wheelchair the bus had picked up in the last 10 minutes.

Cars sped past the stopped bus on the narrow street while cyclists used the even narrower sidewalks to traverse the thoroughfare, finding it safer to manage pedestrian space than compete with vehicles. Sections of Zarzamora Street were identified as “hot spots” for serious pedestrian injuries, according to a 2017 Vision Zero report.

Each mode of transportation – and the environment – could benefit from better street design, and that’s exactly what a new partnership between the City of San Antonio, VIA Metropolitan Transit, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) is targeting: safer, more efficient streets.

The partnership is part of a citywide effort to reduce climate-warming emissions. About 38 percent of carbon emissions in San Antonio come from the transportation sector, according to San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

A roughly seven-mile stretch of Zarzamora Street in San Antonio’s West Side – from Fredericksburg Road in the north to Southwest Military Drive in the south – will receive $7 million worth of street redesigns to better serve and attract mass transit, enhance bike and pedestrian safety, and ultimately try to reduce single-occupancy vehicles over the next few years.

Consultants from NACTO, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups will provide technical expertise to assist the City and VIA in analyzing and improving Zarzamora and at least one other corridor that has yet to be identified. It’s part of an accelerator program born out of San Antonio’s participation in the American Cities Climate Challenge.

Zarzamora is a challenging street because it shifts back and forth from very narrow to very wide rights-of-way – that is, the width of the publicly-owned streetscape, said Art Reinhardt, interim deputy director for the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) department.

Narrow sidewalks are commonly found along Zarzamora Street, offering little protection for pedestrians.

At SW Military, Zarzamora is three lanes each way with a turn lane between; traveling north it becomes two lanes each way at Nogalitos Street; a center turning lane is added further north and removed before it narrows to one lane of vehicular traffic in each direction at Culebra Road.

“$7 million isn’t enough to reconstruct the whole street … so we’re going to look at spot treatments along the way,” Reinhardt said.

For instance, there are some sections of Zarzamora that don’t need three vehicular lanes going both north and south, and there are opportunities to create shared bus and bike lanes in other sections, Reinhardt said.

TCI and a team of consultants are analyzing current intersection designs to discover what kind of changes could be made to the streetscape and those ideas will be presented to the community next year, he said, adding that it’s unclear how many improvements can be funded until the analysis and public process is complete.

VIA has already designated Zarzamora as a Prímo route – which means more comfortable seats, fewer stops and faster service – and made improvements to bus stops and some sidewalks, Reinhardt said, so the new partnership is an opportunity to expand on that progress. 

One in 10 people traveling on Zarzamora is using a bus, Reinhardt said. And for at least a portion of their trips, most of them are also pedestrians.

“Great bus service requires great streets, and we are thrilled to partner with the City on this project to improve streets and keep people moving,” VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt said in a news release.

The City’s recently-adopted Climate Action and Adaptation Plan calls for San Antonio to reduce its emissions of the greenhouse gases driving global warming to net zero by 2050.

Doug Melnick, the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer, said this partnership is a ground-level manifestation of that effort by allowing for a kind of testing ground for infrastructure options.

“The goal is it would lead to … a pilot where we can actually test and show the public what it could look like,” Melnick said. In some cases that means “putting something out there on a temporary basis so people can start getting used to what these options look like before going all-in.”

The street is lined with businesses large and small – from tire shops to an H-E-B Plus – and largely surrounded by neighborhoods. Many area residents use the bus to go grocery shopping, run other errands, and get to and from work.

“[Zarzamora] needs a lot of work,” said Gloria, a passenger on the 103 bus route who has lived in the Avenida Guadalupe neighborhood for 10 years. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bike in the street. It’s too dangerous.”

And the more people ride the bus, the more people will be walking along the street, she noted.

Tommy Salas, who bartends at Diana’s Burgers located at 2202 N. Zarzamora St., said he’d like to see better lighting on the street for pedestrians – especially across the street from the restaurant.

“That’s where people park [and] cross the street,” Salas said, but it’s pitch dark at night. “[And] we get a lot of people walking from their house.”

Yvonne Ortiz and Chris Duffey, longtime residents of the area, said they welcome any street improvements. 

“The worst thing, I think, is the left turns,” Ortiz said.

When Zarzamora narrows to single lane traffic each way, vehicles that have to wait to turn left hold up all the cars behind them, she said. 

When Duffey used to ride his bike in the area, he would avoid using Zarzamora and “stick to the side streets.”

Ortiz said more investment is needed in her lower-income West Side neighborhood, where she sees more people walking than along Broadway Street near the Pearl.

A cyclist crosses Zarzamora Street using a crosswalk.

A three-mile section of Broadway leading into downtown from the North Side will receive $42 million in infrastructure improvements from the voter-approved municipal bond program. The lack of bike lanes for the lower mile of that project has been criticized by cycling advocates, the mayor, and some Council members.

Most of Zarzamora was a single lane in each direction, said Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), whose district includes a large portion of Zarzamora Street. “It probably should not have been changed [decades ago when the City widened it]. … They didn’t make property accommodations for sidewalks.”

Higher speed vehicular traffic and smaller sidewalks led to the closure of many small businesses along the street that depended on foot traffic, Gonzales said. Eventually, she’d like a more comprehensive redevelopment of the street.

Because the area isn’t expected to see a lot of growth, she said, “that may be a great opportunity for a road diet.”

That would mean reducing vehicular lanes, increasing sidewalk widths, and adding bike lanes. 

Funding for these spot-treatment projects doesn’t come from the partnership itself, which is providing in-kind consultant services, rather the money comes from federal and local sources; $3.5 million through a federal grant, $3 million in unused funds from the 2012 bond, and $500,000 from VIA.

Increased bus and bike ridership and decreased pedestrian crashes will be the longterm measures of success, Reinhardt said.

“I think there could be qualitative [measurements] as well,” he said. “Whether you’re talking to the VIA bus drivers who say, ‘hey it’s easier now to get in and out of here.’ … Or the folks who are riding the bus, they may just feel safer.”

Specific projects on Zarzamora Street will be identified over the next several months and some construction – on both temporary and permanent projects – is expected to begin late next year.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...