So a proposed project that includes using $300,000 of taxpayer dollars to remove bike lanes from South Flores Street is understandably galvanizing opposition.
Last year South Flores was converted from a four-lane, motor vehicle-only street to two-lane street with a center turning lane, with bike lanes on both sides. Most of South Flores has sidewalks –however disconnected and in disrepair.
Tensions were high Monday night when more than 100 people – and about half as many bikes – filled the Morrill Elementary School cafeteria to hear a presentation from City staff about the $700,400 bike route development and bike lane removal project that will be presented to City Council later this month. The room was divided between those in favor of bike lane removal and those opposed, each side interrupting the other throughout the meeting and cheering on its own speakers.
Out of the four alternative routes, the staff-recommended Theo/Malone route, is the most expensive. (See presentation slide below and click here to download a project summary presentation from the April 21 meeting and here for last Monday night’s presentation.) This meeting was held so city staff could present its recommendation to the community before it goes to Council, probably next week.
Click here for City Council agendas, usually uploaded at least 48 hours before meetings.
The Theo/Malone route calls for $400,000 to be used to rehabilitate roads and bike routes on Mission Road and White Avenue. About $300,000 will be used to remove 2.3 miles of bike lanes on South Flores Street and restore it to four-lanes.
Contrary to previous speculations, the money used to remove bike lanes will not come out of $1 million budgeted to improve or add bike facilities, but will come from accumulated project savings, according to Assistant Director of the City’s Department of Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) Arthur Reinhardt.
Until Monday evening, the “S. Flores Street Improvement Project” meetings, as called by the City, have been overwhelmingly one-sided, according to attendees on both sides. Southside residents and business owners in favor of the South Flores lane removal have consistently shown up and outnumbered those opposed since post-project meetings started in December of 2013.
The fourth meeting on Monday, however, was more representative of the strong division in the Southside community – both sides hold public safety as the top priority, but have different ideas about what infrastructure achieves it.
When the city reduced vehicular lanes in 2013, supporters claim traffic became worse and the roads became dangerous as cars try to pass slower traffic by using the center turning lane. A crosswalk attendant said she’s seen cars impatiently pass buses in school zones.
Ruben Espronceda, Southside resident and sporadic publisher, was one of the most vocal supporters of the lane removal.
“This is a commercial corridor – a lifeblood of the community,” he said, adding that businesses on South Flores have lost business. A grocery/convenience store manager attested to a loss of business since the change, but another business owner and cyclist said he had experienced no change.
Word of the removal recently spread throughout the biking community via social media and printed flyers, bringing Southside residents and business owners in opposition to the bike lane removal to the discussion table. Those opposed to the lane removal said that doing so would not remove bike traffic on S. Flores, but would make it more dangerous for bikes. Opponents also point to a traffic study commissioned by the City on the street that found nominal traffic impairment caused by the bike lanes.
“If you take away the bike lanes, you’re not going to take away the cyclists,” said cyclist Jacky Swan. “We have every right to take up that (right) lane anyway,” but why take away bike facilities that make the street safer?
City staff confirmed that the study, performed over a three-day period (an industry standard), revealed a mere 9-25 second delay. Most of the delay was attributed to VIA bus stops.
“Post-project studies have shown that corridor is handling same traffic volume as pre-project and the roadway is operating in safer and more efficient manner,” stated a City presentation slide.
But many residents remain convinced by first-hand, anecdotal evidence that the street has become dangerous and it may be too little too late from bike lane advocates if City Council approves the Theo/Malone alternative route plan as-is.
Either way, it seems City staff has a valuable lesson to take home from this heated debate: community awareness and input is key when implementing change – especially if it involves a highly visible, well-trafficked street.
The South Flores Improvement Project is part of the Council approved 2011 Bike Master Plan, informed by several public meetings and approved by City Council. But there was no project update meeting in the Southside before construction began on South Flores. Both sides agree there should have been more communication about the specific implementation of the Bike Master Plan on South Flores.
“This could have been very different,” said District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran after the meeting. If the community was made aware of this project from the start, she added, “they probably would have found a compromise.”
Viagran, who was not serving on City Council at the time of the project’s start in her District, rides her bike in the neighborhood frequently. “I rode my bike on South Flores before the bike lanes,” she said. “But (residents) mostly use Mission Road … regardless of where bike lanes are, everyone needs to share the road. Period.”
As for the rancorous atmosphere during the meeting: “This isn’t about ‘us’ versus ‘them,'” she said, just because one side wants that particular bike lane removed, doesn’t mean they don’t like the idea of a more bike-friendly community. “Many of them ride bikes themselves.”
It’s not bikes that their against, they just want their two lanes back on Flores, which is not technically wide enough for a sharrow (shared lane with painted bike graphic).
The first goal of the South Flores project was, and continues to be, “multimodal, utilitarian use of the roadway and the second goal is to get folks to the mission trail system,” Reinhardt said during a phone interview before Monday’s meeting. “It’s a difficult project … (the City) has to be conscious of the citizens that have to deal with (these changes) everyday. Folks are unhappy so we’re working to find the ideal solution.”
As the Bike Master Plan begins more projects further away from downtown, the City will take extra precaution with neighborhoods that aren’t used to accommodating bicycles.
“The street network is for the entire city,” Julia Murphy, special projects manager for the City of San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability, said. “We will do a better job” communicating in the future.
This $300,000 back-track on street infrastructure may serve as a good reminder to do so – and would set a complicated precedent.
*Featured/top image: The South Flores Street bike lane currently ends at SW Military Drive. Photo by Iris Dimmick.