City Council approved a $700,000 plan Thursday to remove 2.3 miles of bike lanes on South Flores Street and improve an existing, alternative bike route on nearby Mission Road.
The ordinance passed 10-1 with District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales casting the only dissenting vote. Several crowded public meetings leading up to the vote had indicated a strong turn-out for Thursday’s meeting – but only a couple dozen citizens were there for this particular agenda item.
“It’s common that we (council members) don’t go into other districts and tell them what to do,” Gonzales said. “But this is in District 5 now, too … and this goes against every single step we’ve taken” to make San Antonio a bike-friendly community.
The South Flores Street bike lanes are in Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran’s District 4, while a portion of the alternate route recommended by staff is in District 5.
Gonzales passionately connected the bike lane/complete street concept to several SA2020 initiatives reinforced at Council’s Wednesday B Session.
“Transportation, family well-being, air quality, health and fitness,” Gonzales said. “I don’t believe we did enough to show the community why this is important.”
Council and citizen statements on both sides of the issue cited safety as the overriding concern. Those in favor of bike lanes removal claimed conditions have worsened since that section of South Flores Street was reduced from four to two lanes of vehicle traffic. Bike lane advocates disagreed and cited the traffic-calming effects of the nearly $1 million complete street project, which included bike lanes from East Mitchell Street to SW Military Avenue on South Flores, completed in Spring 2013.
(Read More: $700,000 Street Plan Includes Removal of Bike Lanes)
“It’s important that we distinguish between a safety issue and people feeling inconvenienced,” Mayor Julián Castro said.
The most powerful testimony that spoke to this, he said, was from Robert Villafranca, representing Harlandale Independent School District.
“Anybody (involved) in public policy … needs to pay attention” when the a school district raises a safety concern, Castro said, . “(even though) the statistics don’t reflect a safety issue.”
The three-day, industry standard traffic impact study conducted by the City and San Antonio Police Department recorded a negligible travel time impact on South Flores Street after the bike lanes were added, and a 4 percent decrease in accidents.
From May 2012 to April 2013, 186 crashes involving motor vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles were reported. From May 2013 to April 2014, 178 crashes were reported. Download the Transportation and Capital Improvements’ presentation here.
“We support health initiatives … bike lanes are welcome,” said Villafranca, Harlandale ISD administrator for operations. “But these (bike lanes) put our students, staff and community members at risk of an accident.”
Villafranca cited school staff and faulty-observed hazards of the new street; children “darting between cars,” buses unable to navigate a crowded street, and lines of impatient drivers waiting behind buses.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Jack Sanford, San Antonio representative for the nonprofit BikeTexas, the state’s leading cycling advocacy group. “The idea that bike lanes are making (the street) unsafe for school children is preposterous.”
If anything, Sanford said, the street diet project slowed down traffic for the eight school zones on South Flores – creating a safer environment for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. In order to satisfy a few residents that have convinced themselves bike lanes are too inconvenient, he said, the City has taken a step away from its own multimodal goals.
(Read More: Southsider Reflects on Potential Bike Lane Removal)
“We would be responsible for the next person that got hit” if we don’t remove the bike lanes, said District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher in response to Villafranca’s statements. “That should be our number one concern. Safety.”
Local residents and business owners were not given enough input into the South Flores project, City staff has acknowledged at several post-project meetings.
“We learned a valuable lesson on outreach,” said Transportation and Capital Improvements Assistant Director Arthur Reinhardt. More communication will be crucial for future projects that involve a reduction of traditional, vehicular amenities on main streets.
Therein lies the problem, Sanford said after the meeting. “Quiet streets don’t need bike lanes.”
Before casting his vote to remove the bike lanes, Castro emphasized that this decision should not be seen as a precedent.
“It is our policy that we will create bike lanes when we work on streets or create (new) streets,” Castro said, referring to the 2011 Bike Master Plan. “I’m uncomfortable with the idea that every time we’ll have to ask permission to do that … because we have (an approved master plan) that lets us do that.
“If we start asking everybody in our city then we’ll have a hodgepodge” of bike routes instead of a network that connects recreational, residential and commercial corridors.
“The process was messed up,” said District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg. “I’m at a loss of information here … so I have to go with the District 3 (Viagran’s) recommendation.”
A group of about 10 citizens representing the COPS Metro Alliance and Trinity Lutheran Church – both located on South Flores Street – rallied together in support for the lane removal for the citizens to be heard session.
“We live here, we know our traffic,” said Gloria Mora of Metro Alliance. “If they had asked (the community first) they wouldn’t have wasted $1 million.”
Tom Swift, a local artist who lives on South Flores Street, said he and fellow cyclists are “extremely frustrated that this issue turned into a safety issue … it’s just a way to confuse and distract from the reality. It’s about the bigger picture – (alternative transportation) access and ultimately air quality.”
Restoring South Flores Street to a four-lane street could take about six months, Viagran said, if the project is expedited. It’s likely that “share the road” signs will be installed as well.
Also approved during Thursday’s meeting was an ordinance requiring new street projects to prohibit parking in bike lanes. About 100 miles of existing streets with this contradictory set-up will be “grandfathered in,” said Reinhardt, because these streets are not wide enough to accommodate a separate bike lane. About 53 miles, however, have been identified for review to either remove parking or add a separated bike lane between parking and vehicular traffic.
“No parking is eliminated by this particular ordinance,” he said. Each street will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. And yes, “there will be outreach” this time, Reinhardt said.
*Featured/top image: The South Flores Street bike lane currently ends at SW Military Drive. Photo by Iris Dimmick.