Commentary: Avoiding San Antonio’s ‘Car-First Culture’

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Chris Lazaro stands with a B-Cycle. Courtesy photo.

“You really need to tell your story,” Cindy Snell told me during a chance encounter at a local coffee shop early one morning. The departing director of San Antonio B-Cycle saw me pull up in one of her utilitarian grey bicycles, the ones with the mesh basket in the front that I often grab after getting off the bus downtown for that last mile to the office.

Sometimes I forget how truly unique my story is in a place like San Antonio.

I grew up in a close-in suburb of Washington, D.C., generally unaware of how urban a place it is that I lived. The post-war apartment my family rented was directly across from my elementary school, and was within walking distance of a grocery store, pharmacy, movie theater, and even a commuter rail station. Our building sat adjacent to the Anacostia River, and beside the creek was a hike-and-bike trail that led to a large community park, complete with baseball fields, playgrounds, and picnic areas.

Growing up there in the ’80s and ’90s, I didn’t realize how good I had it. Being minutes from our nation’s capital was mostly lost on me until I arrived in Texas seven years ago. It was then that I discovered not everyone had access to buses with 12-minute headways, world-class rail service, or an endless catalog of family-friendly walking trails. That doesn’t even include the array of free-admission museums and countless restaurants filled with flavors from all over the world.

A B-Cycle at a crosswalk. Photo by Chris Lazaro.

A B-Cycle at a crosswalk. Photo by Chris Lazaro.

Less than three years after making the move to Texas I was rear-ended by a pickup truck while on a lunch break. Despite the low-traffic, low-speed street, the impact of the crash managed to total my old Volvo, leaving my wife and I with the tough decision of what to do next. After weeks of shopping for another vehicle, we chose to opt out of the purchase process altogether, instead choosing to rely on our one remaining vehicle for our daily needs.

I won’t lie to you, that first month of sharing a car was really hard. Despite our workplaces being within blocks of each other in downtown Waco, my wife and I were used to deciding for ourselves when to get out of bed and go in to the office (I’m the early bird and she definitely isn’t). We could stay at the office late to catch up on paperwork or leave the office to meet a friend for lunch, all without consulting our better half. There were many moments I wanted to cave in and buy that new car.

Yet, the routine of sharing a car began to work for us. We found a common time that we could commute together, we would text each other if we needed the car for an appointment during the day, and we knew we could always rent a car if we needed a second one for a day or two.

After moving to San Antonio, however, it quickly became apparent that sharing a car for our commute would not be an option. My job is located in Southtown and my wife works in Southeast San Antonio. I arrive at the office at about the time she wakes up. While most people in our situation would just head to the nearest dealership and pick up a second set of keys, I was determined to do things differently.

My wife and I moved to Beacon Hill two months ago from an apartment near IH-10 and Loop 1604. Our new place has opened up many more possibilities for my daily commute because each hour there are more than a dozen buses that head downtown from my neighborhood. Our former home was more than a mile from the nearest bus stop, and the walk to and from that stop was dangerous at best.

Today I use my bus pass to catch the 2, 3, or the 4, to one of many stops downtown. Sometimes I choose the 3 because it gets me closest to the office when I need to get there quickly. Other times I get off the bus and walk or take a B-Cycle to a local coffee shop, like the one where I met Cindy Snell, before heading in to the office. My morning commute has turned into something I quite enjoy.

Still, I would be remiss if I said that my arrangement was perfect. Within my first week of living in Beacon Hill I was bitten by a small dog on my walk home. Crossing the intersection of San Pedro and Hildebrand Avenues has taken as long as three minutes, an eternity when it is more than 100 degrees outside. Buses are generally behind schedule in the afternoon hours, a few of the drivers aren’t the friendliest, and the bus stops I use most frequently lack any semblance of shade from the South Texas sun.

Chris Lazaro on a B-Cycle at Rosella Coffee. Courtesy photo.

Chris Lazaro on a B-Cycle at Rosella Coffee. Courtesy photo.

My record with B-Cycle has not always been stellar, either. On more than a couple occasions I came upon a B-Cycle station only to see it cordoned off with a yellow rope, a sign that these bikes weren’t going anywhere. I’ve also arrived at more than one station with a bike I’ve checked out, only to find that there were no docks available to return it. And, a few times a fault in the B-Cycle software failed to register that I returned a bike, sometimes locking me out of the system for more than a day while technicians fixed the problem and reset my account.

In spite of the bites, the burning sun, and the software glitches, I must say I much prefer my bus-and-bike commute to the stress of driving every day. I have taken back the time I spent grumbling at the frustrating antics of other drivers and, instead, I use it to read, check social media, and otherwise relax. The walking and biking helps get my brain ready for the day.

I am hopeful that San Antonio is fast becoming the type of city where residents like me will demand the same world-class transit service and bicycle/pedestrian connectivity that other cities like Washington, D.C. have. Seeing burgeoning groups like Tech Bloc, full of energetic young professionals who care about livability, boost my optimism that we will indeed break past the inertia of car-first culture. And the record 70,000 people who showed up on Broadway Street this last Sunday for Síclovía show that it’s time to move forward.

I’ll be there with my bus and B-Cycle passes in hand.

 

*Top image: Chris Lazaro stands with a B-Cycle. Courtesy photo. 

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12 thoughts on “Commentary: Avoiding San Antonio’s ‘Car-First Culture’

  1. Chris, thanks for sharing your story. I appreciate you telling both sides to include your frustrations with B-cycle and VIA. In theory, those modes of transportation seem ideal, but reality is sometimes different.

  2. Although I’d love to believe that SA will one day have world-class transit service I really don’t see it ever happening. SA had its chance to enter the world stage but repeatedly rejected most opportunities given and instead chose to preserve a small-town mentality, fought progress, concentrated on suburban sprawl while allowing it’s inner city to decay. San Antonio could have had a wonderful light rail transit system but voted it down in 99′ and has been paying the price with clogged freeways ever since. The city also refused to expand the airport and instead wasted over 100+ million dollars on the worthless Alamodome and major businesses like AT&T reacted by relocating to cities with better infrastructure and more non-stop flights. SA’s time is quickly passing as Austin has eclipsed it in every way. A great number of businesses that want a presence in South and Central Texas will continue to choose Austin over SA. Today, SA lags about 30-50 years behind other American metros even half of its size. It’s sad.

  3. This city is so friggin’ lame. They hire terrible contractors for street projects that leave large hole in the middle of streets. How in the world are they ever going to do this right? Calling this place a world class city is a joke. Its nothing more than hype. Question: when was the last time you saw a police car driving down the street. Keep track and you’ll quickly find out this place is a joke.

  4. Fact is, I don’t want to live in the city he dreams of. What a terrible waste of my time it is riding a bike and a bus. And I’m never going to end up close to where I want to be. Not to mention the health aspect – you have to be healthy to even consider these things. No thanks, Wash DC can keep it.

    • City living with bike and bus transportation is new concept that is relatively effective in some communities and other communities are trying to recreate that success. Does anyone know the percentage of the population of major cities who live “downtown” versus the suburbs? I suspect it would take a lot of dollars and marketing to move those percentages. If you were successful, then people would become disillusioned by all the congestion in the city and again start to migrate to the suburbs.

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