Is San Antonio a Walkable City?

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Bekah S. McNeelWalkability has become a buzz word for urbanists across the country, whether they are complaining about a neighborhood’s lack thereof, or praising a new development for its abundance.

On Monday, Jan. 27, San Antonians have the opportunity to hear from the guru of walkability, Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable Cities: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.” The luncheon, hosted by Centro San Antonio, takes place at the Wyndham Riverwalk. The deadline is passed to register online, but those who still want to attend can call the Centro office at 210-225-3862 to see if there are any tickets left.

Walkable City_Jeff SpeckSpeck’s book makes a compelling case for urban density where cars, bikes and pedestrians all co-exist. For those who are convinced, the book suggests ten steps to become a walkable city. In advance of his visit, we decided to take a look at those ten steps, and ask how San Antonio is doing. Our city is mentioned in the book, praised for B-cycle and the River Walk. We’ve got some great features, now how are we doing on our basics?

Step 1: Put cars in their place.

In this chapter, Speck proposes that the more we accommodate cars, the more cars we will have. The wider the freeways, the more cars will drive on them. The wider the lanes, the faster they go.

He discusses the battle of rationale between planners. Conventional traffic engineering wisdom has held that more asphalt would lead to less congestion. The opposite seems to be happening in reality. Cars seem to fill their allotted lanes to capacity no matter how big or how small. If we stop accommodating traffic, Speck argues that the traffic will go away. People drive because it’s more convenient. What makes it more convenient? Sprawl and speed.

View from Omni Hotel

A cold morning in San Antonio’s sprawl, 10 miles from downtown. Iris Dimmick.

Step 2: Mix the uses.

According to Speck (and people with eyes), we’ve chopped up the city into the “live” sector and the “work” sector, with miles in between. Our downtowns will become walkable when we no longer have to travel many miles to get to the things we need like beds, groceries, happy hours, workplaces, doctors, and somewhere to buy underwear and socks. By mixing retail, work, and residential space in the same dense buildings, a stroll around the block is the same as running errands.

Step 3: Get parking right.

Here Speck makes the case against parking requirements for individual businesses, and instead proposes collective parking, with cost shared by local businesses. He also demonstrates that, like the fast, wide roads, abundant and cheap parking is addictive; we will gobble up whatever we can get. When street parking is the cheapest, roads have congestion from people space-hunting. If cities would charge handsomely for parking, they would have a revenue stream to fund the very streets being parked upon.

The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its lazy parking lots as seen from the Rand Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The northwest quadrant of downtown San Antonio and its lazy parking lots as seen from the Rand Building on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Step 4: Let transit work.

Speck considers comprehensive city-wide transit a boon to any community. The increase in taxes is less than the savings in gas and vehicle maintenance for those who use it regularly…which is almost everyone, if the transit system fits the city. The cities that will benefit the most are those with real neighborhoods, where a transit center can serve as the commuter hub. Neighborhoods are like the atoms that build the molecules of the city, connected by transit lines to make an efficient system.

“Compact, diverse, walkable neighborhoods were the basic building blocks of cities from the first nomadic settlements over ten-thousand years ago to the height of the auto-age.” – Jeff Speck, “Walkable Cities”

Step 5: Protect the pedestrian.

When designing streets, Speck’s method would be to make driving require full attention. Parking lanes, trees, two-way traffic, and regular traffic signals create complicated streets where it is difficult to speed. The harder it is to speed (or text, or dig through your back seat), the less likely a driver is to hit a pedestrian.

We’ve become accustomed to driving being a chilled-out experience – when really, if we were all uptight about the fact that we’re operating several tons of heavy machinery with nothing but arbitrary lines and a social contract keeping us from hitting one another, we might be more aware, safe drivers.

Another benefit of parking lanes is that they place a line of those two ton machines like a barrier between the moving cars and the pedestrians on the sidewalks.

Step 6: Welcome bikes.

“Anyone who has taken advantage of a good biking city will tell you, cycling has got to be the most efficient, healthful, empowering, and sustainable form of transportation there is.” – Jeff Speck, “Walkable City”

This Mulberry Avenue bike lane is too narrow to offer cyclists a safe space from passing vehicles. Photo courtesy of COSA/Office of Sustainability

This Mulberry Avenue bike lane is too narrow to offer cyclists a safe space from passing vehicles. Photo courtesy of COSA/Office of Sustainability

Bikes are part of the complicated street where drivers have to be more aware. The more bikers, the more cautious drivers will be (once they have learned to look for them in the first place).

Speck makes a fairly nuanced case for bike lanes where appropriate, shared lanes where appropriate, and basically any practice that encourages more bikers without throwing the rest of the urban fabric out of balance. Many cities have gotten very creative with this.

Step 7: Shape the spaces.

This step gets a little bit conceptual for the non-architects among us. There is a debate between those who want to create urban vitality through gorgeous buildings that draw activity up into themselves, and those who want to do so by drawing all activity to the street level, which makes for pretty boring shapes (usually rectangles). The places that strike the balance will be the most successful.

Step 8: Plant trees.

Here Speck’s argument is simple. There’s no reason not to plant trees, and every reason to plant them along city streets. They provide shade, air, scenery, refuge, and part of the barrier between man and car. Their presence increases property values. Every tree is a giving tree.

Step 9: Make friendly and unique faces.

Observing the places where people like to be, Speck highlights a few principles. They want prospect and refuge, so they like covered walkways, awnings and porches. They like what he calls “deep” spaces on the faces of buildings: windows, courtyards, and places to peer. They like variety. People don’t like to look at parking lots. More strangely, they don’t like excesses of blank green space with nothing else to look at. City parks need pizzazz.

Step 10: Pick your winners.

Here Speck outlines some helpful hints at “urban triage,” his term for making tough choices about which areas get attention and investment in their street life. It’s not always the place that seems to need it, but rather the place that seems most ready to benefit.  It would be better to find places that already have pieces and parts, good features, and create a network of well-lit and walkable streets around those features.

Speck suggests that in almost every city, downtown is that place.

So, how are we doing with these steps? Where do you see progress? What are your favorite places to walk in the city? Where do you wish you could walk more easily? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. Mine is a loop along S. Alamo and King William where sidewalks, bike lanes, trees, variety and street parking all make me feel safe and entertained.


Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey, and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.


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7 thoughts on “Is San Antonio a Walkable City?

  1. Favorite places to walk.. along the River North extension of Riverwalk, around The Pearl, and around Downtown in general. I’d like to be able to walk in a pedestrian-only shopping street like those found all over Europe and Asia

  2. I love Hardberger Park and along the Salado Creek Trails. Other favorites are the Riverwalk extensions. Downtown itself if too bumpy for a good walk.

  3. It’s not a walkable city if you have to drive out to the “walkable zone”. That’s kind of like driving to the health club to use the walking machine.

  4. Bekah, thanks for this article. I have lived in walkable cities, and my favorite American city block is in Boston on Massachusetts Avenue, where there is a hardware store, a post office and, of course, a coffee shop on the street level of a residential building. All within a block of public transit, both buses and subway. It’s the hardware store there that makes it a walkable city, you can really live a walkable daily life because you can outfit your apartment without having to ride or drive far away to get what you need.

    San Antonio has fragments of walkable city, but we keep shortchanging our opportunities to bring workable urban units together. Our paved spaces need “comfort” zones of open space and trees. I’m so glad he included trees as a necessary element of a walkable city – even more so for our sweltering summer days here.

    Sorry I missed the talk, I’ll go find the book in the library.

  5. Update. I have checked out Walkable City – How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time from the wonderful San Antonio Public Library and there are a couple more copies in the system available for checkout. Go check it out yourselves.

    As it happens, I’ve lived in two of the cities Speck considers walkable, which helps me understand his argument. We will need to modify it for San Antonio, to make it our own robust solution, sustainable in this climate, this culture, and these communities. Bekah, will you do a follow up article on this event and any resulting local conversations, please? I’d like to hear how others reacted to his remarks.

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