The Future of Transportation in San Antonio

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Downtown Highlife Bicycle Club in January 2014 in downtown San Antonio. They depart from the Alamo the last Friday of each month at 9:30 p.m. Photo by Kara Gomez/Open Book Studio.

Would you believe me if I told you that the days of driving were behind us? If you recoil at the thought and your first instinct is to throw a bottle of beer at me, I don’t blame you. Everything is bigger in Texas, right? So we should have bigger cars, bigger gas bills and more miles driven than those hippies in all those other cities. Well, please allow me to burst your bubble.

green dividendNew research by CEOs For Cities, a nonprofit network of urban leaders, has revealed that peak driving in the US ended nine years ago. In 2005 the peak driving average was 27.6 miles per day per person and has continued to plummet since then. Click here for the complete slide presentation.

The value proposition of this research study explains that “Americans could earn a Green Dividend of $31 billion a year by driving just one mile per day less than they do now.“

America has called off its love affair with driving and the next generation is leading the assault.

According to CEOs For Cities’ “Green Dividend” research, 80 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds in the U.S. had a driver’s license in the late 1970s compared to only 67 percent today.

Why is this happening?

In his Green Dividend report, author Joe Cortright, president and principal economist for Impresa, does an amazing job of outlining the data to demonstrate this shift.

At the core of this data is a paradigm shift: more and more people want to be in urban areas where they can live, work, and play all within a short distance.

Homes with high levels of walkability are worth more – about $10,000 to $30,000 more, according to Cortright’s report, which compared homes of similar size/features, distance to an urban center, job accessibility and neighborhood income.

So What?

What does any of this nonsense have to do with San Antonio? Effective mass transit, walkability, cycling, car sharing, and moving closer are the key ways in which the report calls out for enabling this new trend nationwide. So I asked myself, how does my beloved hometown match up in these categories? Let’s dive into each category and see how SA stacks up.

Mass Transit

When I think about mass transit, I think of the Oyster Card of London or the MTR of Hong Kong. I could get anywhere in those cities without a car and cheaply. And although San Antonio is no Hong Kong, when I look at the plans that VIA has for the city’s transit system I get really excited.

If you go to the Smartmove part of their site you will be blown away by projects like Modern Street Car, Brooks Transit Center, Westside Multimodal Center, Robert Thompson Center and the 281 North Park & Ride. Say what you will about them, at least they are in motion and giving people options. Most of these projects will not be done anytime soon – but remember, we’re playing the long game here.

Walkability

I think walking gets a bad rap because it sounds boring, but one cannot over stress the benefits of it. In 2008 Dan Buettner wrote “The Blue Zones,” a book that profiles the common characteristics of people that live to be over 100 years old. According to Buettner, “This (walking) is the one activity that all successful centenarians did – and do – almost daily.”

Luckily for us, the report also gives citizens an effective tool to grade the walkability of every city and neighborhood in America. The website is www.walkscore.com and I highly recommend that you give it a try for your neighborhood. Not to brag, but Houston Street, where I live, is ranked the most walkable street in San Antonio. Stone Oak, known for its endless tracks of major roadways and suburbia, is ranked the opposite.

The overall ranking for San Antonio tells us we have some work to do. The site gives SA a Walk Score of 34, labeling it as a “car dependent city.”

Cycling

Last March I had a couple of friends come visit San Antonio from The Downtown Project, which is revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. The first thing they said to me was, “Man, you guys sure do have a lot of fixies downtown.” I pretended that I knew what they were talking about but I was clueless. Later when I googled it I realized that he was talking about a very popular fixed-gear speed bike that everyone who lives downtown seems to own.

If you don’t think there is a thriving bike scene in San Antonio just spend 10 minutes downtown. (See top photo.) Not only are there bikes everywhere but there are many different types. You have your street/fixie bikes; typically ridden by the people that work and live downtown, you have the health nut/pro bikes; which I always relate to the Third Street Grackles, and cruisers; not unlike the type used by the local bike share program.

The San Antonio B-cycle nonprofit is not only the fastest growing B-cycle bike share program in the nation, it’s also the second largest behind Denver. Systems in D.C. and New York have even larger programs, but operate under a different vendor.

San Antonio was the first city in the State of Texas to implement a bike share program in March 2011. Yes, before Austin. Some quick stats from SA B-cycle show that in 2013 our citizens have ridden 550,000 miles and burned more than 25 million calories. Not bad for a town that was voted the fourth Fattest City in America in 2004. Click here to learn more about B-cycle and the nonprofit’s local achievements via their 2013 annual report.

Car Sharing

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

On March 30, 2012 Mayor Julián Castro announced that Hertz was going to start an on-demand car sharing program in San Antonio. Today there are 12 locations you can pick up and drop off cars and the program has well over 1,000 people signed up for it. I was discouraged by this number at first, but then I remembered that we are in Texas after all. I think we need some more work here but kudos for the city for at least getting the program up and running.

Downtown Migration

I office out of Geekdom, a downtown co-working space and startup incubator. I feel like I hear about someone new moving downtown at least once a week. The fact that I wanted to be closer to where I work was one of the biggest reasons I decided to move downtown about a year ago. But are other people doing the same thing?

Well, my team and I at the 80/20 Foundation decided to do a micro survey (124 people) to see what people are doing (download here). We asked people that have moved downtown or close to downtown to answer a couple of quick questions and here is what they told us:

  • 63% have lived downtown for 2 years or less
  • 52% of people moved downtown to be close to work
  • 58% of people moved downtown to be close to entertainment options
  • 58% of people said they had reduced the use of their vehicle

Primary-Reason

Here is what some of our respondents told us (verbatim):

We are a family of six living in Tobin Hill right outside of downtown. We are, without struggle, a one car family. We get around town using a combination of our car, VIA buses, bikes, walking (sometimes running, too), and Hertz car share. It would be impossible for us to make that happen in a more car dependent area.

I sold my car, bought a bike and a bus pass and have never looked back!  There are so many more bus stops that take me wherever I need to go.  Everything is so close that I also bike pretty much wherever I need to go.  Success! Cheaper transportation.

still no great public transportation options.

Click here to read all the survey comments.

I first saw the Green Dividened Report at a CEOs For Cities conference in Grand Rapids. I remember thinking to myself, “Man, I bet San Antonio would do pretty poorly on that.”  Turns out, we’re not that far behind.

Am I suggesting that suddenly San Antonians are going to be trading in their lifted Z71s for hybrid cards or that people are going to start biking to work all over town? Probably not.

Before this basic research I would have told someone that San Antonio would never be one of those places where you could survive without a car. After seeing The Green Dividend Report and researching the moves San Antonio is making, it won’t be too long before I am gladly proven wrong.

*Featured/top image: Downtown Highlife Bicycle Club in January 2014 in downtown San Antonio. They depart from the Alamo the last Friday of each month at 9:30 p.m. Photo by Kara Gomez/Open Book Studios.

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6 thoughts on “The Future of Transportation in San Antonio

  1. I like the Downtown project. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is doing a great job getting the project moving and bringing people in from other cities. The thing about that is that Tony is spending much of his own money and he is the one spearheading the project.

    We have our Mayor and the councilman, a select group of people from Rackspace and Trinity, SA2020, TRR, and a limited amount of community stakeholders involved and still we move at a snails pace.

    I think we need a committed individual, someone who can actually take charge of this thing and move us forward, someone who’s leadership lasts longer than a political term limit.

    http://www.wired.com/business/2014/01/zappos-tony-hsieh-las-vegas/

  2. It would be great for San Antonio to join Austin in offering ASAP a 2 buck 24-hour pass vended on board if not at ticketing machines at stops. VIA ticketing is still too complicated (particularly for visitors), even with the new e-ticketing approaches.

    As a local, I would prefer an annual VIA subscription . . . ideally, tied in with B-cycle membership.

    And for a town still so based on visitors and the Air Force, why is there no VIA ‘smartmove’ planning for a convenient airport -to downtown- to Lackland AFB connection – possibly utilizing existing rail right-of-ways between these points (and serving a number of ‘in the loop’ colleges and neighborhoods en route)?

    I’m for increased public transport spending in San Antonio, but any rail plan not including the airport to downtown as a first stage is a boondoggle.

  3. Via needs to develop a route from SA to New Braunfels. I work in the non-profit sector. We have veterans & other clients who have no way to make it to appointments. Also, those who seek employment may not have reliable transportation to work in SA. This would be a huge win-win for all.
    Thanks,

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