Depending on your level of experience, San Pedro Avenue is an intimidating street for bicyclists. The avenue is fed from northbound downtown traffic, interstates and highways. For more than ten miles, starting at I-35 and eventually becoming highway 281's access road, San Pedro is crowded with nightclubs, auto shops, banks, chain and local restaurants, credit lenders, gas stations and – of course – cars.
Around 5:45 p.m., these are cars with drivers desperate to go home.
So when it came time to decide whether or not to symbolically ride my single-gear Raleigh cruiser to the Bicycle Mobility Advisory Committee (BMAC) meeting at VIA's Metro Center at 1021 San Pedro Ave., I opted to take my two wheels attached to an engine: My commuting vehicle, a People's 50 scooter.
I miss my road bike. They're so much faster and better for city traffic, but I digress.
After our approximate five-mile journey north from Southtown, we arrived (fully helmeted, as always, Mom) and met a security guard at VIA's parking lot. They offer free valet bike parking and keep an eye on them for the duration of the meeting. Including us – he considered my scooter a "bike" – only about seven people had pedaled to the meeting. Three of the riders wore Lycra and clip-in riding shoes, clearly the more seasoned cyclists. They had come to check out the new fourth edition draft map of San Antonio bike routes, facilities, and accommodations that was presented during the light-refreshment and mingling period a half hour before the meeting's official start.
Squiggly, multi-colored lines representing bike lanes, wide shoulders, dots that symbolize the growing network of B-Cycle stations, and other features catering to human-powered machines mark up the expansive MPO boundary map – most of it in and around downtown.
The MPO map is created and updated by the San Antonio – Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the federally mandated group that holds the purse strings, conducts like-use studies and designs master plans for state and federally funded local transportation projects.
If I had dug a little deeper before choosing the scooter, I might have stumbled upon the iMap – the MPO's online interactive mapping application that currently draws from the third edition map, displaying tons of data that you can layer and identify. The iMap is also informed by MPO collision data and the City's Office of Sustainability, which has a comprehensive Bike Master Plan complete with major infrastructure improvement projects, market studies and awareness promotions through the San Antonio Bikes program.
"Especially since (the) passage of San Antonio Bike Plan 2011 and Implementation Strategy, a more collaborative approach to building a safe, accessible, continuous, and direct network is underway," SA Bikes Program Manager Julia Murphy said in an email today.*
It's not the most user-friendly application – yet. iMap is not a smart-phone friendly, downloadable app. All that data can be a bit sluggish on an old computer or a slow Internet connection. The fourth edition map will inform an update to the iMap, but will only be available this summer on paper and as a PDF. Even with this data, I would have opted for the scooter given that conditions on San Pedro are rated "poor," and a safe route would have proved complicated and time-consuming:
Cecilio Martinez, senior GIS/web analyst at the MPO, was on hand before the meeting began to take comments on the draft map and explain how these maps are created through MPO studies and SA Bike data.
Martinez has been working at the MPO for 10 years and he's seen major progress in San Antonio becoming a bicycle and pedestrian friendly city. "I've seen this map grow tremendously – eight years ago, The Bike Waiter (a local restaurant delivery service) would have been a crazy idea," he said. "Now it makes perfect sense."
When I suggested a mobile app that would allow riders to see all this data and combine it with the 2009 Bicycle Level of Suitability study (which informs which streets are more or less bike friendly or unfriendly), Martinez' half smile and shrug told me that this was definitely not the first time it's been suggested.
They had started one a few years ago, but staffing and funding just isn't there, he said. Reliable, easy-to-use mobile apps are not cheap. "We'll continue to try for it, but that's likely several years out."
Inside the VIA's Community Room there was a light gathering of mostly middle-aged citizens. A smattering of different ethnicities and attire, but the meeting was definitely considered casual by attendees and committee members. About 30 people took their seats at 6:30 p.m. as the committee member roll call was performed. Twenty out of 22 members, composed of both citizens and various organizational stakeholders, were in attendance (trust me, those absent had very good excuses). Considering that the few City Council meetings I've been to are usually short two or three members by the end of the day – twenty out of 22 ain't bad at all. Just sayin'.
Nothing huge was announced last night. No fights broke out. This was pure grass-roots democracy in action: A passionate, volunteer committee updating concerned citizens about bike stuff and asking for feedback and comments every step of the way.
These meetings have been known to go on until about 10 p.m., said Bexar County Associate Probate Court Judge Oscar Kazen. "But it's a Spurs night, so we'll make this quick."
As the BMAC chairman, Judge Kazen brings a light, spirited and informative presence to the meetings. He continues to make references to the Spurs game, is quick to thank and congratulate project leaders, and jokes with fellow members about the sometimes somber nature of process/committee meetings in general.
These special second-Wednesday BMAC meetings, "Bike Nights," are held three times a year in the evening – they're usually held at 8 a.m. at the MPO office on St. Mary's Street in Southtown (not the most convenient time for citizens with typical nine-to-five work weeks). Usually about 30 to 50 people show up on Bike Night. Some are regulars, some are newcomers – all look like they could ride a bike.
To liven things up for the public, Bike Night always has a special presentation or sneak peek, like the fourth edition draft map, and a raffle is held – T-shirts, socks and head lamps were given away last night to about eight lucky attendees.
"We've got door prizes to keep you excited and interested," Judge Kazen said mid-meeting. The first three raffle numbers called went unclaimed. There was polite silence, then shy acceptances and thank yous.
"I think we've quelled the rebellious crowd," he said, ironically commenting on the civilized, friendly nature of the meetings.
The people gathered last night had a sense of humor, but remain serious about making San Antonio a more bikeable/walkable city – for safety, health and recreational goals – including those laid out by the SA2020 initiative. It felt good to be surrounded by people with a common passion. It continues to feel good to know that these 20 or so committee members are here for the public – to connect people with the resources and information they need. Though the BMAC doesn't have any earth-shattering power, it does have the power to recommend and review transportation plans and projects vital to the community. The BMAC is the public's connection to the democratic process – slow, tired, and messy as it may be.
"You eat an elephant one bite at a time," Judge Kazen said of the piecemeal nature of the process. "We're here to bring people to the table so that you (the public) can talk to them."
Out of the 14 "Metropolitan Mobility" projects approved and funded in 2011 by the MPO through the Transportation Improvement Program, only two have been started and will be completed by mid-summer. The others will start in 2014 or later. It will likely take six more years for many projects out of this year's funding round to come to fruition. Public input meetings for these projects will be held in February 2014.
MPO Bicycle/Pedestrian Transportation Planner Lydia Kelly, who has been to more than 90 BMAC meetings over eight years, recognizes that the public may feel frustrated waiting for these projects to be completed. Permitting, contracting, land acquisitions, property rights, scheduling – it's a complicated process to widen a street shoulder enough for a bike lane or even to figure out where to put a "share the road" sign – where is it needed the most, or where is it most effective?
"It's a slow process," she said after last night's meeting. She's retiring this month, and this was her last BMAC meeting as a committee member. "But in the end, it works. Things get done, eventually."
She promises to stay active in the bicycling community. She believes in the system and the system has benefited from her. Throughout the whole meeting she received applause, kudos and words of admiration and respect from her colleagues.
"Lydia is that transformational person," Judge Kazen said. "The very paths you ride on today are due to her – a very large part of them ... when we started, there was hardly a stroke or a dot (on the bike amenity map). Now it's a work of art."
After presentations from several MPO and committee members about upcoming funding projects and public meetings, ongoing program and state legislation updates from BikeTexas (who make it so easy to stay informed, for instance: check out their website for information about the state "Safe-Passing" bill), most citizens to be heard were there to spread the word about bike-centered events:
- Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas presented the first ever SicloVerde, a community garden bike tour fundraiser: June 15
- Dr. Della Corales of the Cool Cats Cycling Club presented the "Ride of Silence," in honor of cyclists fatally wounded in traffic: May 15
- Chris Potter of the local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society presented the screening of "Bicycle Dreams" fundraiser: June 27
After the meeting, committee members and citizens mingled in the large conference room. It's perhaps a bit overkill for a group of this size and in an inconvenient location for bicyclists – but VIA allows the BMAC to meet here for free and it's pretty close to downtown.
Sarah Boyd, an SAISD teacher at Highlands High School, admits that the main reason she attended the meeting is because her boyfriend is on the committee. It's her first time.
"I'm also interested in familiarizing myself with the bike community in San Antonio," she said. "Some of my students struggle with obesity, bicycling is one more thing my students can do besides eat Hot Cheetos and Takis."
She also acknowledged the sober, yawning nature of committee meetings in general. This one, however, is a little different.
"They don't have any power, but here you can tell that they're passionate, that something is in motion," Boyd said. "It's good to keep things in motion."
*Updated/addition to article at 5 p.m., May 9, 2013.