Scott Ball / Rivard Report
If you live in San Antonio, chances are you drive a car to and from work. And according to new estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau, chances are you’re also driving alone. But that could change by 2040 as the San Antonio area braces to accommodate an additional 1 million people or more.
Out of other major Texas cities, San Antonio in 2016 had the second highest rate – 79 percent – of commuters driving to work alone. Fort Worth came in first with almost 82 percent of commuters driving solo. Dallas, Austin, Houston, and El Paso also had rates over 70 percent, according to the most recent American Community Survey (ACS) data released last week.
Local experts told the Rivard Report that while these numbers aren’t surprising for San Antonio or Texas, it’s likely that commuters will soon find “pain points” that cause them to adjust their means of transport as the city’s population grows.
“Reducing our dependence on the single-occupant vehicle [SOV] is one of the underlying principles of our SA Tomorrow Multimodal Plan,” said Arthur Reinhardt, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department. The plan identifies this reduction as necessary to decrease total vehicle miles traveled, urban sprawl, and parking requirements.
“Our dependency on SOVs is a combination of factors,” he said. “First, San Antonio is large in land area and continues to spread out. This lack of density makes it difficult to move around in modes other than by car. Secondly, San Antonio commuters are really just starting to feel the pain of congestion during peak periods. However, the pain threshold has not reached the level of discomfort associated with shifting people from their SOV to other modes.”
But San Antonio isn’t immune to that pain, Reinhardt said.
The average commute time in San Antonio was 26 minutes in 2016, according to the survey data, and has increased by 2.76 percent, or about 42 seconds, over the past five years.
Bexar County and the City of San Antonio have kept traffic infrastructure projects in relative pace with growth, said Linda Alvarado-Vela, planning and public involvement program manager for the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Our region has had a pretty good highway and roadway system that make travel by car a little easier. … That perpetuates the use of single-occupancy vehicles, but obviously that’s not sustainable.”
On San Antonio’s horizon are high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes planned for outer-city stretches of Highway 281 North and Interstate 10 West.
The $270 million lane expansion on Highway 281 with frontage roads, four general purpose lanes, and two HOV lanes will stretch south for eight miles from just south of Bulverde to Loop 1604. It will be split into two phases, according to the Texas Department of Transportation’s project tracker. Work on the southern phase started in August this year and is slated for completion in October 2020. The second phase has yet to be scheduled.
About 11 miles of I-10 West outside of Loop 1604 will receive general lane additions as well as HOV lanes in three phases. The stretch of highway is just west of Camp Bullis, south of Boerne. The projects total $170 million and have yet to be scheduled for construction.
These HOV lanes, which require a driver and at least one passenger, could encourage more people to share rides, Alvarado-Vela said, but “we still need to find funding to continue those lanes all the way into the downtown area.”
Other not-so-surprising data included in Texas cities’ commuting characteristics is that public transportation, walking, and biking are underutilized, Alvarado-Vela said. In San Antonio, 90 percent of commuters drove to work, while only 3 percent used public transit and 2 percent walked, according to the census data.
“We haven’t reached our pain point, but by 2040 we will be there,” Alvarado-Vela said. That pain point may be commute time for some, gas prices for others, but commuting habits are “not something that changes significantly from one year to the next.”
Transportation funding is competitive statewide, she added, and VIA Metropolitan Transit is at a special disadvantage because other public transit agencies of similar sizes have a full cent sales tax dedicated for funding. VIA gets a half cent.
“Because we have a large area to serve, we have to spread our service very thin,” VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt said. That manifests in up to 60-minute wait times between buses in some areas.
But VIA received a $4.3 million funding boost from the City’s 2018 budget to provide 30-minute service along nine routes and corridors and 12-minute service along another four. Next year, if approved, another $10 million would allow 12-minute service along two more routes and corridors on the city’s Westside and Southside.
“Investment at the state level is nearly entirely for roadways,” Arndt said, adding that additional lanes can only go so far.
Instead of adding more cars, cities need to increase the “person-carrying capacity” roadways, he said.
The 2017 bond and 2018 City budget mark a shift in focus for the city, Reinhardt said.
“The 2017 bond, the largest in the City’s history, was developed under the guiding principles of SA Tomorrow,” Reinhardt said. “We are no longer focusing on just adding lanes, but also improving other modes of transportation as well as developing our capital investments with land-use context sensitivity.”