Census Data: Almost 80% of San Antonians Drive to Work Alone

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Traffic along Interstate 10 heading West.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Traffic moves along Interstate 10 heading west.

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.”

21 thoughts on “Census Data: Almost 80% of San Antonians Drive to Work Alone

  1. Linda Alvarado-Vela, planning and public involvement program manager for the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, says “…the use of single-occupancy vehicles [is] obviously not sustainable.”

    Obvious, right? So why did we not put a forward thinking public transit plan in motion decades ago?

  2. One key element of future transportation planning is not getting the attention it needs-AUTONOMOUS-DRIVING vehicles. As Ms. Vela mentioned, we need more HOV/Special Purpose lanes on area freeways, and a key reason is to allow for future “platooning” of autonomous vehicles which will be able to travel safely at very close spacing, thereby significantly enhancing the capacity of existing highways.
    Unfortunately, anti-toll zealots have hamstrung planners by precluding the CONVERSION of existing “general-purpose” (typical) lanes to special-purpose/managed lanes, which will have to be unrestricted so an existing lane can be converted to a special purpose/managed lane for the autonomous vehicles’ usage.
    While not the ONlY solution, this “platooning” option will be one of many measures available to address more commuting capacity needs.

    • Self-Driving Vehicles may bring some efficiency to traffic flow to ease the congestion but they are not here yet, and there is still murkiness about them. Obviously not every vehicle will be self-driving, so how it’s going to work? Since self-dring vehicles can get themselves back to owner’s house to park (if parking at a destination is costly), wouldn’t that mean the VMT (vehicles miles traveled) doubled and so is pollution? Relying on self-driving cars as a solution does not add up in my book.

      • Agreed. self driving autos do nothing for climate change and pollution (and possibly nothing for congestion) – considering SA has lots of issues with ozone, we need better solutions than cars on the road and expanding highways systems.
        SA needs fast, efficient rapid transit and the density to support it/make it effective. If you haven’t already, let your district rep know you support the SA Corridors study (sacorridors.com), it is the first step toward San Antonio getting rapid transit and it has not yet been adopted!

        • To say nothing about the ethical issues the raise. Are you going to let a computer determine whose life is more important, your child’s or that of a stranger?

  3. My husband and I moved to San Antonio without a car. We both bike commute to work. We’ve had to pass up many jobs that had 2 hour bus commutes each way or no safe biking infrastructure. But in our short time here, under two years, I see San Antonio moving in the right direction but yeah, it’s real slow. And change is painful. But if you do have an opportunity to bike or bus, try it one day a week. Leave your car at home, you might find you enjoy it!

    • I admire your enthusiasm, but how many rush hour bus commutes have you been on? I still remember going to and from SAC and UTSA (and not on an express bus)and having to stand a lot in the crowded and swaying compartment, and sometimes putting up with drunk or otherwise obnoxious people. Not enjoyable, not a “pain” I’d like to do again.
      But if we truly invest in a VIA ‘BaRT system’ throughout the county, with dedicated bus lanes inside plug-in barriers, running alongside platooning autonomous and electric HOVers, I’ll give ‘er a shot again (and this will be voluntary! But I bet with my “grand plan”, it’ll have to be a full 1 cent dedication to VIA)

  4. Uh… Mass Transit… why is this not mentioned? (did I just miss it?) rail is a heck of a lot more efficient than buses and autonomous vehicles. San Antonio stupidly didn’t implement the start of the light rail system downtown and in 2040 its only going to be harder to find land for it. More, and wider, roads is the equivalent of kicking the can down the road and doesn’t work example: Los Angeles. Their roads are 8+9 lanes wide and it still takes forever to get anywhere.

    • Instead of light rail, how about a BaRT system, eventually implementing autonomous driving features with a human backup? Less money and less infrastructure, in natural gas and eventually an all-electric fleet of buses that flex from one route to another as needed, with plug-in road barriers that can be removed or moved as street maintenance occurs. Let’s save fixed rail for the heavy traffic between the stops on the Texas Triangle (SA to Austin to DFW, DFW to Houston, and Houston to SA)

      And I’m willing to back a 3/4 cent dedication to VIA, if the full 1 cent is not politically viable.

    • More lanes = more congestion! As a poorer city we should not just solely focus on building light rail infrastructure. We should follow South and Central American cities such as Mexico City, Bogota, and Buenos Aires by investing in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) . Very similar to VIA Primo except it has a lane dedicated to itself with coordinated lights. This would ultimately be able to move the same capacities at a much cheaper cost. BRT has worked for decades in second and third world countries creating less congestion and creating dense- walk able neighborhoods around the station areas. Why would it not work in San Antonio?

      • Excellent point! And I am ready to back a full 1 cent dedication to VIA, to help see a BaRT here, hopefully sooner than later.

        • The BRT format would use major corridors leading into downtown, instead of dedicating a single lane on an expressway, you would assign a bus only lane on corridors like; San Pedro Ave., Bandera Rd., Austin Hwy/ Broadway, W. Commerce, etc… That way these BRT lines would reach both residential and commercial areas throughout the city, creating a better definition of a multi-model city.

      • Excellent suggestion! Believe me if they can do in Mexico on a very busy congested street like Insurgentes they could do it down Broadway and San Pedro!
        That being said as a native Texan who grew up 20 miles from anything, driving and independence are built in to our mindset. While in Mexico, South America, Europe, and the cites in the US such as Portland, San Fran, NY, I do the mass transit system thing.

    • We need to be very careful with rail or any other mass-transit mode with dedicated r-o-w. Without the type of land development pattern that supports mass transit (read this as real urban/TOD), making investments on mass-transit will not be successful. Look at Dallas, they spent more than $2B on light rail (DART), but very few to show for it. Even the chart of this article proves that with their high car-dependency and low mass transit usage.

  5. Because the headline starts with “Census Data” I’ll focus my comments there. Emily should work on the axes and correct the percentage displayed; when everyone is accounted for, we’re at 17,000%. Consider what isn’t show in the tables, i.e. how many people carpool since that number is much much larger than walking or biking – and is perhaps a more realistic alternative given the difficulties of those modes of travel. You could deduce that number, but it sure would be easier to show it.

    Iris should also be careful conflating data and/or referencing data in the text that may not be included in graphics or the statistics. For example, where is Ft. Worth in the graphic since it was cited in the text? Is the data for the City of San Antonio, or for the San Antonio-New Braunfels Metropolitan Area? If she’s not sure, she should ask Emily. I suspect it’s the greater metroplex, but that is not cited anywhere despite the data on the ACS page being broken out for the metroplex. Iris cites a growth figure for the “San Antonio Area” but the article appears to focus almost exclusively on San Antonio – if the data is from a larger population, then make that clear. Otherwise it’s sloppy journalism.

    These concerns aren’t just pedantic nit-picking. Castle Hills tried to opt-out of VIA mass transit. Solutions are regional due to the amount of sprawl and the City of San Antonio is just one player.

  6. Let’s build a transit system similar to the way our highway system is setup. The loop and spokes system like a wheel. Have a central station downtown ( demolish old Texan cultures building) that then branches off to the major corridors of the city, Port SA, USAA & VALERO, The Airport, AT&T CENTER, ETC… Every other mile on each line should have a station where people get on and off. From there busses take people into the various neighborhoods spread out inside 410 and between 410 and 1604. Plus having a central station downtown makes getting to Alamodome events easy.

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