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While riding his bike from his home in the Alta Vista neighborhood to his office downtown, Timothy Hayes sees San Antonio from an angle and speed that lets him observe the pedestrian activity taking place on sidewalks and streets.
“When you ride on a bike, you tend to move a little more slowly,” Hayes said. “You tend to observe the people who are walking around, getting on and off buses, [or] carrying groceries. And I experience those needs [of street infrastructure] personally.”
Hayes started work June 1 as the City of San Antonio’s first pedestrian mobility officer (PMO), a job in which he’ll use his experiences and resident input to develop and help implement a Pedestrian Master Plan and monitor City streets and other projects for opportunities to enhance the pedestrian experience. Dozens of cities across the U.S. have dedicated staff to focus on pedestrian safety and “micromobility,” such as cycling and e-scooters.
“I walk around my neighborhood, I walk to San Pedro Park, I take the VIA bus when it’s too hot or too wet,” he said. “… [Using these modes of transportation] will certainly make it easier to understand the challenges” San Antonio pedestrians face.
He has a car, but it mostly stays parked, said Hayes, adding, “We’re a biking, walking family.”
Hayes, 34, previously worked for the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) department as an engineer in capital programs and project delivery.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) lobbied his Council colleagues and City staff to create a job focused on pedestrian mobility in 2018 and funding for the position was approved as part of the fiscal year 2019 budget.
“People are wanting more ways to move around in the city,” Treviño said. “They want complete streets, and one of the biggest [most frequent] requests we have every day at City Hall is for sidewalks. [The pedestrian boss] will be somebody that’s really focused on mobility outside of vehicular traffic. … This is somebody who’s going to be a voice for pedestrian improvements that we’ve never had before.”
The Pedestrian Master Plan, Hayes said, will be a comprehensive look at infrastructure from the pedestrian’s point of view and incorporate elements from the sidewalk master plan, Bike Master Plan, and other planning efforts.
“The Pedestrian Master Plan is going to look a little more broadly at the built environment [for pedestrians],” he said and suggest policy solutions.
While City leaders have begun placing more emphasis on pedestrian mobility, significant obstacles remain in a rapidly growing region where many residents depend on cars to get around.
Twenty-five pedestrians have been killed this year in San Antonio, surpassing totals from the previous three years during the same time period, according to San Antonio Police Department data. In 2018, 50 pedestrians were killed by vehicles; in 2017 there were 48 deaths; and in 2016 there were 60.
San Antonio committed to the goal of eliminating pedestrian deaths in 2015 when it adopted the Vision Zero initiative.
San Antonio received a 38 out of 100 score for walkability from the Walk Score website, classifying it as a “car-dependent city.” Other major cities in Texas ranked as more walkable: Houston scored 49, Dallas 46, El Paso 41, and Austin 40.
To address the city’s nearly 2,000 miles of streets needing sidewalks, City Council increased its annual budget from $13 million for sidewalks in 2018 to $19 million in 2019, and the 2017-2022 municipal bond includes $78 million for sidewalks. Annual budget projections for 2020, however, have funding down to $17 million.
Since Hayes started his job, he has met with various City department staff such as the Disability Access Office, transportation planners who focus on cycling, external groups such as neighborhood associations, and the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
While Hayes does not have his own staff, he sees himself as a liaison who “allows TCI to deliver on pedestrian mobility throughout the city using resources we already have.”
He’s also been reviewing projects that are underway across the city, looking for opportunities to advocate within TCI for pedestrian mobility.
Hayes sees opportunities for better walking space all over the city, but acknowledges that change won’t necessarily come quickly.
“We know that development patterns in our built environment has been shaped by 100 years of building streets [for cars],” Hayes said. “So it doesn’t matter where I go, I see that we can be more thoughtful about how pedestrians interact with our rights of way.”
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who chairs Council’s new Transportation and Mobility Committee, said she has doubts about the effectiveness of the new position.
“I think TCI, the whole department, seems to still be very reluctant to move on projects that actually impact pedestrians,” Gonzales said, adding that hiring from within could mean they are getting more of the same attitude.
“[City] departments are all working so much in silos – is having a pedestrian mobility officer really the solution for having a more holistic approach to transportation? My sense is it’s not.”
Investing in better coordination between departments, she said, might better fulfill the goal of increased walkability.
“What I’m afraid of is that this person will be relegated to [managing] sidewalks,” Gonzales said.
However, she added later after recognizing him from previous professional encounters with Hayes, “If anybody could make a difference, it could be him.”
Pedestrian mobility requires more than just sidewalks, Treviño said, and the PMO will act as a thread between departments to advocate for walkability.
“They will work alongside the engineers from the conception of the project to execution to get a better understanding of all the elements,” he said.
Before hiring Hayes, the City went through several rounds of interviews and hired a recruiter to seek out possible applicants nationwide. His annual salary is $80,000.
“He’s somebody who’s going to take to this role like a fish to water,” Treviño said. “… [Hayes] lives and understands the stresses and pressure when it comes to infrastructure.”
A San Antonio native, Hayes earned an associate degree in mathematics and engineering from San Antonio College and received his bachelors degree in civil engineering in 2013 from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He worked as an engineer in the private sector before he was hired by the City in June 2017.
“This has been a long trajectory for me,” Hayes said. “I began studying civil engineering because I was riding my bicycle and I saw a need for infrastructure. … I decided that I want to be part of filling those needs.”
Hayes said he wants to reach out to Council districts, neighborhood associations, and citizens across the city to talk about their needs.
“I’m excited to hear about what the residents’ priorities are because ultimately that’s who we are responsible to,” he said.