Fuel Panic Reveals Lack of Transportation Options in SA

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All of the gas pumps are out of service at a Shell station on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Alamo Street.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Gas pumps are out of service at a Shell station on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Alamo Street.

Bearing witness to endless lines of frustrated drivers over the past week, I’m reminded of how a single energy source controls the lives and anxiety of many San Antonians: gasoline.

How resilient is a city that flirts with panic after rumors of a fuel shortage? Is it fair to call our city resilient when nearly the entire public is dependent on a single resource to move? Hurricane Harvey brought unimaginable destruction to our coastal cities and full recovery will take years and cost billions. However, San Antonio was not prepared for the short-term gas hysteria that raised the blood-pressure of just about every car owner in our city.

As I watched my tank go from full to quarter over the weekend, I was calmed by the fact that I can wake up tomorrow and navigate our VIA Metropolitan Transit bus system – but that makes me a small minority in our city. I’m fortunate that I can adjust my day to start two hours earlier or relocate meetings from City Hall to my field office.

The vast majority of San Antonio residents don’t have that luxury. They can’t change doctor’s appointments without a penalty or significant risk to their health. They can’t disrupt a college course schedule, or sacrifice losing hours at work. They can’t miss jury duty or a meeting with a company executive. Too many working San Antonians solely rely on their personal vehicles – any threat to this creates deep fear and anxiety.

But here are some novel ideas: What if our city had access to a high-speed rail from the Southside to Downtown or Medical Center? From the Westside to classes at the UTSA main campus on the Northside or Texas A&M San Antonio in the Southside? What if bike lanes connected our city without gaps or risk to safety? What if our city’s bus system traveled in 15-minute frequency throughout the city? What if our transportation options were so numerous that any shortage in gasoline or any act of mother nature was merely a minor adjustment rather than a detrimental disruption to our daily lives?

The panic around the gas shortage will fade, but what about our will to diversify our transportation options? Will we again become complacent with our single-sided approach to moving people in our city? I hope not. We must turn our extreme frustration and our undoubtable apprehension from this past week into action. We must think bigger than four wheels. We must think two wheels, six wheels, and even steel track.

Personal vehicles and interstate highways undeniably transformed America in the mid-1900s, yet we find ourselves challenged to move people in the 21st century in any other way.

It’s time for another transformative movement in San Antonio – one focused on creating a diverse array of transportation options that let citizens get to school, to work, and to play without inconvenience. A major traffic jam? No problem with a light-rail system. A delay on the rail line from the Southside to UTSA? Maybe I’ll drive my car today. The bus to the park is running late? Let me go grab my bike. Our city holds great potential to increase access to all parts of town for all residents, but we must make the choice to make that investment.

Without light-rail, extensive bus-service, and uninterrupted bike lanes, San Antonians will be held hostage to the gas shortages of the future. Broken pipelines, natural disasters, you name it, we’ll suffer through it. If San Antonio can draw lessons from this week’s gasoline panic, it’s that our future cannot rely solely on cars and the gas that powers them.


This article was originally published on Sept. 4, 2017. 

19 thoughts on “Fuel Panic Reveals Lack of Transportation Options in SA

  1. Preach Rey!! I could not agree more! We need to stop being such a car centric city. We need more options for people to get around.

  2. Cities all over the country have dedicated rail, subways, elevated rail, the solutions are everywhere. It’s not like public transportation is a new concept. Get behind it. It’s green. It’s social. It moves people around cities. Build more compact living areas with services within walking distance and public transportation to center city hubs. Oh yeah, walking. Sidewalks that are safe and not right off the roadway would be a great idea, too. The Pearl is an instant community. What it lacks are supermarkets and other essential services within walking distance, but it’s attractive, compact and efficient. I love San Antonio, I’d love it even more if it could get me out of my vehicle and into public trans.

  3. With new forms of transit must come new forms of development very different from the car-dominated development of the last seventy years. This means substantial zoning changes and redevelopment of existing commercial corridors, if you want things like rail to be effective. All these changes must be coordinated. It won’t be easy but is absolutely necessary.

    • Spot on. The solution is not as simple as buses and light rail. I wish it was, but you cannot overlook the relationship between city form and transportation decisions. New transit options should be aggressively pursued, but so should a compact city form.

  4. I totally agree. I live in Highland Park (near downtown) and I actually want to take the bus into work (Medical Center) . I planned the route using VIA’s route planner and it would take 2 transfers and 2 hours for a trip that takes 15-20 minutes by car. That is absolutely unacceptable, especially for a city this size! We need to consistently elect a younger, more progressive group of city leaders in order to make this happen.

    • Same here. I live in the southwest side of San Antonio and it takes me 15 minutes exactly to get to Palo Alto. I was thinking about riding the bus to school thinking it would be more convenient than driving and boy was I wrong. Two plus hours and transfers just Isn’t convenient at all. I know there’s bus transportation for those going from Palo Alto to Texas A&M which is great for students, hopefully we’ll be able to get a better system someday for everyone. Honestly, I would love take a train ride to Palo Alto or all around the city for the matter.

  5. Great post. I chose to work at a company downtown only because of the bus option. I dont have much options if i sont like it, and some days i think i might ve limiting myself, but it has to start somewhere. The problem with the buses is that they go to 1 an hour during evening time you would be going home. People dont work exactly 8am to 5pm. And on Broadway the sifferent routes arent staggered so you can get service like everying 13 min…instead they clump near each other at 30 to 40 min then 9nce an hour. It just isnt worth it timewise unless you have NOTHING else going on.

  6. We need local leaders with the political will to implement a comprehensive public transportation system. My 6 year old often asks me why aren’t there trains here like the light rail he rides in Houston or Charlotte. It will obviousky take a generational shift to change our car centric paradigm. As the last few days have indicated we are currently not forward thinking enough to deal with perceived fuel shortages. We undoubtedly will be incapable in dealing with an actual disruption in the supply of this precious commodity.

  7. What if bike lanes connected our city without gaps or risk to safety? Bike lanes like the ones created at the tax payer (bond issue) at Broadway at Jones (intersection) and later wiped out by giving the privilege of exclusive parking spots to new apartment developers. Who after having street side parking spot on Broadway street lanes (where they could have chosen to have parking on Jones — less transited street) also INVADE the closest traffic street lane on Broadway to park large trailers while renters unload furniture to move in. Or where renters or future renters INVADE the closest traffic street lane to open the vehicle door (instead of using the door on the sidewalk side), leaving us Broadway drivers without a choice but to invade the incoming traffic lane on the opposite side. The problem is not the lack of bike lanes, the problem is that they issue bond debt to build them and then they earn by granting parking permits to developers on those very same bike lines to convert them on parking spots.

  8. Yes! Thank you!

    I’m a huge fan of being multi-modal. Living in a large city should mean automatically there are safe sidewalks for walking, uninterrupted bike ways, buses or light rail in all directions leaving every 15 minutes beyond what is available for personal vehicles. But San Antonio is behind.

    My husband and I moved to San Antonio a year and half ago. We moved here without cars and do not own one between the two of us. We were delighted with the affordable price of the monthly VIA bus pass but soon discovered how limited bus service is in San Antonio. Wow… so many buses only run ONCE an hour cross town and if I want to go down to enjoy downtown or the River Walk I better wrap up by 9:30 p.m., to catch the my last bus home.

    Because of the lack of good public transportation, we have settled on biking. We were everyday bicyclists before moving here but city sprawl and intense summer heat add new challenges. Biking in San Antonio has its ups and downs but for the most part we can make it work by living central and choosing jobs we can get to within 30 minutes of biking. I also learn where the most tree-lined streets are because otherwise biking in the summer is almost unbearable. The bike paths are fantastic but some have so few trees (south/westside), they aren’t good options to ride in the summer when the sun is so brutal.

    This week we wanted to go to the REI (Huebner Oaks Center) to replace our tent. Most of the bike route we can take is through neighborhoods but once we get to the last segment we have to take frontage roads which traffic moves so fast on, it’s like a freeway. For our safety we have to move to riding in the grass/dirt paths people have created because of lack of sidewalks and it’s SO miserable but better than being flattened. It takes us about 45 minutes to complete the one way bike ride. To bus would take nearly 2 hours. By car it would take about 10-15 minutes (not counting waiting in the gas lines!). I’m not surprised people in San Antonio are stuck on the one option–using personal vehicles.

    Yes San Antonio, move transportation options to your top priority and see this as a good wake up call. As options improve we can all choose to be more multi-modal. Traffic will improve, air quality will improve, and it’s kind of nice to let others do the driving once in awhile!

    • Interesting post. I also specifically cose to only look for work downtown so as to be able to use the bus and limit need for car….but it 9nly works because I can afford Lyft and Uber since I work until 6pm to 7pm and sometimes stay downtown for dinner drinks. The bus system seems to be geared to people where their time is worth less than $10 an hour and they have jobs 8 to 5 only and then go directly home.

    • Were you replacing your tent because in addition to not having cars you also dont live in a permanent structure???!! Kidding. But i had to ask just incase. I still havent connected the cable tv that comes with my internet. Why get a screen to cluster the wall when i can have art instead and read a book, visit friends, or comment at rivard report?

  9. Excellent article titled “Fuel Panic Reveals Lack of Transportation Options in San Antonio”, by City Council member, Rey Saldana. Also, excellent feedback from VIA bus riders on how to improve VIA bus routes.

    I would like to take this opportunity to solicit ideas for the Howard Peak Greenway Trail System, not only for accessing parks, but also as an alternate transportation system for accessing many other destinations. The Howard Park Greenway Trail System is expanding rapidly. It will soon be a loop bigger that Loop 410. Multiple smaller loops may also enhance the use of nature trails for transportation.

    Please see NatureTrailMaps.net for some ideas on using the Howard Peak Greenway Trail System, and, for using the San Antonio River Authority Trail System, as a hike, bike, and walk transportation system.

  10. There are some tough questions to be asked of VIA, including as downtown appears to have LOST some full day (7am-10pm) and frequent (at least every 15min) service with the recent demise of the color coded mini-bus / trolley-bus system that carried the City to national recognition for over twenty years.

    Alltransit estimates that less than 7,500 San Antonians currently have access to full day and frequent bus service in San Antonio. Part of the problem is fare approaches that aren’t fair and that slow boarding and scheduled services. San Antonio needs to learn from Columbus and move a large percentage of residents (5% of the population) towards an affordable annual bus pass — similar to the EZ Ride pass that CM Saldaña and other full time City employees currently have access to (at $60, less than what students, the elderly, vets and the disabled pay for a year of VIA ridership).

    It is not clear that key transit metrics or flawed approaches to transit service provision will improve significantly with the proposed $4.3m injection from the City with the FY2018 budget — and noting that VIA garners less than $25m from fares currently, with the majority of their $200m+ annual operating budget coming from sales tax.

    VIA’s recent presentation to the City suggests the additional tax funds will be used mainly to address 9 routes at the periphery of VIA’s service area (the 600s), moving these services towards unimpressive 30min wait times and potentially only during peak (not full day) hours.

    Full day and frequent service metrics clearly have not been improved by recent new Viva VIA services meant to replace the successful trolley bus system that in some cases ran from 7am until after midnight. In contrast, Viva VIA services run short and awkward schedules and go out of their way to segregate visitors from residents, including by avoiding some high density housing areas (Probandt, the West Side, St Mary’s Strip, etc) and major downtown transit hubs (Centro Plaza and Five Points).

    CM Saldaña is right to focus to frequency (not transit vehicle choice) — including as San Antonio can do and has in the past done more with frequent and full day bus service, including mini bus service. As CM Saldaña raises, San Antonio can also do more with bicycles and bike infrastructure to improve transit frequency and function. With the FY2018 budget, the City should insist that bikeshare finally be installed at major VIA downtown transit hubs as long planned (Centro Plaza and Five Points).

    Regardless, Council needs to focus to the metric of frequent and full-day service as VIA’s numbers are abominable in this regard, leading San Antonio to be ranked 38th in the nation in terms of transit quality — behind even Tucson and Buffalo.

    Frequent and full day service builds resident and visitor trust in transit, as our City leaders understood with the past successful trolley bus system. We need to improve services where there is density but also to destinations that people want to reach throughout the day and week — including greater downtown sites such as Tower of Americas / ITC / Hemisfair east, The Pearl, Probandt/Southtown, Ave Guadalupe, Elmendorf Lake Park, Woodlawn Lake Park, the Quarry, St Mary’s Strip, various greater downtown H-E-Bs and the airport.

    There’s much that the City and VIA could and should do to improve our transit metrics, including as basic building blocks towards possible future rail service. No successful public rail city exists that is not supported (and during rail maintenance replaced by) by full day and frequent bus service.


  11. Unfortunately there’s no way to do this realistically. Yea you could do this for a small amount of SA but SA isn’t a city setup for mass transit. Only a small minority of people will use it, the vast majority will never use mass transit. They will not give up their car and convenience of moving around the city with ease.

    Good luck during the summer when it’s 95-105 with getting professional workers to wait outside for rail or a bus.

    With San Antonio finally becoming another city governed by progressive politicians I fully expect for light rail mass transit to be tried.

    • Once upon a time, the city wasn’t set up for ubiquitous single passenger vehicles either, and now look at it. Things change, and all that’s required is the will to change it.

  12. When I worked downtown at Bank of America bldg, I could ride my bike to work faster than driving my car from home. But BOA had Zero accommodation for bikes. I spoke with two different sets of bldg management and my only option was locking up at unmonitored hidden bike rack.

    Sorry I’m driving

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