How San Antonio Can Address Climate Change

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The skyline of San Antonio is visible through the trees on the outskirts of downtown.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A layer of smog clouds the San Antonio skyline.

It won't be easy for San Antonio to live up to the symbolic resolution that City Council passed Thursday, making it one of 300 U.S. cities to support the Paris climate accord.

“This is only a resolution – it’s not creating law,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said after the 9-1 vote with one Council member absent. “What follows is the policy-making … and we look forward to tackling that."

What this new mayor and more progressive City Council majority know is that they hold in their hands the opportunity to demonstrate a newfound commitment to environmental protections and climate stability that can set an example for the generations that follow.

We owe it to our children to make it a nonpartisan priority to do everything feasible to protect the environment and reverse 150 years of industrial and consumer pollution of the air, water, and land.

How can locals leaders make a difference? There are many ways, and every one of them likely will be met with resistance from individuals, businesses, and political forces content with the status quo.

For starters, we can become a city that recycles. We are not one now. Residential recycling has improved over the last decade, but business, commercial and industrial recycling is strictly voluntary with few of the thousands of local businesses, hotels, restaurants, and bars participating.

Trash piles up in an alley in Camelot II.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Trash piles up in an alley in Camelot II.

Millions of glass bottles and aluminum cans and tons of plastic bags and packaging that could be sold to recyclers are dumped into the landfill each year. That leads businesses to buy newly manufactured packaging and cans, producing more greenhouse gases and warming of the planet.

San Antonio could easily join other cities and ban plastic bags at retail outlets. How hard is it, after all, to keep a few reusable bags on hand for trips to the grocery store or other shopping destinations? People traded at markets for centuries without plastic bags. They get used once and then end up in the landfill, the San Antonio River, or the city's many creeks.

One challenge for Nirenberg and new Council members is to convince other municipalities in Bexar County to adopt the same standards as San Antonio. Otherwise, anything accomplished in San Antonio will be blunted by indifference in the smaller cities.

It's really the responsibility of the state, of course, to implement standards, and while legislators want to reduce city governance on issues ranging from annexation to rideshare, state leaders have shown no inclination to take the lead on stabilizing the climate.

One measure of how much remains to be done – and is not being done – can be appreciated with a review of the Environmental Defense Fund's climate stabilization plan.

Perhaps the single biggest opportunity for Nirenberg and the Council lies in addressing growing transportation challenges as the city anticipates population growth of one million people by 2040.

Attendees navigate across South Alamo Street with San Antonio BCycle.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A cyclist navigates across South Alamo Street with San Antonio B-Cycle.

San Antonio does not make it easy for the bus rider, pedestrian, or cyclist who prefer to get around the city without a personal vehicle all the time.

Only now has public awareness of our lack of sidewalks become a matter of public focus. The 2017 municipal bond includes significant funding for sidewalk construction and maintenance, but the City is starting from way behind.

The city lacks a network of bike lanes, even unprotected bike lanes, to help the cyclist navigate the urban core. Miles and miles of bike lanes created with white stripes have been allowed to fade away or disappear, putting cyclists at real risk with drivers unwilling to share the road. Cycling advocates have found little support at City Hall.

Councilman Rey Saldaña checks his phone trying to locate the route he is currently on. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) checks his phone to locate his current route on the bus.

Even modest efforts by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) to increase the City's financial contributions to VIA Metropolitan Transit to improve frequency of buses on major routes has been met with resistance. Imagine the value of a program that would allow students to ride the bus for free, with buses running often enough that commutes did not require hours.

I was in Seattle when city planners there introduced free bus service in the urban core to reduce the number of individuals driving private vehicles into the congested downtown. The buses were filled with white-collar professionals, Millennials, and working-class people. A real measure of any mass transit system is whether the users match the city's demographics.

My best days are the ones where I leave my vehicle at home and walk or pedal to work. I am, admittedly, a poor bus rider. I just can't stand waiting in the South Texas heat for 20-30 minutes. I'd rather summon Uber or Lyft.

We will be a car and truck city for at least the next couple of generations because of our ever-sprawling boundaries and lack of transportation infrastructure, but if we start now to develop and implement a mass transit strategy, one that includes light rail, accelerated bus rapid transit and HOV lanes, San Antonio will see a real difference within, say, the potential eight year span Nirenberg can be in office. 

For now, VIA remains the most underfunded urban bus system in Texas. It can't afford to modernize its fleet at the same rate as other cities. It can't afford to run buses on routes with the kind of frequency that would attract more riders. It can't afford to add shade structures to every bus stop. And there is no regional plan for developing light rail that would make VIA eligible for the tens of millions of federal transportation dollars that have gone to Dallas and Houston for their systems.

Students board a bus at Northwest Vista College in District 6.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Students board a bus at Northwest Vista College.

Individuals do not have to wait for government to take the lead. The simple act of buying a reusable water bottle for use at work and out in the community means fewer plastic bottles being discarded at venues that do not recycle. Individuals do not have to wait for this city or the state to ban disposable plastic bags. Just buy a couple of reusable bags and stop using the throwaway ones.

Almost every one of us is guilty of not living up to our own standards. Why not use the election to redouble our individual commitments?

SAWS offers a lot of innovative programming and technical advice for homeowners who want to move from non-native turf grasses and automatic sprinkler systems to native plants and gardens that result in dramatic drops in water bills and provide the environment for pollinators, from bees to butterflies, to thrive once again.

Sooner or later, the City ought to adopt more restrictive year-round watering standards. Trying to conserve water simply by charging a nominal increase in price for major water users is ineffective. People can afford to pay and do pay. If every one of us operated on that philosophy there would not be enough water for everyone.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) speaks with Mayor Ron Nirenberg in City Council Chambers.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) speaks with Mayor Ron Nirenberg in City Council Chambers.

Saldaña will now find he has allies on the Council willing to listen to new ideas, willing to try different things, willing even to experiment and fail. Nirenberg will find he is no longer voting alone on some progressive measures. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who holds advanced degrees in chemical and environmental engineering and in public health, is an ideal candidate to take the lead on climate and environmental issues, just as Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), an architect, has brought the importance of design and the built environment to the forefront.

Whether San Antonio's resolution proves to be one where the City truly resolves to make changes – some hard, some not so hard – will be a measure of this new mayor and City Council. It would be nice if we could achieve the necessary gains voluntarily, but that won't happen. Most people have to be led to change.

This mayor and City Council were elected by voters who want change. Now it's time to show the support beyond the polls. The single biggest factor for officeholders will be the amount of public support they receive for taking risks and making changes.

Count me in.

17 thoughts on “How San Antonio Can Address Climate Change

  1. In Florence Italy, they have smaller buses, about 1/3 the size, on less popular routes. Example: here in San Antonio , one bus barely travels down Industry Park where HEB warehouse is. It turns 1/2 a mile early where thousands more have to walk the rest of the way should they choose to ride the bus

  2. If you want to recycle cans and bottles, fine. It’s a great idea! But don’t try to sell us this intellectually bankrupt idea that we can save the planet by doing it! Use a little critical thinking and common sense, please. Don’t buy the made up socialist agenda based on pseudo-science.

    • Well said.

      The mayor and city council of San Antonio should not waste their political capital championing these generic global causes. 1/3 the population is put-off immediately and another 1/3 doesn’t know what they are taking about.

      If you want San Antonio to recycle more, make that the point. It’s understandable, actionable and far less divisive.

  3. To reduce car pollution, lets find ways to make it easy to walk and bike to work or to the store by using the many existing nature trails that currently exist in San Antonio. Many more nature trails are being built in San Antonio. Check out the new locally-developed NatureTrailMaps.net web site. Help find ways to make this web site, or any web site, helpful for walking and biking on nature trails. NatureTrailMaps.net currently shows information such as distances between street and what parks have restrooms and water. Store locations will be added to help make it easy to walk or bike to stores. VIA bus routes will be added to make it easy to use VIA buses. Be safe. Use nature trail and minimize streets.

    • I walked to Local Coffee at 8:30 this morning, all of 1/2 mile each way (max). By the time I got home, I was drenched in sweat.

      Traffic, bike lanes and sheer distance aside, in what would does the “ride to work” crowd live? Certainly not the one I inhabit in South Texas. Crazy talk.

      More of the “good for you but not for me” idea set.

  4. Instead of spending the money to improve the bus system, we spend it on annexing more and more land for the city when we can’t even manage what we have!

  5. I hate to see the broad statement to implement year-round watering still be floated. SAWS recently even conceded, after reviewing the data, that the policy of watering once a week on your day did not save water like they had hoped. As an intense water saver the restriction made it more challenging for me to save. Examples: 1) I couldn’t try to stretch watering to a SAWS suggested 10-day cycle 2) I couldn’t risk not watering on my day if the chance of rain was say 50-90% the next day 3) If it rained 5-days ago I couldn’t risk pushing it another week to my next watering day 4) If I were poor, I won’t have a sprinkler system to water overnight when no one is up to catch my offense…and so on like not being able to wait a day because the evening is windy. The only year-round policy that might make sense is to only allow watering once a week on whatever day.

  6. The fact that we have hot summers is a really poor excuse for not making our city walkable. Those of us who have the choice will find other ways to get around when we don’t want to sweat. Some people don’t have that option. I don’t understand why anyone would oppose sidewalks and bike lanes, even if they insist they won’t use them. More people using their legs to get around = fewer people in cars, contributing to inevitable gridlock.

  7. I recycle alot! I started way back when you had to pay for pick up. Even so, I don’t understand why a city should start by implementing a ban on plastic bags that will be guaranteed to create major resistance from people who will see it as an attack on them. Look around. Who uses lightweight plastic grocery bags (everyone)? Look at what they are used for (everything). I use sturdy cloth or insulated for my grocery shopping and I have clever little foldup bags in my purse. I still wind up using those lightweight plastic bags at convenience stores, restaurants, anywhere that I haven’t carried in my big bulky purse.
    Keep recycling plastic bags. Keep promoting reuse. Don’t tell people they are bad actors for using a convenient, inexpensive item. All kinds of folks use these. All of us can learn to use our resources wisely.

  8. Remember, recycle comes at the end of the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). Instead of telling people to buy reusable bags they can make one out of old tshirts (https://www.mommypotamus.com/no-sew-t-shirt-tote-bag-tutorial/). Stressing reduce and reuse leads to better recycling.

    College students can take advantage of tablings by student organizations and companies on their campus and use the reusable water bottles they give away. Don’t spend $$$ on it.

  9. A sample of per capita GHG emissions, by country (Tons of CO2e in 2005)
    U.S. 23.5
    Belgium 13.2
    Germany 11.9
    Denmark 11.5
    U.K. 10.6
    Japan 10.5
    Italy 9.7
    France 9.0
    Sweden 7.4
    China 5.5

    I’m all for reducing water use, reducing disposal of plastic bottles, but I’d agree with other readers that those actions might have negligible impact on GHG emissions reduction. Instead, I’d suggest a critical analysis of why the U.S. creates two times as much GHG emissions as Germany, or three times as much as Sweden, and four times as much as China. The difference would be found in how much energy we consume, not directly in how much we water our lawns or send recyclable trash to a landfill.

    The real answers and real solutions will be found in energy consumption. Reducing packaging reduces energy demands to create, recycle or dispose of that packaging, but it will not reduce energy consumption as changing the way we transport that packaging. Carrying it by rail, bus, bike or foot rather than car or truck will have a bigger impact than recycling. Smaller houses closer together with smaller yards will reduce water consumption, but it would also reduce energy consumption by making walking, cycling and transit better options to driving. Adjoining buildings are more energy efficient than separated buildings. Slower travel speeds in cities, more fuel efficient vehicles, and greater use of renewable energy will reduce GHG emissions, but those options should not be pursued solely. Efficiency is great, but not as impactful as demand reduction. We can make improvements through technology, but overlooking lifestyle is missing a real opportunity to make an impact. City form is the key difference between the other affluent nations and the U.S., not recycling. Our city form is destructive in many ways, to include GHG emissions.

  10. I’m not the least interested in global warming, reborn as climate change. I don’t care about the size of my carbon footprint. I might if the City Council cared anything about demonstrable problems like childhood diabetes. If we don’t hold the world’s record for that now it is only a matter of time.

    What about the poor performance of south side schools?

    The Council is big on grandstanding. Change the name of Durango to Cesar Chavez to give the kids a model to which they can aspire. They don’t even know who he was and what kind of role model was he anyway. Adina de Zavala would have been better, but no, they give the name to some activist from California.

    June 10, 2017. The day San Antonio died.

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