San Antonio needs better public transportation

Callie Enlow is a young journalist and Denton, Texas, native who experienced life on both coasts before landing in San Antonio several years ago. A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Enlow has written nationally for The Onion, Kirkus Review, and various websites, and locally for San Antonio magazine, the San Antonio Current, and Plaza de Armas.  

By Callie Enlow

Recently, I reflected on how many people I know who have left San Antonio since I moved here. I estimated perhaps 15, which seemed high to me, so I decided to count. I counted on my fingers, and then my toes, and then my dog’s paws. The answer: Forty-one. I’ve lived in San Antonio for just over three years and I already  know 41 people who have moved. That’s shocking to me.

Shocking and concerning, because the people I know moving out are by and large the people San Antonio claims it wants to attract . The majority are college educated young professionals between the ages of 25-40, many of whom were deeply involved in their communities while living here. Several, but not all of them, work and socialize in the arts community. Others are journalists, accountants, web designers, educators or caterers. Two are law school students. A few work in the service industry.  Ten grew up here.

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San Antonio has done a great job lately in starting a dialogue about what the city needs to do to appeal what some call “the next generation” and others dub “the creative class”–educated, motivated young people at the start or midpoint of their careers. The Downtown Alliance invited outside consultants like Rebecca Ryan and Brad Segal to speak, the City spearheaded the SA2020 campaign to ask current residents what positive change is necessary. Yet missing in all this are the voices of the people who left. In February on the Rivard Report, Jeremy Fields shed light on his personal decision to move from San Antonio to Hamburg, Germany . I informally polled my recently-moved friends to see if there were any commonalities between their decisions. There were, and I believe they provide a good prism for viewing San Antonio’s future development.

First, jobs beat out even that most common relocation reason, being closer to loved ones. From architects to college professors to non-profit managers, many felt it necessary to move on to move up in their career. Richard Florida calls these types of professions “creative class jobs,” or those that are knowledge-based, rather than physical or service based.

Jesse Garcia, an accountant, recently transferred from San Antonio to Austin to work on a new project for his company. However, he already planned to move to Austin to look for a better paying job. I asked what, if anything, could lure him back here. “The city needs to attract more tech companies,” he answered, citing Austin’s recent success in courting Apple. He noted approvingly that companies like Rackspace, Geekdom and Techstars Cloud showed the city seemed to be moving in the right direction.  Mary Campbell, a longtime elementary school teacher in San Antonio, chose to move to Brooklyn last summer when she decided to transition out of the classroom. “I thought New York City would have more opportunities to start something fresh and new,” said Campbell who now directs a branch of the Sylvan Learning Centers. Kapil Khana, an architect formerly with local firm Kell-Munoz who moved back to his hometown of Chicago a year and a half ago, noted

Techstars
The advent of Techstars, Geekdom and Rackspace suggest San Antonio is moving in the right direction, but has a long way to go

that there were no international architecture firms in San Antonio, even though they have branches in other major Texas cities. He now works for the Chicago-based global architecture firm VOA. Khana’s partner, Kendra Curry, a former Artpace employee, graduated in 2010 from the University of Texas with a master’s degree in arts education and chose to move with Khana in hopes of landing a more lucrative job in her field. “The point was to set myself up for a better position,” said Curry of obtaining her master’s degree, “If a better position isn’t available, you’re going to leave.”

On the one hand, San Antonio leadership seems keenly aware of job creation; touting hundreds to thousands of jobs in healthcare and clean energy. On the other hand, as a recent column by Heywood Sanders pithily notes, San Antonio started behind the knowledge job curve, thanks in large part to an apathetic local education system and a commitment to stable, yet low-wage industry, and does not yet appear to be catching up. What’s worse, according to an analysis made in March  by the Martin Prosperity Institute, the next 10 years aren’t projected to get much better. The statistics, found on Richard Florida’s Atlantic Cities blog forecast a hearty 16-17 percent growth rate in creative class jobs in San Antonio. Sounds great, except that when stacked up next to other cities, we still look like a laggard. “The biggest gainers are, by definition the biggest regions,” said Florida, ticking off metro areas expected to gain more than 150,000 creative class jobs like Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C. San Antonio, seventh largest city in the country and nowhere on the biggest gainer list, expected to add 25,000 – 50,000 such jobs by 2020. That an increase between 25,000 – 50,000 could push our net creative class jobs up 17 percent highlights our meager starting point. Even compared to large metro areas, not just the top 10 largest cities, SA falls short, with cities like Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla., Cleveland, Oh., Birmingham, Al. and St. Louis, Mo. anticipated to create a higher percentage of creative class jobs than San Antonio.

Of course jobs aren’t everything. There’s a joke in Austin about bus drivers and pizza deliverers with Ph.D.s. While it doesn’t speak much to job creation, it certainly drives home the point that indeed some people stay for the atmosphere… and the people. While everyone I spoke to about leaving San Antonio stress how friendly, fun, and down-to-earth San Antonians are, they also acknowledged it could be downright impossible to find enough likeminded individuals for friendship, professional partnerships, or romance. “It’s really hard to meet new people,” said Campbell of San Antonio’s social scene, particularly for singles. “At my age, the middle-30s, I want someone who has something going for them,” she continued, meaning professional ambitions. Campbell didn’t find the right one in San Antonio, and the search became mundane and depressing, a sentiment I heard echoed again and again.

Curry and Khana, neither San Antonio natives, felt that the high percentage of hometowners in the city made it hard to get comfortable as anything other than an outsider. Curry notes other cities, like Austin or Los Angeles with its large university crowd or D.C. with its young political strivers, attract outsiders readily, if only for a few years, and that can create a more comfortable community for newbies. Garcia, a music lover who moved to San Antonio to open a record store, needed a stronger connection to music and fellow fans. “Personally, I just feel the need to be around live music. Plain and simple. And as we all know, Austin is definitely the place to be for that.” While San Antonio doesn’t need to go after the Live Music Capital of the World title, the city should consider what it can do to encourage locals-oriented entertainment options, like coffee shops, galleries, music venues and (gasp) bars, that help people to meet up and interact with one another. We certainly have the empty, available real estate, especially downtown. Curry, who last month visited San Antonio for the first time since moving away, stayed at a downtown hotel and marveled at all the unused space. She pointed out that while Chicago also had vacant pockets, the Chicago Loop Alliance recently launched an innovative program to turn those empty storefronts into pop-up art galleries and installations. Ben Judson just wrote about a broader, but similar, initiative in Newcastle, Australia, which turned such properties into low-cost, short-term rentals for creative businesses. Who knows, maybe one of those temporary endeavors could end up becoming San Antonio’s largest creative class job provider.

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San Antonio needs better public transportation
San Antonio needs better public transportation, photo by texastrails.biketexas.org

Just one more thing, because it can’t be stressed enough on the Rivard Report or anywhere else: WE NEED BETTER PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION. Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned that the overreliance on cars here was a dealbreaker. Either make the city more walkable or ramp up public transportation options; heck, let’s become the first city in Texas to do so successfully. It might be one of the best ways to keep people from walking out on San Antonio.