Suburban sprawl. Photo via Flickr user Doratagold.

As San Antonio’s Comprehensive Planning Committee (CPC) moves forward with appointing membership to the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Board, I remain skeptical that a committee dominated by the suburban districts (3, 4, 8, and 9) and board membership from the same groups who built this sprawling city over the past 60 years will make a dramatic change of course through this process. As an indicator, refer to District 8 Councilmember Nirenberg’s op-ed on transportation.

Nirenberg notes the new comprehensive transportation plan should be consistent “with our city’s vision for growth of its boundaries.” That is an alarming statement, and completely neglects the goal on growth stated in the Comprehensive Master Plan Framework. Nirenberg’s assumption that there is a vision to grow the boundaries of our city is in direct conflict with the goal to accommodate the anticipated 1.1 million newcomers within the existing boundaries of the city.

Nirenberg also assumes the long-term solution should enable commuters, and the solutions that have value are those that support commuting across the city and region. That’s his rationalization of why the streetcar was without value, because it was a solution for localized travel rather than commuter travel.

A city plaza in Valencia, Spain as an example of a pedestrian-centric thoroughfare. Image via Google Maps.
A city plaza in Valencia, Spain as an example of a pedestrian-centric thoroughfare. Image via Google Maps.

During the first CPC meeting, John Dugan, director of the Department of Planning and Community Development, noted the growing preference of people to live near their work. I argue the best solutions will encourage and enable local travel as the preference over commuting. If you work downtown, you should live downtown. If you work on the Northside, you should live on the Northside. This shift may, or may not, seem subtle, but the land use and transportation implications can be transformational.

More localized travel can dramatically reduce both the need and appeal of private automobile use, thereby reducing the overall need for road capacity while increasing the appeal and function of walking, cycling, and transit. In contrast to planning how to fund new roads and where to build them, we could begin planning how to reduce our existing road capacity.

To seize this opportunity and to transition to truly walkable communities will require us to challenge some deep-held assumptions. For example, the assumption that fast travel has greater value than slow travel. If we can accept that a 30-minute commute is a 30-minute commute regardless of mode or speed, then a 30-minute bike ride has the same value as a 30-minute commute by car. Likewise, a 30-minute commute by car at 30 mph has the same value as a 30-minute commute at highway speed.

If we consider the financial, safety, and environmental costs associated with these options, the 30-minute commute by bike has far greater value than a commute by car, while the commute at highway speed has the least value.

A city street in Valencia, Spain as an example of a pedestrian-centric thoroughfare. Image via Google Maps
A city street in Valencia, Spain as an example of a pedestrian-centric thoroughfare. Image via Google Maps.

To throw out a truly inflammatory belief, I believe wholeheartedly that pedestrianization cannot exist equally with automobiles. Automobiles consume so much space, make so much noise, and impose so much risk on non-motorists that they necessarily dominate any shared space. We sacrifice the interests and needs of non-motorized transportation to serve the interests and needs of motorists.

I prefer a pedestrian environment, and to get to a high-quality pedestrian and cycling environment, we have to build automobiles out of our lives. As just one piece of evidence supporting my belief, consider how we accommodate pedestrians in our city. Motorists are given the automatic right-of-way for the entire stretch of every road and street in the city, with the exception of crosswalks during a “Walk” signal. Because crosswalks are not provided at every intersection, motorists have the universal right-of-way not only between intersections, but also at almost every intersection. Crosswalks are not provided at every intersection, but instead at what are great distances for a pedestrian. The rules could easily give pedestrians the right-of-way at any point on our roads, but that would result in terrible inconvenience to motorists. Because the interests of motorists have precedent over those of pedestrians, that prospect is considered utterly ridiculous.

The council members on the CPC are thoughtful leaders, but they also represent parts of the city where it is assumed growth will happen, and that the best we can do is accommodate that growth in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. District 9 Councilmember Krier is very adamant on this point, often noting that growth will go where growth will go. I argue that growth will go where public investment in transportation and utilities enables it to go.

If there are doubts to the veracity of this argument, recall the reasoning of the development community’s fight against the SAWS impact fees. With strong support from Nirenberg and Krier, developers argued that absorbing the cost to expand water utilities was sufficient to inhibit new projects. Developers are dependent on public investment in utilities and transportation to enable new development, so growth will go where public investment enables it to go. We have the power to limit the growth of our boundaries.

A faint view of downtown San Antonio's skyline as seen from the Northside. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A faint view of downtown San Antonio’s skyline as seen from the Northside. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The parties being considered for the advisory board are also in the business of shaping the assumption that growth will extend the boundaries of the currently developed land, and that the single-use development patterns are a given. As a result of the CPC and board membership, the suburban districts and the interests who built this city the way it is today will sit down and craft a comprehensive plan that expends our resources supporting commuters in the “corridors that are the most traveled,” as proposed by Nirenberg. With the expansion of the city’s boundaries, so does more automobile usage, air pollution, risk to our water resources, congestion, and a host of other health, safety, and environmental impacts.

There is an alternative: Expending our resources to reduce the need for so much travel, which ironically requires far fewer resources than all the new road capacity which, to date, has created so much health, safety, and environmental harms without mitigating congestion.

However, to develop such a plan will require participation of a minority and dissenting view. Strong advocates for walking, cycling and development patterns that design automobiles out of our daily lives are needed in this process. The basic assumption that all road capacity provides value should be challenged. Membership should include those who are willing and motivated to question our land-use practices, the transportation systems that enable them, and the zoning codes that implement them.

*Featured/top image: Suburban sprawl. Photo via Flickr user Doratagold.

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Kevin Barton

Kevin Barton is an Associate Professor-Professional Track in Computer Information Systems at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. A retired USAF Chief Master Sergeant, his experience living in Asia, Central...