New Players Needed for New Results in Comprehensive Planning

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Suburban sprawl. Photo via Flickr user Doratagold.

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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13 thoughts on “New Players Needed for New Results in Comprehensive Planning

  1. Hi Kevin. We share a career in the military and, previously for me, the same employer (Texas A&M University-San Antonio) in common. You are obviously a strong supporter of less commute and less commute without an automobile. I do not have knowledge of the history of the development of cities in other countries (I too served in Germany) to include what transpired to make them a more walkable environment that that in the U.S. However, previous planning that has been done in the U.S. seemingly makes it very difficult to change the vast majority of people’s desires for where they want to live and how they want to get to work each day going forward. Live where you work is as good of a concept as everyone should treat others with respect and dignity. Neither is realistic. I live on the Northeast side of town and during the six years I worked at TAMU-SA I commuted 35 minutes one way in, fortunately, very little traffic. With the number of times people change employers, I think it is unrealistic to ask people to put their homes up for sale every time they change jobs. The president of TAMU-SA is an avid supporter of the Southside but even she lives on the west side of San Antonio. It is idealistic to want to live in an environment found in other parts of the world, but I don’t think things will change in the United States as long as the majority of citizens and the supply and demand dictate a desire to commute. Majority rules most of the time and in the case of serving the majority of the citizens of San Antonio, I think that is what the committee will do. I appreciate reading your viewpoints and thank you for your service to our country.

  2. When I was a kid, I spent several summer vacations in a place with no cars (Fire Island, NY). It was great! The distances were short enough to make bike transportation practical. But banning cars clearly isn’t an option for San Antonio. So, we’ll have to figure out how to teach motorists not to dominate our shared space.

  3. Everything recommended in this article is totally foreign to the culture of San Antonio. People like their cars. And sorry but it’s a bit ludicrous to suggest a 30 minute commute on a bicycle when it’s 104 at 5:00 in July (or 19 on a morning in January) has equal value to a 30 minute car ride in air conditioning. That’s like saying caviar is equal to chicken eggs.

  4. Although pedestrians always have the right of way at intersections (as long as they are not walking against a red light), this law is either ignored or unknown to the vast majority of car-driving Texans. In fact, just 10 minutes ago I saw a car turn left at an intersection, forcing a pedestrian to stop and give them right of way.

    With regards to urban planning, European and Asian cities are much older than North American cities. The street and plaza you show in Valencia are centuries old. Because of their relative youth, urban planning has been car-oriented in the American cities, especially in the Southwest. This has created a conundrum because many younger people (aka “millenials”) are seeking a more urban (rather than suburban) lifestyle.

    On a final note, there are many people who actually prefer the suburban lifestyle — living in tract homes and having to drive everywhere are considered to be desirable attributes to their way of life. As such, sidewalks and public transportation are not their priorities. And that is their choice…

  5. Kevin, excellent article! It is time for a change in mindset toward the growth in San Antonio. Page, to address your comment, many people may prefer the suburban lifestyle but they should pay the added cost for their decisions! Perhaps, then, they might reconsider . . . For far too long the inner city has subsidized the poorly planned growth at the edges of our city. Enough already!

    • Not sure what people in the suburbs need to pay for and what inner city residents are subsidizing for those living in the city. Just like with the extinction of streetcars diwntown there are reasons people migrated to the suburbs. Not sure why there is this drive to make people live downtown. Maybe the migration is to be blamed on decades of poor city planning. With rapid turnover in mayors and city councilmembers it is easy to understand why few city planning initiatives get approved or fully implemented-that is not necessarily a bad thing.

  6. HI Kevin – my main concern with comprehensive planning in San Antonio is how recent (and heavily invested) area comprehensive plans / MOUs appear to have been ignored and/or forgotten by the City.

    At least, I read the 2002 Near Northwest Community Plan for my area and note how numerous Public Improvement Projects related to sidewalks and other pedestrian amenity improvements have yet to be completed and are not prioritized current works or budgeting:with

    A recent visit to downtown and midtown Detroit opened my eyes to the extent that
    San Antonio has failed to invest in the most cost-effective transportation infrastructure available to any urban area – ample and unobstructed sidewalks and effective pedestrian crossings. Somehow, it is safer, easier, and more pleasant to walk two-to-three miles at street level in the Big D / Motor City than it is in San Antonio.

    Here’s a comprehensive plan for San Antonio in 2014: bbuild etter sidewalks and improve pedestrian crossings within 10,000 steps of the Alamo.

  7. To address a couple of points made by commenters.

    1. I agree completely that pedestrians have the right-of-way in crosswalks, as long as they are not crossing during a “Don’t Walk” signal. However, my argument is that motorists have the right-of-way everywhere else, which happens to be the overwhelming majority of the road. It’s less than two miles from my house to downtown, in an area that is heavily pedestrianized, at least for San Antonio. There are only five crosswalks. There are 24 intersections, so why not 24 crosswalks? Why do motorists have the right-of-way between crosswalks? Why not give the right-of-way between crosswalks to pedestrians? The only reason we don’t is because it would be terribly inconvenient to motorists, and the interests of motorists dominate those of pedestrians.

    2. Several commenters argued that San Antonio, and the U.S. in general, was built different than many cities in Europe and Asia. True, but we are beginning a planning effort to shape our city in 2040, with an anticipated growth of 1.1 million people over the next 25 years. If we continue the same patterns of development that held during the past 70 years for the next 25 years, and maintain the same density, our city will grow from 465 square miles to 833 square miles. Maybe there are people who find that prospect appealing. If so, I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them. We are not destined to that future, but that is the likely future if the same mindset that resulted in our city’s development since the end of WWII prevails for the next 25 years. Unfortunately, the team being assembled today to begin shaping our city in 2040 looks like the same team who lead development the past 70 years.

    3. Notwithstanding the ridicule from a custom home builder touting the pleasures of driving, I concede that many people do not find the prospect of cycling as transportation appealing. However, many people do, and many others might given the right conditions. It just so happens, those right conditions occur when there is much less threatening traffic. In general, less threatening traffic means less traffic and slower traffic. Given the same commute time, slower traffic also means shorter commute distances, and achieving shorter commute distances means greater density. The anticipated growth of our city is an opportunity to almost double our density. I recognize that might create more panic than optimism, but it shouldn’t. I shared that same sentiment until I lived in very walkable communities, which were also very dense communities. A 10-minute casual walk from my home in Landstuhl, Germany could get me to one of more than 10 privately owned restaurants, several bars, a dozen churches, retail stores with more diversity of product than any two big box retailers combined, three grocery stores, city hall, a half dozen bakeries, and a train station. You might think that comes at the cost of being in an urban island with no access to nature, but you would be wrong. A two minute walk put me in the woods with enough public access to allow 7-hour mountain bike rides without ever using the same trail twice. The quality of life was spectacular, not in spite of density, but because of density.

    It’s ironic someone would compare San Antonio with Detroit. Detroit is currently portrayed in media as a ghost town, an abandoned city. However, Detroit’s population density is nearly twice that of San Antonio, which explains why it is much more walking friendly.

    4. Regardless of whether you agree with my views on the possible future of our city, the planning team that is coming together right now, based on their history, the views they have expressed, and the interests of the parties they represent, will most likely plan a more organized execution of the same development patterns that have prevailed during the past 70 years. In contrast to the stated goals in at least two planning documents, SA2020 and the CMPF, to improve air quality, improve public safety, limit expansion of our geographic boundary, and decrease vehicle miles traveled, the most likely outcome will be:
    a. An increase in annual traffic fatalities from 211 per year to 400 per year
    b. An increase in annual pedestrian and cycling fatalities from over 50 per year to almost 100 per year
    c. Decreasing air quality, and decreasing air quality over a larger geographic area
    d. Increased vehicle miles traveled
    e. Geographic area of the city increasing from 465 square miles to 833 square miles
    f. Greater demand for water while replenishment of our local water supplies is put under ever-increasing stress
    g. Most importantly, the opportunity presented by rapid population growth to transform our auto-dominated city to truly walkable communities will be lost, and we may never see that opportunity again

    • Good points Kevin. I too agree with your pessimism regarding the committee and that those responsible can do a better job planning for the growth of the city.

  8. I agree with so much of what this article is saying. Thank you, for writing this! Please bring development to downtown. I am tired of having to drive everywhere.

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