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I’ve seen the future, and I like it. It’s engaging, exuberant, youthfully attractive and smart. The future lives in my house, offices in my building and went to grad school with me. It is multi-cultural and multi-lingual, and it comes home during university breaks and gives me the skinny on social media. (At the time of this writing, Facebook is out, Twitter and SnapChat are still cool.)
The future can be passionately opinionated and may benefit from a little historical perspective, but the future has forced me to redefine relevance, get out of my comfort zone, and continually push the proverbial envelope.
I’ve been working on the future as the creator and manager of San Antonio Bikes. Working on the future showed me that change is good, but more than that, it’s 100 percent necessary if we want to keep our essence intact and chase that elusive intangible called “quality-of-life.”
For me, the future has meant planning, selling and funding transportation alternatives for the last five years. Not alternative transportation, mind you, but transportation alternatives. In other words, choices. The future demands choices. Because one size does not fit all, and one system cannot possibly accommodate everyone, especially with the sheer number of new people – and their cars – moving into our region.
If you think our future is still off somewhere in the future, look around. Or better yet, drive around. It’s increasingly congested and frustrating. Sure, we’re going to continue to need cars, but what if one wants to travel another way on occasion? And what about people who don’t drive a car, like the young, the old, and those who can’t afford to? An integrated multi-modal transportation system could be San Antonio’s future as it is already in many other cities around the world.
The future knocked on Mayor Julián Castro’s and City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s doors a few years ago in the form of millions of dollars of stimulus funds from the federal government, which they directed toward some really cool initiatives, including the San Antonio Bikes program in the City’s Office of Sustainability. Back in the summer of 2009, our first order of business was to get a baseline assessment of our current conditions so we could prioritize projects, and we looked to the League of American Bicyclists for some guidance. The League, recognizing a movement on the upswing, granted San Antonio “Bicycle Friendly Community” status at the “bronze” level in the fall of 2010.
We were elated. At the same time we knew we were on the hook to deliver and, literally, put our money where our mouths were. Two policies – “Safe Passing” and “Bike Lights at Night” ordinances – were put on the books to raise awareness about the importance of vulnerable road users and bicycle safety. The “Get Cyched” and “There’s Enough Road to Go Around” media campaigns were launched along with a dedicated Facebook fan page and San Antonio Bikes website. Then we started some serious development.
When we attained Bicycle Friendly Community status in September 2010, the following major projects had not even been daylighted:
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The comprehensive regional San Antonio Bike Plan 2011 + Implementation Strategy, was adopted by City Council in September 2011. The bike master plan calls for more than 1,700 miles of facilities in the future. This was a massive undertaking with substantial technical input and public participation.
Texas’ first modern bike sharing system, San Antonio B-Cycle launched in March 2011. Today the system has 53 stations and more are on the way. Users log more than 200,000 alternative transportation miles each year and have collectively burned a whopping 27.5 million calories since inception.
Two “Transit in Parks” grants totaling nearly $700,000 were successfully pursued and awarded in 2011 and 2012 to expand SA B-Cycle along the San Antonio River Mission Reach in and around the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a uniquely original use of bike sharing.
Two Transportation Enhancement funding programs totaling over $1.3 million were pursued and awarded to further expand the urban core of SA B-Cycle and produce new educational materials (maps and guides) for the region. The local match from the City of San Antonio totals approximately $260,000.
Síclovía launched in October 2011 with approximately 15,000 attendees. The twice-a-year event now draws approximately 60,000 to 70,000 attendees.
Area partners purchase helmets and bike lights for youth and adults and work with the San Antonio Police Department to deliver within the community. Since 2010, more than 3,000 helmets and many thousands of pairs of bike lights have been distributed.
And there have been investments in many other programs, such as bike parking, bike counting, employee bike share, online mapping capabilities, and downtown bike and walk/run maps.
San Antonio currently has nearly 300 miles of bike facilities in place including lanes, routes and sharrows. In 2000, we had 36 miles, and by 2010, we had 210 miles. Since adoption of the bike master plan, we’ve installed or have committed to 75 more miles through the Infrastructure Management Program and various bond projects.
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The Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System now total approximately 45 completed miles, and an additional 41 miles are planned and funded, for a total of 86 miles. The county, state, and San Antonio River Authority have added additional on-road infrastructure and multi-use trails for hiking and biking.
Indeed, we have made a great amount of progress developing a muscle-powered choice for travel. We have been diligently working on policy, planning, funding, events and engineering to build a comprehensive program, hitting it from all angles.But, our community is enormous and spread out, and we have a tremendous bureaucracy to work through. Nevertheless, strong and committed partnerships have been formed, and together we are making great strides implementing projects all over town.
Recent controversy on South Flores Street is a symbol of our growing pains as we encounter change, and if nothing else it shines a light on the fact that we still have work to do. It has also mobilized the cycling community to speak up for what they want and value in their neighborhoods. The future is already in San Antonio.
As events in my own life have ebbed and flowed, I’ve comforted myself with the phrase, “the only permanent thing is change.”
People leave, children grow up, new technologies disrupt our lives. How we deal with change will determine what our future looks like. During a recent contentious City Council meeting, a colleague, in reaction to arguments being presented that seemed to fly in the face of progress, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “If you don’t change, you die.” What a loaded statement.
Admittedly, change is hard, but what about the change we’re experiencing that no one really likes? What about all the traffic congestion, trees being bulldozed and the drought? Maybe we need to revise our feelings about change. Change could mean innovation, economic development, and sustainability. Those notions are not incompatible. Sustainability means protecting the natural resources that our very lives depend on and that keep our region competitively viable, healthy and beautiful. The future wants to live in a vibrant community that cares about the future.
Our city is changing, and I’m changing, too. Transitioning from my current role with San Antonio Bikes to the Executive Directorship of Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas, I’ll have the opportunity to work on other sustainability issues about which I also care very deeply. Green Spaces Alliance is dedicated to sustaining our natural environment and enhancing urban spaces through land conservation, community engagement, and education.
The staff and the board of directors are passionate about these initiatives, and I couldn’t be more honored to have been chosen to lead the organization. Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas has three core missions: to preserve large parcels of land to protect the Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio’s main source for drinking water; to foster community gardens throughout San Antonio, with focus in low-income communities; and to educate the public about the importance of our environment.
Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas was founded in 1998 as the Bexar Land Trust. It is a non-profit organization that works with landowners who are interested in preserving open space. Over 31,000 acres of land over the Edwards Aquifer have been protected due to the efforts of Green Spaces Alliance. Since 2002, Green Spaces Alliance has introduced thousands of children to photography and the wonders of nature through the Picture Your World Youth Photography Project. In addition, Green Spaces Alliance has funded and facilitated 30 community gardens in San Antonio and has helped many other gardens get started and grow.
For all its forward-thinking hipness, the future still wants to have meaningful relationships and family traditions. It wants to belong to a community and contribute to something greater than itself to feel validated and relevant. For all its techo-connectedness, the future can still be awed by the power of a mighty waterfall or an ice-capped mountain. The artful and efficient weaving of a spider’s web or the iridescent hues of a peacock’s feather has the capacity to delight and amaze beyond any 3-D digital rendering. The future is our sons and daughters and their sons and daughters, and so on. The future is cool and valuable and can be fantastic if we allow ourselves to embrace change with open arms and open hearts.
I’ll see you on the bike or in the community gardens.
*Featured/top image: Bikes are becoming an urban staple in San Antonio. Photo by Kari Denise.