Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The commute to work or doctor appointments on a central section of Floyd Curl Drive in the South Texas Medical Center is a lot more “green” these days as construction nears completion on separated, raised bicycle tracks and new sidewalks.
Finding cyclists and pedestrians in the area, however, proved hard to do Tuesday morning, but that’s something that officials hope the new 1.7 mile stretch of roadway designed for both types of mobility will change. The 900-acre medical district on the city’s Northwest Side was designed almost exclusively for cars.
“We want the medical center to emerge [away] from somewhere you go when you’re just sick,” said Bill Balthrope, chairman of the Medical Center Alliance (MCA), which promotes the center’s economic growth. The alliance led the planning and funding for the project, partnering with the City of San Antonio and Texas Department of Transportation.
The street’s design takes into account motor vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians. The bike lanes are painted bright green as a signal to motorists at driveways and intersections to watch for crossing bikes.
The project, which cost roughly $15 million, is nearly complete, with work concluding at the trailhead near Floyd Curl Drive’s intersection with Louis Pasteur Drive. A grand opening is scheduled for Nov. 8, and several events to boost awareness about the new infrastructure are planned throughout the month, including yoga and a pet-friendly run/walk. Click here for details.
“We’re trying to bring in amenities like the trails and the retail that make us more of a city within a city,” said Jim Reed, president of the San Antonio Medical Foundation.
The foundation, which was founded 50 years ago to bring a medical school to the city, owns a 900-acre tract of land considered to be the epicenter of the medical district. It still has 200 acres of vacant land and has expanded the scope of development it wants to bring to the area to include hotels, apartments, restaurants, and other services.
The new green street, on Floyd Curl from Louis Pasteur Drive to Fawn Meadows, connects with the foundation’s 2-mile walking and jogging trail that loops around undeveloped space on the western edge of the district. Funding though the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has already been identified for a 1.2-mile green street on Hamilton Wolfe Road, Balthrope said, slated for completion in 2021.
Establishing a connected network in the medical center will not be easy, Balthrope said, as the area hosts more than 270,000 cars every day and already struggles with traffic congestion. Some people use bikes in the area, but not many. The main thoroughfares that lead in and out of the medical center aren’t bike-friendly.
Balthrope said he hopes the burgeoning younger population in surrounding suburbs and apartment complexes will start to take advantage of the new streets and trails to access emerging retail and dining options in the area.
“Those are the people who are going to be more likely on bikes and walking,” he said. “There are thousands of people who live around here. … We think this is a great asset not only for the medical center but for the city because it’s an example of what a complete street really is.”
About 3,500 new housing units were added to the area over the last few years, Reed said. “So we’re starting to get more into the livability-type amenities that come with all the new apartments.”
According to the medical center district’s 2011 bike master plan, the main thoroughfares through the area can’t sacrifice vehicular lanes for bikes because it would have too large of an impact on commute times, and mixing bikes with fast-moving cars in on-street bike lanes is too dangerous. The other option is widening the streets to add separated bike lanes – but acquiring the land along a street to do so can be challenging.
Most of the property owners along Floyd Curl Drive are members of the Medical Center Alliance, so it was easier to acquire the needed right-of-way, Balthrope said. The MCA was founded in 1998 primarily to manage traffic congestion and wayfinding, but its scope has expanded to include district-wide growth, pedestrian safety, and community health and involvement.
Construction of the Floyd Curl project was funded with about $5 million in City, State, and federal sources, including some grants. The MCA picked up the $6.9 million tab for the 450,000 square feet of right-of-way needed, he said.
“Imagine trying to buy that downtown,” Balthrope said. “We didn’t have to talk about money so much as land use.”
About 10 miles southeast of Floyd Curl, City officials are readying plans to redevelop three miles of Broadway Street. Those plans ran into a right-of-way challenge on the southernmost portion that engineers said was too narrow for safe bike lanes of any kind. That has drawn the ire of some elected officials and cycling advocates, who want to see bike protected lanes prioritized in street projects.
The City is expected to update its bike master plan, also developed in 2011, next year. It will convene public meetings and coordinate with stakeholder groups and organizations in major destinations – such as the medical center – across San Antonio. But, thanks to the introduction of electric scooters to streets, it won’t be called a “Bike Master Plan” like its predecessor.
“We are replacing it and creating a new micromobility plan that was just funded Oct. 1 [with the City’s fiscal year 2020 budget] and will take months and plenty of stakeholder and public meetings,” said Joe Conger, spokesman for the City’s Transportation & Capital Improvements department.
Like the medical center, the City is struggling to fund and implement a network of bike infrastructure. Separated or protected bike lanes aren’t in the City’s inventory, save for a few blocks. Reed said they are working with the City to one day connect its network to the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System that loops around San Antonio.
The medical center is home to 75 health care institutions, including more than 45 clinics, 12 major hospitals, a medical school, a dental school, and dozens of physicians offices. The local health care and bioscience industry has a $37 billion impact to the economy, according to a study commissioned by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. Much of that activity takes place in the medical center, which employs more than 30,000 people.
The busiest times of day on the street are during shift changes at the area hospitals, Balthrope said. “Don’t come [here] between 7 and 8 [a.m.].”
The green street design for Floyd Curl, developed by consultants TBG Partners and Pape-Dawson Engineers, includes a 10-foot wide, two-way cycle track on the southbound side of the street, separated from the street by four feet of grading that elevates the track from vehicular traffic.
“We had to put those [bike] icons in there to show ‘bike’ because when we first put it in, we had some people driving on it,” Balthrope said. “It gets congested.”
Another 4 feet of grass, even wider in some areas, and trees separate cyclists from pedestrians while providing periodic shade.
“Something I learned is that people that walk and bike don’t really like to share [trails],” Balthrope said. “This is the definition of a complete street.”
Future development that takes place on acreage where the walking and jogging trail is located will be required to maintain continuity of the trail, Reed said. Developers will have to build a “green street” to replace and connect it nearby or build around it.
“We’re trying to build a network where things connect with each other,” he said, noting that the district’s focus on multimodal transportation started in earnest about three years ago. “We’re getting there rapidly.”