Share the Water: The Case for a San Antonio River Síclovía

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A kayaker and paddle boarder enjoy a Sunday afternoon in on the Black River in South Haven, Michigan.

Robert Rivard / Rivard Report

A kayaker and paddle boarder enjoy a Sunday afternoon in on the Black River in South Haven, Michigan.

For five hours twice a year, Broadway or one of the city’s other streets is closed to cars and given over to tens of thousands of San Antonians of all ages on foot, pedaling bicycles, pushing strollers, pulling wagons, and jumping skateboards. It’s a big day for pet dogs, too.

It’s not enough. The people of San Antonio deserve more opportunities to gather and safely play in public places and celebrate our collective health, well-being and our diversity.

The YMCA of Greater San Antonio and its many partners do a great job of organizing and managing Síclovía, but the cost prevents organizers from offering the Sunday event with greater frequency than once every six months. It takes more than $100,000 to mount a single event.

A recent visit to Mexico City reminded me that city officials there close the great Avenida Reforma to vehicles for several hours every Sunday. Other cities around the world do the same. San Antonio’s elected officials and City staff should find ways to do more.

I met this week with young professionals earning graduate degrees in urban planning at the University of Texas at San Antonio‘s School of Architecture. The university’s downtown campus is typical of pedestrian-unfriendly environments in the urban core. One student noted there is no standing City committee dedicated to pedestrian and cycling policies and practices, no formal avenue for advocacy. That keeps the focus at City Hall on making streets for cars, not for people.

Earlier this week a San Antonio police officer drove up behind me as I cycled north on South Flores Street. He briefly turned on his siren to get me to leave the sidewalk. I motioned him over to talk, but he was not interested.

I was on the sidewalk for my own safety. I’ve seen San Antonio Police Department bike patrol police do the very same thing almost daily. They, of course, have a legal right to pedal on sidewalks, but like most cyclists they ride on the street when it’s safe and take refuge on sidewalks when it’s not safe – even when nothing is happening on the sidewalk to merit their presence.

In my case last week, I exited the beautiful and safe cycle track that runs alongside H-E-B’s Arsenal headquarters and its South Flores Market and continued across César Chavéz Boulevard on to the sidewalk north before threading back into traffic. Any other option puts one’s life at risk.

A bike path stretches parallel with South Flores in front of the newest H-E-B set to open December 2nd, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The bike path stretches alongside South Flores Street in front of H-E-B South Flores Market.

That should be obvious to any public safety officer. Instead, the focus is on enforcement of the no-riding-on-the-sidewalks ordinance. Many of our urban streets are simply unsafe with drivers ignorant of the law that allows cyclists to share the road, or the right of pedestrians to safely cross at designated crossings. Police rarely enforce the city ordinance requiring drivers to keep three feet between their vehicles and cyclists.

Not a day goes by on East Houston Street without bike police and tourists on Segways plying the sidewalks. They’d be foolish to try to stay only on the streets.

While much work needs to be done to change the culture at City Hall to one more committed to enhanced pedestrian and cycling safety, there is one intriguing way to give locals greater recreational opportunities in the urban core.

Give us back the San Antonio River on Sunday mornings. Replace tourists sitting in for-profit barges, and let people in kayaks, canoes, and inner tubes, or standing on paddle boards, take over the Museum Reach and the River Walk.

The numbers of people would be far less than the turnout for a street Síclovía, but so would the cost. Participants would probably have to wear life preservers, or at least have them on board, and officials would have to establish put-in and take-out points and other rules governing the event.

Tourist traffic is probably at its lightest on Sunday mornings, so the impact on the bottom line of the barge operators would be minimal. More importantly, taxpayers who have invested more than $300 million into direct and indirect river improvements, resulting in both the UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2015 and, more recently, the coveted Thiess International Riverprize, would gain greater ownership over their city’s river.

Other cities share their downtown waterways with locals and tourists. On a recent road trip to circumnavigate Lake Michigan, we found locals recreating on waterways coursing through Chicago, the quaint resort towns of Holland and South Haven in Michigan, and in Milwaukee on the Wisconsin side.

Isn’t it time San Antonio gives its residents the right to the river where settlers first gathered nearly 300 years ago? Is it really only for tourists and conventioneers? Kayakers and paddle boarders are now a common sight on the Mission Reach and King William Reach of the river, but why not the Museum Reach and the downtown River Walk, too?

Ever since Mayor Julián Castro declared the Decade of Downtown and people began speaking of  San Antonio as a “city on the rise,” a growing number of individuals and organizations have focused on ways to animate the urban core with more residents, more workers, and more locals coming downtown to enjoy the arts and culture.

The river is the heart and soul of San Antonio. Finding a few hours a week to let locals share the waters would completely change the conventional wisdom that the River Walk is only for visitors.

Visitors do love the River Walk experience. Let’s give locals reason to feel the same way.

23 thoughts on “Share the Water: The Case for a San Antonio River Síclovía

  1. I suggest you research your suggestion of accessing the river before you encourage people to get in it in some places. You will find it is not an aquifer fed stream gurgling up from the ground, but rather recycled water coming back north from our water treatment plant with additional contaminants at various times of the year. The purple pipes tell the story. Only 1 well now pumps from the aquifer…in the zoo. There are monitors accessible online; it’s not always safe in some stretches!

  2. What a great idea!

    And the City could install charcoal grills all along the Museum Reach and hire the homeless people for lifeguards!

  3. Thank you for writing this piece. I vote “no” on a river siclovia in the Museum Reach and downtown RiverWalk area. Keep Sunday mornings open for the tourists, as well. It is a big part of our tourism cash cow, and we should milk it for all it’s worth.
    And a big “thank you!” for making me aware of what happens on the Mission Reach area of our river. I just might head down there, further away from the tourist-traffic.

    As for the first part of your commentary, I am 100% behind you on setting up as many of our roadways to be as bike-friendly as possible. This goes hand-in-hand with my wanting at least 3/4 of a cent dedicated to VIA and their communal efforts (would love to see 1 cent dedicated…trying to be realistic and a bit fiscally conservative….) Please focus your efforts there (and for more Broadway Siclovias, I’m all for that event, and at other stretches of roadway throughout the year!), and I will march (or bike!) alongside you.

  4. What a wonderful idea, ising a recreation space for recreation instead of closing a major transportation artery! Bravo. Do it please! Leave Broadway broad and open!

  5. Bravo for your comments about bike safety. I’ll continue to ride (slowly) on the sidewalks where necessary. Recently established “bike lanes” such as those on Bulverde Rd between 1604 & Evans, or on Wurzbach Parkway are a joke — little more than gutters littered with the trash and glass from the roadways. Riding along major arteries in town like Flores and Roosevelt Ave is treacherous as well. We have wonderful greenways and trails along the river, but cycling in the city is still fraught with peril.

  6. I don’t know how you can suggest inner tubes on the downtown portion of the San Antonio river. Have you seen how disgusting that water looks? And eve for those that are willing to risk it, with no river flow, it would turn into a congestion nightmare that would further turn that part of the river into filth. Think the area where toobers get in to the Comal in New Braunfel’s Prince Solms Park, filthy because of the visitors getting into the river. We would also need a lot of police to make sure there are no alcoholic bevarages, clean up crews to clear up all the discarded bottled drinks and they would have to cover a huge area that just isn’t the most populous parts of the Riverwalk. There are a lot less populous areas that people would want to get into (like near the main library) that would still need to be monitored by the police. This, of course, drives up the cost. Finally, why not, instead of talking about how we aren’t matching up to other cities because we aren’t doing something like that city…how about we research how these other cities are able to pull it off financially so that we can’t start working towards these changes.

  7. As someone who kayaks, I am so glad you wrote this piece. I have been thinking this for years but never thought the city would even consider such a “radical” idea. Forget about Sunday mornings, this should be a regular amenity! PLEASE CITY OF SA MAKE THIS HAPPEN!

  8. Interesting that you bring this up Mr. Rivard. Last night walking along the Riverwalk my friend and I were remembering the days when you could rent a paddle wheel boat for two people. It was back in the mid 1970’s when it was a great time on the river. Your idea merits serious consideration by the City of San Antonio. It would be a nice experience to peddle along the river looking at the sites in a manner different than we are use to seeing. I believe even tourists would like to participate in the Sunday morning event as well.

  9. Launch a boatshare program, like bikeshare but with boats. Small boats that seat four or six, with stations spaced along the river. Allow it to be used 24 hours. Make any operators first go through a process that involves passing a boatshare driver’s license test. Allow boatshare drivers to offer their services for hire.

  10. First, ditch spell check, it’s Riverwalk. Next, check with the SA River Authority on how polluted the river is. At least warn about those dangers.

  11. Our rivers (currently) are not safe for swimming, due to the high amount of chemical and biological contaminants. All of our lakes and rivers pick up so much street and ground runoff that they are high in both oil-based chemicals and fecal coliform. They are also all low-to-no flow, so there is very little natural cleaning. This is a scary idea to me.

    The Siclovias are cool, but they are also a symbol of failure. We shouldn’t have to close streets (especially major arteries) in order to have great places to ride and play. those places should exist every day.

    Cleaning our rivers and lakes to a safe-swimming level would be very expensive and marginally worthwhile. Developing spaces and policies that make biking safe, friendly and accessible every day isn’t.

  12. This is a great idea. I often walk the stretches between SAMOA and the ATT building and while I wouldn’t get in the water without a boat of some sort, I’d love to see the river opened up for public use. I mean, $15 river taxi rides are obviously not intended for our use.

    Since I moved here a year ago, I’ve heard a lot about ‘revitalizing’ downtown and some of the neighborhoods surrounding it – like mine. However, until the city puts any dollars toward things that would attract San Antonians here instead of solely tourists, like sidewalks, plazas, real bike lines, opening up the Riverwalk, places to gather and hang out…who would want to live downtown?

    I used to lived in New Orleans, so I understand how tourism, or lack thereof, can kill a city. But, people comprise the spirit and culture of a city. And without them, tourists can go anywhere to eat at a Joe’s Crab Shack and visit a Ripley’s Museum.

  13. I like this very much. Not just because I am a paddler and an outdoor lover, but also because people having access to land (whether taxpaying or not, such as during the pre-civilization era) was the way healthy communities thrived for millennia (i.e., the commons had not been closed by an elite social structure). In fact, living in such a way was quite normal the world over. Before the advent of overshoot and imperialism (our western inheritance; the new normal; the new normal nobody thinks of questioning, the new normal few people would have the courage to question; the new normal fewer people can even identify).

    Let’s also not forget about the settlers of 10,000 plus years ago (do people have to be imperialists before they can be considered settlers)? Can you imagine, kneeling down to quench your thirst from a river and then not having to worry at all about someone telling you no you can’t (or putting you in chains for doing so, or taxing you, or changing your spirituality in the name of empire). And can you imagine not having to worry about side effects from drinking the water? How incredibly quaint are those things?

    So, I agree, taxpayers – or anyone – should have greater, more personally defined access to the San Antonio River today. And then let the dominos fall.

    The more that is wrested from the power structure in regard to the land base, the more we can behave like real humans. Real human beings did not pollute rivers to the point that pollution became a discussion point. That’s just one example.

    We have a lot to learn, and we really should have a lot less to celebrate next year than we think. Should we really be gearing up for so much celebration come next June?

    Consider these questions: Where are the original Human inhabitants of what is today San Antonio? And where are the Bears? Where are the Buffalo that so scattered Spanish horses? What happened to the American Eels Fray Morfi found so delicious and so abundant? How come tourists and locals alike don’t look both ways and more before stepping across the river for fear of Alligators that backed all the way up to the Escarpment? (For one, settlers committed genocide against the Alligators; two, it is probably illegal to step across the River). How come dirt paths and roads are no longer alive with Quail dusting themselves as reported as late as the 1870s? How come Flax and Hemp no longer grow naturally at San Pedro Springs, as reported by Ramon in 1716? Where are the Badgers, Beavers, Tigers (Jaguars), the Wolves and the Otters? Three weeks ago when I last pedaled mission trail I didn’t see any of the above. I always think of them at least, but that of course never solves anything.

    So what about the why to all these questions?

    Why? Because we’re programmed to participate in this culture’s social rewards system. ‘You stay in line by helping us destroy and make profits, then you get to borrow money for houses, nice cars, and you get to entertain yourselves to no end. Oh, and staying in line will keep you out of our prisons too’. Usually.

    As for the culture at large, we may not be good at telling the truth, to others much less ourselves. But we sure can make ourselves supreme and go along proving it using violence. Then we deny said violence. Pass it off as something else; isolate those who see it.

    We have a lot to learn.

    We have a lot to accept.

    Truth.

    Having more personally defined access to the SA River on Sunday mornings won’t solve our human supremacist problems. It certainly isn’t a radical idea. But I still like the idea very much.

    We have to start somewhere.

  14. Excellent idea, Bob. All of the objections stated in these comments are merely hurdles to be surmounted, and they can be. No real worries about water quality if people are using kayaks and boats, in my view.

    Your point about how much we have all invested in the River is thought-provoking. And I suspect tourists would enjoy it more if they knew it was regularly used by us locals. Let’s give it a try (one or two year experiment, with adjustments based on what is learned).

    p.s. yes, those paddle boats in the 50’s and 60’s were fun!

  15. Love the idea of using the river for more than a tourist attraction. Houstonians have long been kayaking and canoeing the bayous. Yes they are dirty, but public awareness leads to cleanup efforts. You have to start somewhere! Great idea.
    If you want to tube or swim, drive to NB.

  16. I think is a great idea, maybe having a river syclovia the city will clean the water that is in the river. I was in Guadalajara during the summer and they have syclovia every Sunday.

  17. As the original founder of Mission Kayak (sold the company earlier this year), I agree that kayaking and paddle boating should be extended to the Museum Reach and even Brackenridge Park. The river can definitely be cleaned to support kayaking and paddle boating, but not swimming. Just because the river isn’t clean enough for swimming doesn’t mean all water sports should be banned. If you go up to Austin you will see hundreds of people paddling on Town Lake, and it is actually illegal to swim in Town Lake due to similar water quality issues. The big deal in San Antonio is that paddlers will cause headaches to the barge operators. While I can see this on the main stretch of the River Walk, the Museum Reach, which barely has any barge traffic, should be open for paddling, and it would also be a wonderful amenity for Brackenridge Park.

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