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If you ride a bicycle with any frequency for recreation, commuting or fitness, ask yourself two questions: Is San Antonio a bike-friendly city? If you answered “no,” answer the second question: Do you think local government is moving quickly enough to make the city more bike friendly?
The questions are timely. The City of San Antonio launched a survey on Oct. 28 to ask people about the state of cycling in the city as part of Mayor Ivy Taylor’s SA Tomorrow initiative. SA Tomorrow is intended to give City leaders a blueprint to better manage growth and sprawl as San Antonio grows by an estimated 1.1 million people by 2040. Take the SA Tomorrow Bike Survey and make your voice heard. It’s a short survey available in English or Spanish, and will be available online until Nov. 20.
Unless something is done to promote transportation alternatives in San Antonio, “That’s 500,000 more vehicles on our streets and highways by 2040,” said John Dugan, the City’s director of Planning and Community Development at an early planning meeting in 2014 that led to the SA Tomorrow initiative.
“According to the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, there are at least 325,000 area residents who bicycle at least once a month. While the majority ride for recreational purposes, an estimated 11% of riders bike to work or school,” said Jillian Harris, senior transportation planner for the City of San Antonio who focuses mainly on bicycle and pedestrian facilities. “With one in five people riding bicycles in this city, and that number is expected to increase, it’s important to learn about their habits, ideas, and concerns. The more input we get from the community, the better we can plan for them today and in the future. We hope people will give us a few minutes of their time to answer our survey questions about bicycling in San Antonio.”
The City’s Transportation & Capital Improvements (TCI) department will also use the data to prepare a 2016 update to the 2011 Bicycle Master Plan, which was updated in 2013, but is viewed with skepticism in the cycling community because of how planners count road miles with bike lanes in the city. No one doubts that many miles of bike lanes have been added since 2000 when there were only 34 miles of bike lanes in the city, but many so-called bike lanes double as street parking, or are neglected and no longer visible to cyclists or vehicle traffic. Some are simply too narrow or exist for only a few blocks and thus do not function as safe bike lanes. By 2011, according to the master plan, there were 210 miles of bike lanes. The official count today is 240 miles.
The 2010 plan called for a network of 1,768 miles, a figure that would have to significantly increase to account for the anticipated growth and annexation over the next 25 years. On average, only about $1 million is allocated annually to add or improve bike lanes, according to the master plan. Spending $1 million a year means such a network will never happen. Whatever the real bike lane total is today, the master plan notes that San Antonio ranks among the lowest of the Top 50 U.S. cities for bike lanes relative to the city’s geographic size, and is among the most dangerous in terms of annual fatalities.
Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), an avid cyclist and advocate for safer streets, laid out a change agenda in an op-ed she wrote for the Rivard Report published this summer: Vision Zero: Making San Antonio’s Streets Safe.
The Rivard Report polled a number of experienced area cyclists who have taken the survey this week and asked for their impressions of the state of cycling in the city.
“We need action and education, not more surveys,” said Zelda Young, who identified herself as “parent, citizen, cyclist” and member of the Third Street Grackles cycling team (as am I). “We have the choice in this city of how we are going to grow.”
Nelda Carrizales, a public relations consultant, was more specific:
“As a cyclist that not only rides recreationally, but also commutes, I have a huge wish list: I’d like to see protective bike lanes from 1604 North to the downtown area. Since Broadway and Roosevelt Avenue connect cyclists to take safe and shorter routes, I’d like to see protective bike lanes on these two streets as well. I ride North Flores Street most of the time and the designated (painted) bike lanes work well. What I’d like to see is upkeep of the paint that designates bike lanes throughout the city. Clearing debris like broken glass and trash from bike lanes would allow cyclists to remain within the lanes and not have to ride in vehicle lanes where the risk of accident is higher. The driver’s license test should include a section on the rules for sharing the road with cyclists.”
Architect Lowell Tacker, a principal with the firm LPA:
“The important thing to understand is a basic respect for human life. A cyclist will always be more vulnerable in a vehicle/bicycle accident, irrespective of who causes the accident. The motorist just needs to be aware of this when in the vicinity of cyclists and other vulnerable users of the road. Obviously, it is the cyclists’ responsibility to be predictable, ride within the framework of traffic laws and be respectful to other vehicles.”
The most nuanced view of cycling in San Antonio might be held by Jack Sanford, an avid cyclist and the former Bike Texas representative in San Antonio who now serves as a volunteer with the state’s leading cycling advocacy group. He also is a member of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Bicycle Mobility Advisory Committee and its representative on the MPO’s Technical Advisory Committee, where many of the important road and highway spending priorities are set. Sanford also is a member of SA Tomorrow’s working group for multimodal transportation. You can’t get more deeply embedded in the process than Sanford.
“San Antonio is headed in the right direction, but there is not a lot on the ground to show for it,” Sanford said Thursday. “When it comes down to it, there is still so much emphasis on making sure you can drive really easily around the city, that always comes out as the de facto goal. Once we try to sacrifice even a little bit of that to make cycling easier or safer, it comes off the table and there is no funding or public will.
“The right discussions are happening at certain meetings with certain leaders that we need to make this city bike friendly, especially in key areas that are dense, like the Medical Center, around UTSA, and of course, downtown. All of those places could become bike and walk friendly if the land use patterns were changed,” Sanford said. “Reducing the width of some vehicle lanes, implementing slower speed limits, adding bike lanes, these are things we talk about but seem to have trouble making these things happen. The surveys always show a huge number of people ride a bike at least once a month and would like to be able to bike more, but we don’t take action. It’s crazy that there is still no safe way to ride from Southtown to downtown.”
“We are going to go back and take a fresh look at the original bike master plan to determine what in that plan is really feasible because some of what was in the 2010 plan is not buildable,” said Terry Bellamy, TCI’s assistant director. “We also are going to look at projects that will benefit the cycling community as we get ready for the 2017 bond, and as we work with TXDOT and the MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization), there could be a project that we push for federal funds. An updated bike master plan is critical as we look at our five-year funding arrangement at the City and our six-year funding arrangement with the MPO. The update of the bike master plan will be part of SA Tomorrow in late spring or early summer of 2016.”
*Top image: Cyclists cross under the historic Hays Bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.