Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
On Tuesday afternoon on San Antonio’s West Side, a man with a walker slowly made his way down Commerce Street alongside traffic, keeping to the right.
The busy, six-lane street has a posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour, and cars zipped by him as he rolled his walker along the pavement close to the curb.
Despite the danger, the street was the only option for him, because much of the sidewalk along Commerce is not pedestrian-friendly, with bumps and breaks in the concrete in some areas and no sidewalk at all in others.
On Tuesday, walkWestside, an advocacy coalition formed this year to encourage pedestrian mobility, and the Westside Development Corporation, a neighborhood economic advancement and development initiative, met to promote safe walking, development, and redevelopment in the area.
“There are more people walking and biking on the West Side – more so than [in] other areas of the city – and much of it out of necessity, like going to school or work,” coalition founder Dawn Hanson said. “There are a lot of unsafe walking conditions on this side of town, [including] driveways coming off the streets, sidewalks missing along some parts, and areas where the sidewalk is flush with the road.”
Hanson lives in Beacon Hill but works on the West Side. An avid walker and cyclist, Hanson told the Rivard Report she started the organization to press for “policies and decisions that can bring safer, more vibrant streets to the West Side.”
In May 2018, coalition member Estella Cota-Treviño, then a master’s degree candidate at Southern Methodist University, completed street walkability analysis on the West Side. Cota-Treviño looked at strengths and weaknesses of streets in the area, and how improved streets would in turn improve health and quality of life of residents in the area.
The study found that the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities in the area per year increased from 76 in 2013 to 118 in 2016, then turned down slightly in 2017 to 86. The Zarzamora Street corridor had the highest concentration of car accidents involving pedestrians.
“Transportation design is just part of the walkability puzzle,” Cota-Treviño said as she led a group of San Antonio residents on a walking tour of the West Side. “We can bus kids to school, but we can also help them walk there. We have get people to see how much walking is part of [the everyday lives of Westside residents], and that we need to make it safe.”
Led by Cota-Treviño, the walking group made its way from Our Lady of the Lake University past the trails of Elmendorf Lake, and onto the busy six-lane rush of Commerce Street.
Cota-Treviño pointed out stretches of sidewalk that made walking nearly impossible. Utility poles in the middle of the sidewalk prevent wheelchair users from passing and two people from walking side-by-side, making it difficult for families to safely walk together, Cota-Treviño said. The speed limit makes it dangerous for pedestrians to cross the street.
While there are white-stripped crosswalks along Commerce Street, many do not have a traffic signal or stop sign at the walkway; the absence of signage contributes to cars driving straight through the crosswalk, despite State law requiring cars to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians.
The City’s 2019 budget allocated $9 million toward pedestrian mobility, a threefold increase, including improving streets, walkways, signage, and education.
“Addressing equity has been one of [City Council’s] most crowning achievements in the last few months,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg at the event, noting that additional funding is going toward improving traffic and pedestrian mobility.
The Westside Walkability coalition, with an approach that is equal parts advocacy and education, brings awareness to areas where walking is promoted, including public parks and safe sidewalks, and how to obey the law as a pedestrian, regardless of location, Cota-Treviño said.
“This area is underserved when it comes to money for infrastructure improvements,” she said, “but improving access for pedestrians and cyclists will be a benefit to both physical and environmental health. It should be a priority in every neighborhood.”