Scott Ball / Rivard Report
After months of debate, will the City of San Antonio add protected bike lanes to the final designs of a major street project in the urban core? The short answer is: only if the issue can land before the full Council – and only if a majority wants it.
After no action was taken during a Council committee meeting on Sept. 16, the policy ball is back in Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales’ court as design work for lower Broadway continues – without bike lanes. Most of the 3-mile project from Hildebrand Avenue to Houston Street includes bike lanes, but City engineers say there’s not enough room to safely add protected bike lanes on the lower, mile-long section.
Nirenberg and Gonzales have been the most vocal advocates on Council for sacrificing vehicular lanes in favor of a bike lane, but neither was sure last week what their next procedural move would be to force the issue. Construction on lower Broadway will start in the spring next year, officials say.
There are only two ways that the design could be altered to satisfy cycling advocates, according to City officials: try again through the Transportation and Mobility Committee process, or a Council member could file a council consideration request to get it on a full Council meeting or another committee agenda.
“Procedurally, there’s not a vote scheduled,” Nirenberg said Wednesday. He requested a traffic study for the area surrounding lower Broadway that tested three different scenarios – two with and one without bike lanes. The study concluded that the one without bike lanes was the safest.
But the Transportation Committee last week did not forward the issue to a future meeting of the full Council, so the next step is unclear. “That’s a discussion I need to have with the Transportation Committee … I’m waiting to be briefed on the status of the project,” Nirenberg said.
Regardless of how lower Broadway is built, he said, “my hope will be that we finally put our stake in the ground and say we can’t do this anymore and expect different results – a safer, multimodal community – if we’re not willing to change the way we build.”
In other words, the Broadway battle may be lost, but the citywide war for more bike infrastructure isn’t over.
In that vein, Gonzales filed a separate council consideration request earlier this month that calls for better integration of and staff training surrounding the City’s Complete Street and Vision Zero policies into the design process for all city streets.
But she’s not sure if the Transportation Committee is the right path forward to get the Broadway bike lane issue forwarded to a full Council meeting, she said Tuesday. During the Sept. 16 meeting, she chided the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) staff for not providing the underlying information from the traffic study, but no vote was taken.
“It gets very complicated because the Council would not vote again on the project because it’s already voter-approved,” Gonzales said. The Broadway project is funded with $42 million from the City’s bond program that was approved by voters in 2017. That covers design for the 3-mile project, but only funds construction for the lower half of the project. Construction for the northernmost section, estimated to cost $41 million, will likely be funded by the City’s 2022 bond program.
The issue could come to the Planning and Community Development Committee or the Transportation Committee, she said, but “we are rather split as a council and on the committee. … I would propose that we come at it from a different angle because we’re not going to get anywhere with TCI.”
But she doesn’t know what angle that is, she said.
“There seems to be this prioritization of cars [by TCI], yet we’re trying to build a city that’s more walkable … continuing to design everything based on car counts is just an outdated view of what we do as a city,” she said. “Until we change the culture internally of the [TCI] staff, we’re going to continue to run into this problem.”
She agreed with Nirenberg on the point that there needs to be a broader conversation about how street design prioritizes different modes of transportation.
“If we are relying on analysis always that says it’s not possible if it impacts single occupancy vehicle traffic, then we’re never going to see that alternative,” Nirenberg said. “Broadway is iconic. That’s why it’s important. Broadway is the latest big project to come our way to say are we serious about complete streets or not?”
Without direction from a majority of Council to do differently, “we’re going to proceed with the project [as planned],” Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez told the Rivard Report on Tuesday.
A Council member could file a council consideration request to initiate a vote, he said, but ultimately it would take a majority of Council to direct the city manager to change the design to include protected bike lanes.
Sanchez, who oversees TCI for the city manager, rejected the notion that it takes a singular, “car-centric” lens to street design.
“We’re all true believers – we’re looking forward to seeing some projects with protected bike lanes,” Sanchez said. “That is the way of the future.”
Razi Hosseini, interim director of TCI, said it would be irresponsible to ignore vehicular traffic on Broadway. With 18,000 vehicles using Broadway every day, “how can you overlook that?”
The flexibility of design is also an important element, Hosseini said. Right now, it’s cars that require the most infrastructure, but it would be relatively easy to turn a traffic lane into a bike lane in the future.
“Ten years down the road, maybe we replace a vehicle lane for a bike lane,” he said.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) all but declared victory in the interest of public safety after the Transportation Committee resulted in no action. He has been lobbying his Council colleagues for months to trust the professional design of City engineers and consultants.
“No more delays … we’re moving forward,” Treviño said, noting the results of the traffic study indicated that staff’s original proposal without bike lanes received higher scores for safety. “It’s pretty clear this is a life safety issue, and we need to be mindful of the recommendations of the professionals.”
That traffic study took into account the protected bike lanes that will be installed on Avenue B and North Alamo Street. Up to $6 million in funding for that separate project was approved by a taxing entity last week.
“We all care about infrastructure and we all care about safety,” Treviño said, adding that the addition of bike lanes just doesn’t have a clear majority of Council support. “We should be all working together … but without the majority of Council to support any kind of effort, it is doomed to fail.”
If Council somehow directs staff to change the design, Sanchez said, that delay could increase the cost of the project.
There’s not a “magic date” for a point of no return, he said, but “the further along we get it becomes more costly to change gears.”
If TCI is instructed to change the design, he added, “we’d share with [Council] at that point what the cost would be to do that.”
Bryan Martin, interim president of the Bike San Antonio advocacy group, said he’s disappointed that there isn’t a stronger will among Council members to change the design.
“The City is prioritizing the parking for private property over providing a more fair and equitable street, and I think that’s really sad,” Martin said.
While the protected bike lanes on Avenue B and Alamo Street are appreciated, he said that side project was merely a “bait and switch” to pacify cyclists and give developers and area business owners the Broadway design they wanted.
“Nowhere in the bond language does it say on-street parking or [vehicular] drop-off lanes should be included,” he said. Rather, the project was billed as a “complete street” project.
“Reconstruct Broadway … with curbs, sidewalks, driveway approaches, bicycle amenities, lighting, drainage and traffic improvements as appropriate and within available funds,” reads the project scope.
Cyclists will continue to use the whole vehicular lane on lower Broadway, as is allowed by law, he said, because they likely won’t know about or won’t want to use the protected lanes on the adjacent streets. That means less experienced cyclists will be riding amid heavy traffic, he said.
“I’m fighting for this not for me [or other experienced riders] … this is for people who want to bike and need that protection to feels confident,” he said.
For those riders, Broadway will be an “incomplete” street, he added.
“Complete streets,” as defined by the City’s policy, are “roadways that take into account all users, including people driving cars, using transit, riding bikes, walking, and using wheelchairs” as well as people of all ages and abilities.
“To be ‘complete,’ not all streets must be the same. The function of the road (e.g. local, collector, and arterial) and the level of vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic will be considered,” the policy states.
Centro San Antonio, a public-private downtown advocacy nonprofit, has endorsed the original design produced by TCI staff and a consultant.
“We support the design recommendations that flowed out of TCI because it’s based on a professionally managed project with expertise backed by best practices and robust community engagement,” said Matt Brown, Centro’s president and CEO.
If there was a similarly developed design that came to a different conclusion, Centro would equally support it, he said, noting that the nonprofit tries to stay agnostic when it comes to political issues.
“[Broadway, Avenue B, and Alamo Street designs] deliver the safest option for bicycles and pedestrians and allows for the best flow for vehicular traffic,” he said, noting that a service and parking lane for vehicles contributes to the kind of activity – restaurants, shopping, etc. – that will make Broadway a more inviting street to residents and visitors. “To us that looks like a win all around. … Complete streets need to balance all those needs.”
Brown admits he’s not an expert, but he noted that in the local policy and literature surrounding complete streets “there’s no declaration anywhere that a complete street as a mandate must have a bike lane.”
“Complete streets is really a network solution as opposed to an individual block,” he said.
Regardless of Council action, Martin said he’s finalizing details for a community bike ride that will travel south along the length of the project to draw attention to the need for protected bike lanes. He has invited several Council members and the mayor.
“I’m hoping that this Ride Broadway [event] can help put these folks in other people’s shoes so they can see why it’s necessary,” he said. “If we put protected bike lanes on Broadway, Síclovía could be every day.”