This is a guest blog post by Amanda Merck as part of our #10MinuteWalk monthly themes campaign exploring walkable access to transit. Merck completed her MPH with a concentration in Physical Activity and Health. She curates content for Salud America! (@SaludAmerica), a Latino childhood health project based at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio. She focuses on the latest research, resources, and stories related to policy, systems, and environmental changes to enhance equitable access to safe places for kids and families to walk, bike, and play.
I care about my health. I don’t drink soda. I use sunblock religiously. I try to get 10,000 steps every day.
I care about my family. I tell them not to drink soda, while smothering them in sunblock and dragging them on a walk.
I care about our city. I support local restaurants. I have a million selfies in our parks and on our trails. I attend various committee and community meetings with some of the city’s greatest health and equity advocates.
I care about our planet. I don’t eat much meat. I shop local and recycle. I keep my Tacoma in tip-top shape.
However, for the past few years, I have been growing more frustrated with the lack of multimodal options.
Citywide, 79% of commuters drive alone to work.
It really isn’t surprising because the city sprawled in the mid- to late-nineteenth century with high-speed, drive-only thoroughfares to areas with low-density, single-use development.
I see traffic crashes left and right and am extremely stressed behind the while.
I would love to walk to a bus stop and ride the bus to work, or at least to the mall or dinner sometimes.
However, two people walking and one person biking are hit by a driver every day in San Antonio.
Also, the nearest bus stop to me is over 4 miles away and it only runs every 60 minutes.
I see campaigns encouraging walking, biking and busing instead of driving, and they make me feel guilty.
On many occasions, I have exhausted myself hunting for a new job and a new home simultaneously so that I can walk, bike and take transit.
Unable to find either in my price/salary/proximity range, I troll Twitter and question what is keeping me in San Antonio.
I have lived in many auto-dependent areas but must have been too consumed by consumerism to notice the 6-lane thoroughfares bisecting my favorite strip malls and the mega, tree-less parking lots separating them from the rest of the world.
It’s normal to leave one store to drive ¼ of a mile to another and then again to a restaurant, right?
I didn’t know there was any other way.
Now, I hate driving—25 miles or ¼ mile.
Now, I just want to get my 10,000 steps and do my Christmas shopping without risking or departing my life.
I’m not the only one.
Walking, biking and transit are not realistic transportation options for many people in San Antonio.
Lack of options is a growing problem for many health and economic reasons.
Congestion, motor vehicle crashes and fatalities, air pollution, energy consumption, public health and quality of life are strongly correlated with how far we drive, commonly measured as Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).
Widening and adding more roadway does not reduce congestion, but it does increase VMT, motor vehicle crashes and fatalities, air pollution, and energy consumption, and worsen public health and quality of life.
Yet, widening roads seems to dominate all transportation discussions.
Without effective public transit, the region’s forecasted automobile volume and ensuing congestion would decrease economic productivity, increase emissions of air pollutants, and significantly decrease quality of life for many residents, according to the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organizations Mobility 2040 plan.
Residents responding to the Bexar County 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment reported that public transportation in the region is limited, making it difficult to get to work, access healthy food, make health appointments, and attend school events.
In the Greater Airport Region, for example, the population of adults age 65 and older is expected to nearly triple by 2040, and nearly 40% of these adults will have limited access to transit, according to the Mobility 2040 plan.
Multimodal projects aren’t just desired, they’re sorely needed.
However, budget constraints, lack of public and political will, and difficult land use decision-making processes often impede implementation of multimodal projects.
Why aren’t state and local leaders on this?
It seems easy enough to justify investment in transit and bike lanes.
Each mode of transportation—driving, busing, walking, and biking—contributes to or burdens the social system in the form of direct and indirect costs, and driving is, by far, the most expensive for drivers and non-drivers.
The direct costs of driving are not proportional to spending on infrastructure to support driving, which means non-drivers are also footing the bill.
In 2012, only about 60% of the cost of highway infrastructure was covered by highway user fees, such as fuels tax, tolls, and vehicle registration fees, according to a 2018 report from the Congressional Research Service.
In Texas, the motor fuel tax hasn’t been raised from 20 cents per gallon in 27 years. Today, that 20 cents has the purchasing power of 6.8 cents.
Yet, state politicians continue promising not to raise fuel taxes, and during the last legislative session, passed an anti-toll bill.
Congestion costs Texas $14 billion annually in extra fuel consumption and travel time delay, according to the Urban Mobility Scorecard.
This is nothing compared to the other social costs of auto-dependence.
Auto-dependent urban areas face higher rates of traffic fatalities and injuries, health disparities, and economic segregation as well as higher temperatures, urban runoff, and greenhouse gas emissions, the costs for which are all borne by general taxpayers, not individual drivers.
In 2016, crashes cost Texans $38 billion, and when lost quality of life is factored in, traffic crashes actually cost Texans $162 billion, according to a calculation done by Vision Zero Texas using estimates from the National Safety Council.
Congestion should not be the primary indicator of whether a transportation system is efficient or not.
“If we’re serious about equity, the last thing we should be measuring is congestion, and instead directing resources to where it will save lives,” said Jeffry Tomlin, a principal and director of strategy Nelson/Nygaard and panelist at the November Urban Land Institute’s luncheon in San Antonio.
Why aren’t we working toward this in San Antonio?
Our transit agency is underfunded; our municipal transportation planning department constructed only 7.94 miles of sidewalks in fiscal year 2018 and plans to construct only 0.5 miles of bike lanes in FY 2019, per the FY 2019 Adopted Budget; state transportation spending continues to rely on conventional measures of performance, prioritizing speed and capacity of vehicles rather than moving people; sprawl has not been limited, by even our aquifer; and some loud folks don’t like density or public transit.
The metropolitan transit agency, VIA Transit, is funded through a half cent sales tax.
Transit agencies in other Texan cities, like Dallas and Houston, receive a full cent. Given differences in sales tax revenue, these transit agencies receive over three times what VIA Transit receives.
However, investment in transit alone wouldn’t be enough to reduce VMT.
San Antonio also needs to address density and pedestrian safety.
The city passed a Complete Streets ordinance in 2011 and adopted a Vision Zero policy in 2015; however, there is little evidence of implementation, enforcement or accountability. Additionally, the city continues to perpetuate and subsidize parking and sprawl.
There are some beacons of hope.
Many educated and passionate residents are raising awareness about and working to address social justice, air quality, sustainability, transportation options, economic and population growth, and the need for slower vehicle speeds.
The San Antonio Region Chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) is an inspirational group of professional women and men, working to advance women in transportation and address transportation needs in San Antonio.
In April, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff formed a nonprofit, ConnectSA, to advocate for a modern multimodal transit system. In addition to these elected officials are numerous city council members who advocate for pedestrian safety and transit.
In November, the founder and chair of 8 880 cities, Gil Penalosa, presented to a packed house for San Antonio’s inaugural City Fest. He challenged San Antonio leaders to stop building cities for cars and 30-year-old athletes, and to build for children and seniors.
“We need to dignify the pedestrians and dignify the cyclists with sidewalks and protected bike lanes,” he said. “When a woman is walking to work along the street because there is no sidewalk, we are telling this woman every day that [she] is a second-class citizen.”
I’m trying to do my part, too.
I serve on the Board of Trustees for VIA Transit, and for the past five years, I have advocated for active living, walkability, bike safety, park access, and transit.
But it’s not enough.
Until transportation and land use policies include targets to reduce VMT and improve multimodal level of service, the city will continue its cycle of investing in automobiles, the most inefficient, wasteful and dangerous of transportation options.
For now, I guess I’ll continue driving alone to work, driving my dogs over four miles to the nearest park, and Christmas shopping on Amazon. Or, even though I don’t want to break up with San Antonio, I’ll be forced to start looking for jobs and places to live in more multimodal-friendly cities.