As I was walking the family dog a few days ago along Mulberry Avenue, I encountered a City pothole-patching crew. The pothole, neatly centered on a long crack in the pavement, where a series of SAWS crews had dug up the asphalt regularly over the last few years, certainly merited attention, as it was filled to the brim after the recent rains. So the big truck came to a stop, and out jumped a City Public Works employee who set about dumping a load of asphalt patch material in the hole. He swept it up, tamped it down with the broom, and then the truck and crew were off again to fill in another hole up the street.
With a wet hole and no preparation, the patch certainly won’t last very long. But the City can report another pothole repaired. The truck and maybe even the same workers will be back in a month or so to patch again. But the problem with pavement can’t be solved with a quick patch. The street and its drainage need to be fixed; but that would cost a great deal of money and time in a city that’s refashioning Main Plaza, improving the San Antonio River, and finally resolving other drainage problems that were due to be fixed 20 years ago.
So it is with San Antonio. We patch here and there, knowing full well that the short-term fix won’t last. We avoid dealing with the larger, real problems, because that would cost money, be difficult to sell politically, and perhaps distract us from the business of what our civic and political leadership deems the route to a “world-class city.”
Not long after my walk, I had to drive out to an appointment at 281 and Sonterra at 5 p.m. (note: it wasn’t my choice). That’s when I saw the parking lot: 281 North and its access road filled with cars, at a dead stop for as far as the eye could see. Builders have sold lots of subdivision houses to folks who can only get where they need to go on 281. And so every weekday they sit, paying the price for poor planning and poor vision.
Ours is a city built on the cheap, growing outward on the assumption and hope that the next bunch of new residents will pay for the cost of what the developers built 20 or 30 years ago.
Toll-road backers say the solution to our traffic woes is new toll lanes, particularly on 281. But that’s not quite Anthony Downs’ conclusion in his new book, Still Stuck in Traffic. Downs concludes that new highway lanes will never solve congestion problems — the new lanes will simply fill up as drivers shift from other routes, alter their travel time at rush hours, and change their mode of travel.
Yet the real story of the 281 rush-hour parking lot isn’t about congestion or building more highway; it’s again the story of how we have built San Antonio over the last two or three decades. We’ve not just built cheaply, with lots of deals and essentially no plans, we’ve perfected a form of “spread city,” especially north of 1604, that is almost uniquely wasteful of energy and time, requiring multiple car trips for almost everything, from single-entry subdivisions to spread out shopping, restaurants, doctors’ offices, and necessary services.
Al Gore’s message in An Inconvenient Truth is about global warming. It’s easy to think that’s a big distant problem that we can’t do much about, something for someone else to solve. But we’ve built an automobile-dependent city that guarantees lots of ozone and carbon dioxide in our air, lots of heat-radiating asphalt, and our own contribution to climate change.
Still Stuck in Traffic has an interesting table on the use of public transit by commuters from the 2000 Census. Among the 23 major cities listed, San Antonio comes in next to last — just ahead of Phoenix — with 3.79 percent of our population using mass transportation. More recent figures from 2004 put us even lower: 2.1 percent. It may be impossible to ever change the spread city we’ve built, with the result that our soon-to-be expanded and improved River Walk could be the exclusive domain of tourists who make the special trip downtown.
If our newly-passed $550-million bond issue is indeed an “investment in our future,” perhaps our newly-re-elected mayor and his council colleagues can begin to think about what we’ve really built, and what we need to do to change our path.