Las Ciudades Gemelas

Earlier in my trip I was able to visit the Twin Cities, two contiguous communities that maintain a linked social and economic fabric through transportation corridors.  Traveling around San Antonio and Austin, I began to feel that these two cities also exist in a conversation with each other -- but because of the absence of strong transportation alternatives, that conversation isn’t as fluid as the Minnesota pairing. 

There are plans to change all that, though. It just needs Texans to stand up and push for it. 

But first things first. I started out the day early, disembarking from the Sunset Limited at 4:50am. I don't know about you, but that is early for my tastes. It was nice to see all the families and friends gathering in the predawn night to welcome their loved ones home, which helped softened the experience. 

After a quick nap at a local hotel, we were back on the road, kicking off a bike tour of San Antonio organized by the good people at BikeTexas. We were met at Sunset Station by a great coalition of local transportation advocates, including Ruben Lizalde from Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office, SATomorrow, and the Rivard Report

Everyone was incredibly friendly as they asked questions about my trip and briefed me on their work around the city, and then we were off. We rode around the Tower of the Americas, touring a park that had formerly been cut off by freeways during the 1960s, but is seeing a spate of revitalization work in the form of bike and pedestrian friendly paths and feeder systems. 

We rode on to the Mission Trail, which connects four of San Antonio’s historic Spanish missions (yet ANOTHER National Park Service stop on my route!). Collectively, these missions—which predate the United States, and even the Republic of Texas—have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. What’s really cool is that, even though these missions are hundreds of years old, many of them still feature active congregations, with spiritual communities that stretch back unbroken for generations upon generations. It’s hard to describe how moving the experience was of stumbling onto a quiet wedding ceremony being conducted in a back chapel in the Cathedral of San Fernando off the central town square. San Antonio is clearly a city that knows where it has come from, and the people who helped to built it. 

(And in a courtyard off to the side of the church: amazing enchiladas and tacos from Poblanos. Thanks for the rec, Ruben!.)

We then loaded our bikes into BikeTexas’ extremely bike-friendly van. This is where the Twin Cities comparison breaks down, because the Minneapolis/St. Paul link has San Antonio/Austin beat hands down. Don’t get me wrong—highways are obviously going to always be a huge part of our transportation network. I just feel strongly that we should offer people alternatives. I feel even more strongly about that when I’m stuck in traffic forty minutes away from a meeting that starts in less than twenty. 

And there IS a plan to make this better: the Lone Star Rail District, a plan that would connect San Antonio and Austin along the Interstate 35 corridor. The San Antonio-Austin section of I-35 is the most congested passenger and freight bottlenecks between Mexico and Canada, and one of the deadliest stretches of highway in the country with over 100 fatalities every year. A plan to connect the cities has been around since 1999, but despite strong demand and a good plan, there’s a (familiar) obstacle: a host railroad that doesn’t feel compelled to engage with a passenger operator. Regardless, having been stuck in traffic on this stretch of road, I was less than surprised that almost everyone I spoke to in both cities talked wistfully about what might be with the Lone Star train. The Lone Star Rail District continue to push the project forward, and as both cities continue to grow and public demand for a transportation alternative grows, hopefully these cities can make progress on enjoying a more connected future. 

Which is appropriate because, if San Antonio is a city with a clear view of its history, Austin is a city with an eye firmly fixed on the future. I was lucky enough to see a glimpse of what the future of the passenger experience might be during my meeting with moovel, which is creating app-based products to enhance and improve transit for users. Their products—which include moovelTransit and RideTap—help people access real-time transit information and simplified mobile payments. Rather than marketing straight to customers, moovel works with transit agencies and car- and ride-share providers to help them develop app for their customers; they focus on what they do well, moving people, and leave the app development to the professionals. Speaking with Rachel Charlesworth, who heads up marketing for moovel, was fascinating because her work has made her an expert on what people want and need when they’re navigating cities. One surprising finding is that customers don’t want the ultimate Swiss army knife app that does everything, but a focused app that does a few things in a clear, straightforward fashion. 

As we rode with BikeTexas around Austin, the exploding tech industry is written on the face of the city, with new glass towers rising along the city’s winding riverfront, crystallized testaments to the explosive local economy. The new new developments are radically increasing density, and while there is an amazing riverside bike and pedestrian trail that connects the riverfront—along with a pedestrian bridge to connect the two sides—transit hasn’t quite caught up in the city. Austin has only started to develop its rail transit, with Capital Metro’s Red Line as the only rail transit corridor connecting the city. Looking at the population growth of the city, it’s evident that cars alone can’t carry the crowds through the dense central city, and they’ll have to expand the transit network. 

Luckily, the Red Line is a gorgeous example of light-rail transit, which should make selling an expansion plan easy. The system features clean, comfortable cars with capacity for eight bikes on each train; frequencies that will soon jump to every fifteen minutes, and CapMetro is conscientious about including bike and pedestrian trails to connect stations where possible. We were shown the line by the bike program manager from CapMetro, who talked about plans to more efficiently utilize a right of way the authority owns to increase capacity, while simultaneously allowing for additional real estate development—which provides another important source of revenue for CapMetro.

San Antonio and Austin are two cities with very different histories, but their future lies together. For their citizens to experience the full benefit of what each has to offer—housing, jobs, and culture—they will have to build that future together. Having met the people doing the building, I'm incredibly confident that they're well on their way.

Summer by RailComment