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Alamo Heights

Uber and Lyft for the San Antonio suburbs

If the rules in the big city aren’t amenable, maybe the rules in the smaller nearby cities will be.

Lyft

San Antonio’s new rules for rideshare companies go into effect April 1 and controversy over the regulation of transportation network companies (TNCs) continues as Uber and Lyft prepare to leave San Antonio. Company representatives say the rules are too restrictive and burdensome to operate within city limits.

The mayors of Windcrest, Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Hollywood Park, however, feel otherwise, and joined forces at a Wednesday press conference to express support for Uber to stay in the local service area and continue to operate in Bexar County suburban municipalities.

Windcrest City Council is to vote Wednesday evening on a resolution that would lead to an interim operating agreement with Uber, allowing that company to keep serving its city. Windcrest is home to a host of small and large businesses, including Rackspace‘s corporate headquarters at the former Windsor Park Mall, as well as a large number of retired military veterans.

Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Terrell Hills city councils each will consider a similar resolution in April.

Uber

[…]

The big questions now is whether Uber drivers picking up a passenger in Windcrest or another Bexar County suburb can be allowed to drive San Antonio roads to deliver passengers to their destinations within San Antonio, such as the San Antonio International Airport.

“If it originates in Windcrest (or another permitted city), they can take the passenger anywhere, whether it’s Bexar County or Houston. That’s how I interpret the law. Then again that’s something for lawyers to squabble over,” Windcrest Mayor Alan Baxter said.

Olmos Park Mayor Kenneth Farrimond has talked with City Attorney Frank Garza and that their feeling is that even with these suburban agreements, Uber drivers and passengers will still be limited in what they can do in San Antonio city limits. Cooper questioned whether San Antonio law enforcement could enforce Uber drivers transporting suburban passengers in any way.

Sgt. Javier Salazar, spokesperson for the San Antonio Police Department, later said if and when Windcrest or another Bexar County suburb issues a driver’s permit, TNCs may use San Antonio streets only to drop off fares initiated in a city where the permit was issued.

So, if approved in Windcrest, you can call an Uber within its city limits and have it drop you off in San Antonio, but you’ll have to find another way back.

“If a pick-up begins in another city, other than a permitted city, they may not travel through San Antonio,” he added. Salazar said San Antonio’s ordinance can be enforced in a number of ways, including a sting operation or via routine traffic enforcement.

Interesting. I’m not sure how economically viable that will be – Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, Terrell Hills, Windcrest City, and Hollywood Park have a combined population of about 22,000, so the potential customer base they could offer is pretty small. That said, as the Express News story says, mayors of 25 out of 26 non-San Antonio towns in Bexar County attended a meeting called by County Judge Nelson Wolff (a suporter of ridesharing) to discuss this. If the rest of Bexar County is on board, that changes things, though it’s still complicated. Worth keeping an eye on, and Windcrest City Council did approve the resolution, with several others to follow soon. I wonder if Harris County and the other cities it has will make a pitch as well. The Current has more.

Smartphones in the schools

This makes a lot of sense to me.

While most [San Antonio] area school districts maintain policies that ban students from using cell phones on campus, a few districts are breaking the mold and beginning to admit smart phones into the classroom as an educational tool on a par with a classroom computer.

Though some may think the change will invite distraction, inappropriate texting or cyber bullying into study sessions, others see the move as a way to teach technological skills while addressing those negative issues head-on.

Alamo Heights Independent School District recently changed its policy to allow students to bring personal electronic devices — laptops, iPads and smart phones — to use for educational purposes at the discretion of the teacher. It’s backing that policy change with content-filtered, districtwide Wi-Fi access for such devices.

Alamo Heights is one of only a few San Antonio locations where such a policy is in place. North East Independent School District also will implement a more flexible cell phone policy this fall.

“We’re in an era where the state is piloting online testing. We’re looking at online textbooks. We’re teaching digital citizenship,” said Alicia Thomas, NEISD’s associate superintendent for instructional and technology services. “So we’re looking at our instruction to be sure it’s really aligned with what students are going to need now and in the future.”

Alamo Heights is a wealthy district – as the story says, about 90% of its students have s computer and Internet access at home – so their pioneering spirit in this regard isn’t a surprise to me, but I’m still glad to see them try to get their arms around this rather than try to maintain a strict ban. I hope they will provide a model for others to follow. If you go back and listen to my interview with Rep. Scott Hochberg, he’s clearly thinking along these lines as well, with the goal of having the state provide tools like e-book readers to students as part of their classroom experience. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

Streetcars in San Antonio

San Antonio is looking to Portland for inspiration as it contemplates a streetcar system.

In the 1990s, driven by a plan to infuse the inner city with new residents, transit advocates drew up plans to link several districts by streetcar and encourage dense, walkable, mixed-use development designed around the rail line.

As it turns out, the little streetcar line — four miles from end to end — is an economic powerhouse, according to Portland officials. They say some $3.5 billion has been invested within two blocks of the streetcar line’s footprint. More than 10,000 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of office space have been built in the same area.

San Antonio officials are looking to replicate that.

Henry Muñoz, VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board chairman, said he expects the agency to break ground in two or three years and will announce in the next month a citizens advisory committee to help guide the creation of a starter streetcar system.

“It’s something that could have potentially enormous impact on the city center of San Antonio,” he said.

[…]

While the idea of streetcars in San Antonio is in its infancy, Muñoz envisions lines running both north-south and east-west, connecting some of the city’s great cultural centers, sports facilities and public institutions. From Mission San José, a line could run north, to the southern border of Alamo Heights. And a perpendicular line could run from the AT&T Center on the East Side to Our Lady of the Lake University on the West Side.

Muñoz said he’s uncertain how much could be built initially because of the expense.

During conversations in Portland, San Antonio leaders rattled off a number of key sites that potentially could be accessed by a streetcar system: Southtown, HemisFair Park, the Convention Center, the River Walk, the Alamo, Municipal Auditorium, Market Square, Museo Alameda del Smithsonian, several college campuses, the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Alamodome and even Fort Sam Houston.

Any site accessible by streetcar would stand to benefit from the line, including the Museo Alameda, for which Muñoz was a driving force, and the Pearl Brewery, whose owner had representatives on the Portland trip.

In a joint effort between VIA and the Downtown Alliance, the Inner-City Rail Circulator Study is under way as well.

The feasibility study, due to be released this fall, will help determine whether San Antonio can support a system, how much it would cost and where it would be aligned. But it’s clear that local officials aren’t waiting for the results to move forward on planning.

There used to be a streetcar system in the early part of last century that ran up Broadway to Alamo Heights, past where Brackenridge Park now is. In addition to being historically true, it just makes sense. I hope they dare to think big about this. Which means thinking about more than just streetcars.

It’s clear there’s been a shift in thinking among local leaders, who in the past have advocated for light rail. They say a streetcar system, which is smaller in scale and cost, could prove to be a gateway to larger projects for San Antonio.

A starter system would allow people to “kick the tires” and get used to rail, which could lead to support for larger light rail and commuter lines that move more people longer distances.

[…]

For now, San Antonio will remain the largest city in the country without rail. The notion makes Muñoz cringe, but he sees San Antonio at a crossroads.

“People recognize that we’re at a critical juncture for our city’s future,” he said. “We have to provide them with an environment that helps them shift their thinking. That’s the moment we’re living in today.”

Taking this approach, and focusing on the area in and around downtown seems like a good idea for starters, though if the hope is to eventually incorporate light rail, I hope they leave themselves room for dedicated right of way. Part of the problem now, as the story notes, is that San Antonio isn’t very dense, and it has been resistant to density, though new Mayor Julian Castro is a fan. Maybe they can use this process to help them do mixed-use and transit-oriented development in a way that Houston still hasn’t quite figured out. I wish them luck in getting it done.

On a related note, I see that Dallas may be catching streetcar fever as well. Dallas of course already has a successful rail system in place, so this would be an extension of that. They may have an easier time getting it off the ground as a result.