- San Antonio is seeing an increase in vehicles and transportation technology as the population grows.
- The University of Texas at San Antonio is working with the city to come up with traffic solutions.
- Initiatives include studying bike trends and equipping scooters with sensors that collect data.
- This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”
Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio are working on solutions for city roadways to better accommodate all modes of transportation, including vehicles, bikes, and scooters.
“We need to find ways to balance out our transportation systems,” Greg Griffin, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at UTSA’s College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, told Insider. That includes investing in parking infrastructure and more pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, especially downtown.
Along with more personal vehicles on the road, San Antonio, like other metros across the country, is seeing an influx of new transportation-related technologies, including ride-share vehicles and electric scooters, Griffin said. His research focuses on transportation, public participation, and health, including crowdsourcing in urban planning and urban sensing, such as analyzing the relationship between street noise and safety.
“Not only do we need bike lanes and sidewalks along arterial streets, but we also need better design and intersections as well,” he said. Improvements, like adding countdown signals for pedestrians in crosswalks, for example, heighten safety for all residents, creating more equitable communities.
“We do have a lot of growth opportunity, and so I hope that the city of San Antonio is able to leverage resources to improve safety features more quickly for transportation,” Griffin said.
Here’s an overview of how UTSA is working with the city of San Antonio to address transportation for the future:
Engaging residents in research projects
The Urban and Regional Planning program at UTSA features undergraduate and graduate programs for students and houses the Center for Urban and Regional Planning Research to focus on “metropolitan and mega-regional growth” and advancing sustainable, inspiring, and equitable cities.
“Thinking about the future of cities, how do we get good public participation and end up with the results that create lasting value for communities?” Griffin said, explaining the value of community engagement in planning for the future.
The university and the city of San Antonio have a long-standing partnership. UTSA is involved in several of the Office of Innovation‘s initiatives, including its smart-city program SmartSA and new research program R&D League, and other city programs.
Understanding bike traffic to make roads safer
Crowdsourcing bicycle traffic volumes through apps like Strava and other methods has been a central part of Griffin’s ongoing research at UTSA. The goal is to understand where bike traffic is in the city and identify where safety problems lie.
When accidents increase or decrease in an area, for example, there could be several causes, like an unsafely designed intersection or a general increase in bicycle traffic, he said.
“Without understanding bicycle volumes, you don’t know the difference,” Griffin said. “It’s critical to be able to improve safety for the community. We do that using smart technologies, including cell-phone apps and other mechanisms, to be able to understand where people are going biking.”
In a study recently published in the journal, Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Griffin examined bike-share use during the early days of the pandemic. Compared to other bike-share companies nationwide, the research found San Antonio Bike Share to be a model in proactively communicating its safety procedures, like disinfecting bikes. Though, most users weren’t aware of these measures.
Still, bike-share ridership increased in San Antonio, the study found. Griffin said he’s unsure whether the increase is people having more free time to bike for fun or exercise or residents biking as a more economical and safer means of transportation.
The findings suggest the need for bike-share operators to better communicate their public-health policies, support unemployed and low-income communities, and plan for expanded post-pandemic ridership.
Equipping electronic scooters with sensors to study transportation solutions
ScooterLab is another UTSA transportation-related initiative aimed at collecting data from micromobility devices, like electric scooters, by equipping them with sensors. The program, which received a National Science Foundation grant, is in the early stages.
The goal is to develop a “micromobility test bed” to study issues like safety and riders’ preferences, Griffin said.
“The big picture idea is that wherever we have an information gap to be able to align emerging transportation solutions with the needs of the community, we try to bridge that using a combination of technology and equity-focused transportation planning,” he said. “So the knowledge that we produce doesn’t just go into academic journals, but supports better planning and better outcomes for community members.”
The data is needed to produce the infrastructure to safely accommodate different modes of transportation, whether it’s walking, cycling, or riding scooters, and address community needs. For example, Griffin said San Antonio has had challenges with parking for escooters.
“We have this emerging technology, but we know very little about where and how are the best ways to support parking that fits the community’s needs for using these vehicles – that also doesn’t get in the way of pedestrians and wheelchair users,” Griffin said. “And, of course, we need to balance the needs with other roadway users, whether that’s vehicle traffic or bicyclists.”
Partnering with the city
Several UTSA divisions, including the Urban and Regional Planning program, are located in downtown San Antonio, which provides an “awesome” place for research and testing, Griffin said. “We’re able to field exercises in a variety of different downtown contexts, which is just perfect for urban planning,” he added.
Cities and universities both benefit when they work together, he said. Universities tend to be on the cutting edge of research, and students have a fresh perspective on what the future looks like.
“Often cities don’t have the staff on hand to jump into a research program,” Griffin said. “So, through partnerships, they get to add a research team on board.”
Universities get a “real-world sandbox” to test new ideas, he said. “Urban planning is not a field like chemistry where the experimentation is done in a lab,” he added. “We need an experimental place with partnerships with the city to be able to test whether or not these ideas are effective.”
Designing cities that will be desirable in the future requires these kinds of collaborations and factoring in technology, culture, demographic shifts, economic changes, and public policy.
“What urban planning can do is look forward with an ethical and moral perspective, one rooted in an understanding of local communities, to be able to co-create visions for the future that are actually desirable rather than just trying to accommodate past trends in the future,” Griffin said.