Frank Ramirez is a third-generation San Antonian and a member of City Council in District 7.
As director of land use, constituent services, and infrastructure, his goal is to improve the city.
He wants to keep using an equity lens, invest in public transport, and improve its trails.
This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”
When you live in San Antonio, Texas, you see someone you know just about everywhere you go. That’s what lifelong resident Frank Ramirez said he loves about the city.
“It’s the biggest little city out there,” Ramirez, 27, told Insider. “I think it’s one of the friendliest cities in Texas, if not the entire nation. From all the places I’ve been, nothing is like San Antonio. Nothing ever will be. It’s home.”
Ramirez is a third-generation San Antonian who grew up on the south side of the city and moved away only to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in government. He said he always wanted to return home to make a difference.
Now, he works with the San Antonio City Council in District 7 – which covers the city’s northwest area – as director of land use, constituent services, and infrastructure.
“I get to learn a little bit more about the criteria that the city uses to prioritize where they put specific types of infrastructure and how to implement it,” he said.
Here’s a look at what Ramirez considers most important for San Antonio as it adapts to a growing population.
Using an equity lens to distribute projects and funds will help eliminate infrastructure disparities
“Infrastructurally, San Antonio is not as good as it could be quite yet,” he said. “But we have really good city leadership that’s paving the way for us to catch up and to be the best that we can be.”
Historically, Ramirez said expansion and commerce have been centered downtown and on the north side, while the south, east, and west sides of San Antonio have been underfunded and are home to marginalized populations. Those areas of town had “some of the largest sidewalk gaps in the city” and deteriorated streets, he added.
In 2017, San Antonio began prioritizing funding and infrastructure projects using an “equity lens.” The budget-equity tool is designed to consider racial and economic equity in the budgeting process, account for the impact of decisions made, and ensure that all programs and projects help reduce disparities.
“Instead of equally providing the same amount of money to districts, we started looking at other criteria, like Census tracts, Sidewalk Labs, the average score of these streets in specific districts,” Ramirez said.
The city’s also working to select more diverse contractors and businesses, such as minority and women-owned companies, to perform the work on these projects.
Investing in public transportation is necessary to solve traffic issues
San Antonio is among the top 10 largest cities in the US, and it’s growing fast. Ramirez said traffic is getting worse and the city needs better transportation infrastructure.
“The prevailing issue is that San Antonio has a traffic issue, not as bad as LA or Austin or any other large city, but it’s there and it’s a compounding detriment because we don’t have a robust public transportation system,” he said.
More transportation alternatives for people who don’t own vehicles would make the city more equitable, Ramirez said. San Antonio’s mass-transit agency VIA Metropolitan Transit does well with its existing infrastructure, he added, but he believes more investment is needed.
A light-rail system is something Ramirez said he would love to see in San Antonio someday.
“It would be the biggest game-changer,” he said. “Not only intracity travel but also intercity travel. Going from the south side of San Antonio to the medical center in a matter of five to 10 minutes, as opposed to 30 to 40 minutes.”
In September 2020, the federal government approved a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston that would transport passengers in 90 minutes, but San Antonio wasn’t included in the route. A train line between San Antonio and Austin has been studied since the 1980s, and local experts hope the idea might be revived if the new Dallas-to-Houston line is successful.
Biking and walking trail improvements are needed to integrate transportation and recreation
One of Ramirez’s favorite infrastructure projects in San Antonio is the newly improved Mission Trail, a biking and hiking trail connecting five historic missions: the Alamo, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.
Investments created shared bike paths that increased the amount of foot and bike traffic that could travel on the trail, which runs through a “significant part of the city’s history,” Ramirez said.
“That was one of the coolest improvements that I’ve seen in my lifetime because I walk and bike there as often as I can, and it’s absolutely beautiful,” he added. “It’s a perfect example of how you can integrate safe transportation and recreation at the same time.”
“They’re continually expanding the greenway, which is to the benefit of a lot of people in San Antonio,” Ramirez said.
As San Antonio keeps growing, Ramirez said the fabric of the community as a “caring and loving city” will remain.
“San Antonio has changed a lot, but it’s also been persistent, and it’s also been adaptive to the times,” he said. “It’s a modern San Antonio, and it’s something that’s only getting better, in my opinion.”
Three months later, the city is still feeling the effects. Electricity bills have been much higher than usual, and the event highlighted the vulnerability of the power grid.
Long before the winter storm, CPS Energy, the electric utility for San Antonio and surrounding areas, had been surveying residents to understand what they considered most important. Affordability and reliability usually topped the list, with resiliency a lower priority, Paula Gold-Williams, the company’s president and CEO, told Insider.
“Right now, we are in the middle of an affordability tsunami for customers,” she said. “Every time we surveyed them resiliency was always last. Most people thought that was something that the utility needed to focus on, not anything that would ultimately affect them.”
High natural-gas prices and systemic issues with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization that operates the state’s electrical grid, trickled down to residents across the state, Gold-Williams, a lifelong San Antonio resident, said. Texas is the only state to use its own power grid, meaning it doesn’t have to adhere to federal regulations.
The winter storm put resiliency at the forefront. Gold-Williams said the industry needs to reimagine power grids and revamp aging infrastructure. CPS Energy is also working with the city of San Antonio on sustainability and smart-city projects.
Here’s a look at some of their biggest initiatives.
It’s supporting measures to minimize the impact of the storm
Supply and demand issues have contributed to the high energy bills following the February storm. Extreme cold weather knocked out generating units and froze natural-gas stores, causing skyrocketing prices for natural gas, which CPS Energy uses to generate heat and electricity.
CPS Energy, which was established in 1860 and is owned by the city of San Antonio, has worked to minimize the effects on residents. Gold-Williams said they’re looking for ways to spread out the costs over the next decade.
The utility also issued one-time credits to residents who lost power for 24 hours during the storm of $8.75, the amount of a flat monthly service charge. Customers who were without electricity for 48 hours or more will receive an additional $50 to $100. More than 250,000 residents are eligible for the credits, which are costing a total of $3.5 million.
In March, CPS Energy filed a lawsuit against ERCOT for its “lack of oversight, preparedness, and failure to follow its own protocols that resulted in $16 billion in overcharges to market participants and customers,” a news release said. EROCT made a $16 billion pricing error the week after the winter storm and allowed the 30-day timeframe for corrections to pass.
Gold-Williams said the utility has been working to better winterize its plants for the past decade, but the state just wasn’t prepared for the unprecedented and prolonged freezing temperatures that it saw in February.
“We need innovation” in power generation and distribution systems, she said.
It’s piloting smart streetlights to save money
CPS Energy is one of the city of San Antonio’s partners in its smart-city initiative to launch more data- and technology-oriented projects.
“It’s helping us look at technology from an applied standpoint,” Gold-Williams said. “We’re trying to make things happen and not just talk about strategies.”
A Smart Streetlight Technology pilot recently debuted in partnership with the city, AT&T, and Itron. Existing CPS Energy lighting will be equipped with sensors in four areas of the city that allow them to be controlled remotely and test air quality, temperature, ambient noise, parking, and flooding.
The goal is to gather data to enable the city to save money and address community needs, Gold-Williams said. Research shows installing smart streetlights can save cities money and reduce energy use.
Based on what they learn from the data, the project will be expanded and scaled to the rest of the city.
It’s promoting renewable energy
One way CPS Energy is addressing aging infrastructure and sustainability in San Antonio is through the Flexible Path strategy, which aims to reduce coal and gas usage and increase renewable energy by 2040. This year, the utility is launching a “community-wide dialogue” for the strategy.
Renewable energy use in San Antonio increased 69% from 2010 to 2018, and will increase another 127% under the plan, according to CPS Energy. Gas usage will decrease 72%, and coal will be reduced an additional 61% after dropping 44% from 2010 to 2018. Other initiatives include expanding solar and wind resources and integrating battery storage and electric vehicles.
CPS Energy is currently evaluating request-for-proposal (RFP) responses for the FlexPOWER Bundle. The program will replace gas steam units that are near the end of their lifecycle and increase the number of solar resources, energy storage, and “all-source firming capacity,” or any technology that can be utilized when renewables aren’t available. The company plans to announce the projects selected this summer.
In March, the utility launched another RFP to develop the next phase of its Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), focusing on conservation and energy efficiency. The FlexSTEP RFP aims to strengthen CPS Energy’s reliability by blending “Tried & True” programs, like rebates for being energy efficient, with “Innovative & New” solutions to help customers save money and learn new, more efficient energy-use behaviors.
The Flexible Path strategy emphasizes not relying on what’s been done before, being open to new ideas, and embracing technology and change, Gold-Williams said. Modernizing aging infrastructure and decreasing reliance on nonrenewable energy are issues utility companies worldwide are facing.
“We all have the same problems,” Gold-Williams said. “Our customers are trying to live their lives and they want it to be enabled by advances in technology. We have to embrace all that. We have to partner. We have a lot to learn from technology, but we have a lot to offer in terms of the complexity of our products and services.”
If city leaders across the country learned anything from the past year, it’s the value of resilience.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed cracks in infrastructure, posed mobility challenges, and revealed a digital divide. The places that have fared the best are the ones that have been investing in the future, specifically in areas like digital transformation, manufacturing, sustainability, infrastructure, and innovation.
“I don’t think we talk about resilience enough,” Diana Bowman, co-director of the Center for Smart Cities and Regions at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, told Insider. “Resilience talks about our capacity to respond in a quick way to address whatever those external challenges are.”
While investing in technology and infrastructure is key for cities of the future, Bowman said that resilience also depends on strong partnerships across the public, private, and local university sectors.
“One of the things that we’ve seen in this last 12-month period is if you take your eye off the ball at any single one of these, then your ability to have a fully engaged school system, fully engaged workforce is really challenged, and everybody suffers as a consequence of that,” she said. For example, the influx of people working and learning from home revealed a lack of access to high-speed internet in some places.
Cities of all sizes should be thinking about building a better tomorrow through investment and policy, or risk getting left behind.
The need for cities to innovate and be more sustainable is coming, whether they’re prepared or not, Zachary Schafer, CEO and executive director of United for Infrastructure, a nonprofit working to modernize and repair the country’s infrastructure, told Insider. “It’s better to be developing frameworks early to understand how to deploy them, how to use them, how to benefit from them, and how to talk to residents about these technologies.”
Several US cities are already leading the way. Here’s a look at 10 places making big strides when it comes to innovation.
The cities are listed in no particular order.
The city of Chicago has several programs in the works aimed at updating infrastructure and advancing manufacturing.
One example is the Smart Lighting Program, which some have referred to as the largest streetlight modernization project in the nation. It involves installing wireless, LED lights across the city, which can be dimmed or controlled remotely. The goal is to cut energy costs and improve public safety.
To function as a kind of “fitness tracker” for the city, the Array of Things (AoT) project included placing sensors throughout the city to collect data on the environment, infrastructure, and activity. The purpose is to address traffic safety and flooding, reduce costs, and make the city more efficient and equitable.
Both the streetlight and AoT programs come with interactive elements, so residents can track their progress and view the data collected.
“Chicago has a good program for launching projects using digital technologies to transform the city landscape,” Schafer said. “You’re building the foundational infrastructure for a smart city or for a city to use to make smart decisions.”
On the manufacturing front, Chicago is home to MxD (Manufacturing times Digital), which opened in 2015 to focus on digital design, automation, and digital in manufacturing. MxD is part of the Manufacturing USA initiative, which established institutes across the country to focus on different areas of technology and digital transformation in manufacturing and supply chain.
MxD helps educate manufacturers about digital tools and processes. It has a mock production line, projects to help digitize equipment, and cybersecurity technology developed with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The entire state of Hawaii is leading the charge on sustainability, Bowman said. Two years ago, Gov. David Ige issued a declaration of commitment to sustainability — though the state’s focus on sustainability started long before.
In 2014, Hawaii kicked off the Aloha+ Challenge to address six metrics from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, including clean energy transformation, local food production, management of natural resources, solid waste reduction, creating smart and sustainable communities, and building and educating a green workforce. The initiative comes with an online dashboard that allows the public to track the progress the state is making in these areas.
Bowman said the program is a great example of the state legislature in Honolulu working with nonprofits and private companies to achieve sustainability metrics. “If you don’t measure it, you can’t act upon it, so it’s crucial in terms of sustainability and resilience,” she added.
The city of Honolulu has a resilience strategy and set up a Resilience Office to track how climate change is affecting the city. It’s examining “shocks” and “stresses,” such as hurricanes, tsunamis, infrastructure problems, cost of living, and vulnerable communities.
Smart streetlights are also being added, and the city is testing a gunshot detection system that would send alerts to 911, police patrol cars, and residents’ smartphones. Other systems would help drivers detect parking spots. Atlanta partnered with Georgia Power, AT&T, and Current by GE for the project.
“There’s a lot of activity going on just in general around transit and Atlanta, in and around the larger metro area,” Christopher Le Dantec, associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing and School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, told Insider. That means thinking through the transportation of people and goods around the city and its suburbs.
“It’s a very difficult problem to solve because there are so many different agencies at play,” he added.
Other initiatives center on reducing the number of cars on the road. Atlanta is expanding its walking and biking plan, providing grants to help communities become more pedestrian-friendly and encouraging different types of commuting like carpooling, flexible work schedules, and working from home.
Incorporating more bike infrastructure has been several years in the making and involved collecting and analyzing data, Le Dantec said. “It was part of a transformation within the urban core of Atlanta, where there is now a lot more people moving around on bicycles, even prior to the past year’s events,” he added.
San Antonio, Texas
Through its Office of Innovation, San Antonio has several infrastructure and technology projects in the works.
Some are still in the development phase, but so far some city vehicles have been equipped with sensors to gather real-time data on infrastructure and identify problems like potholes and then report them to the appropriate agency for repair. The goal is to reduce calls to the city and provide upkeep to areas that tend to be neglected.
Recently, San Antonio launched a Smart Streetlight Project that will have remote controls and sensors to monitor parking, air quality, temperature, noise, and flooding. The city also installed interactive digital kiosks at its transit hub and other locations to give residents and visitors real-time access to information about traffic, transit systems, and attractions, like local restaurants. The kiosks also provide free WiFi and access to city services.
Cities should view digital infrastructure as a way to rethink how people interact with their government and policymakers, and give residents easy access to details about what’s going on in their city, Le Dantec said.
“Being able to actually show what those outcomes look like becomes a really powerful way to mobilize people toward addressing these issues,” he said.
Technology in manufacturing is another key area for San Antonio. CyManII (Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute), a Manufacturing USA institute located there, is focusing on cybersecurity and secure automation in manufacturing. These issues are critical today, as the manufacturing sector saw an uptick in ransomware attacks in 2020.
Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
The tri-city area of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill has long been known as a hub for innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship.
Being a tech hub and supportive of entrepreneurs and startups has attracted new residents, making Raleigh one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
The three cities also form the Research Triangle, along with North Carolina State University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and Wake Forest University. The Research Triangle Park is home to several major tech companies and known as a center for innovation and technology.
The presence and partnerships with universities is a central part of a smart, resilient city, Bowman said.
“You have world-class universities that have been fundamental to driving the innovation agenda,” Bowman said. “It has attracted leading tech companies and other multinationals to that space. Not only is there the benefit of having universities in terms of being able to engage with them and co-create and co-test, it becomes a supplier of high-quality talent to those companies.”
Several nonprofits exist across Raleigh-Durham, including Innovate Raleigh and RIoT, that are devoted to supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. The tech focus also extends to the manufacturing sector. The area houses a Manufacturing USA institute, PowerAmerica, focusing on semiconductor technology and electronics.
The Wisconsin state capital has an ambitious sustainability plan to reach zero-net carbon emissions and use 100% renewable energy for city operations by 2030. The plan sets specific goals for slashing overall energy and fuel consumption and making half of city buses electric by 2035.
Other city initiatives include increasing solar power by training unemployed and under-employed people in solar panel installation.
The city also has goals to improve air and water quality and transportation systems, support sustainable construction, affordable housing, and local food systems, economic and workforce development, and more.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a number of sustainability initiatives, too, like housing and grants for students who have ideas for enhancing sustainability on campus. The university is also working to align its sustainability goals with academics and research.
A part of its efforts are engaging key stakeholders, including universities, nonprofits, local business, and members of the public. Interviews, public meetings, and a new website in development will keep citizens informed of the progress and promote transparency.
Local governments too often overlook the need for communication, especially in innovation and digital transformation projects, Brian Chidester, head of worldwide industry strategy for the public sector at information management firm OpenText, told Insider.
“[Madison] has really embraced that piece of it,” he said.
Phoenix, and the entire state of Arizona, has been working to become a leader in autonomous vehicles since 2015, when the governor signed an executive order to support the testing of driverless cars.
Phoenix has partnered with companies like GM and Lyft to allow hundreds of driverless cars to be tested on their roadways. Recently, the city began working with Waymo to launch a self-driving taxi fleet in nearby Tempe and Chandler.
“You just see the vehicles everywhere, the Waymo vehicles in particular, and we now have a long history, and it’s just part of the landscape,” Bowman said.
The state also created the Institute of Automated Mobility with Intel, Arizona State University, and other universities and organizations to research autonomous vehicles. Part of the goal is to create a regulatory framework that other places can model.
One setback to the self-driving initiative was a 2018 incident when a driverless Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe. Bowman said city leaders handled the investigation in a transparent way that regained community trust and investment in the program.
By investing in autonomous vehicle infrastructure and innovation, the hope is to cut down on traffic fatalities, help older people age in place, reduce traffic and the need for parking, and protect the environment, she explained.
“Integrating autonomous vehicles into your fleet has the potential to reduce congestion within cities, and that brings an environmental benefit with it,” Bowman said.
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles has emphasized its commitment to sustainability while addressing some of the city’s biggest infrastructure concerns, like traffic and road safety.
A digital dashboard, called the pLAn, debuted to track and measure its Green New Deal sustainability plan. It keeps tabs on metrics like water and electricity usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and other sustainability efforts. And the data is open to the public.
“One of the things I really like about what we see in LA is not only do they make this public — and they have a fantastic dashboard that any citizen or any individual anywhere in the world can go to and see how they’re doing based on hundreds of metrics — but they also have held themselves accountable,” Bowman said. “They’ve done a voluntary review of how well they’re doing, and the results of that review has then gone on to inform the next step.”
Governments holding themselves accountable in this way is something other metros can learn from, she added.
Mayor Eric Garcetti has also set a goal of reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2045, and has a number of other goals to make the city more sustainable and reduce traffic.
For example, they’re working on a network of bus-only lanes, adjusting traffic lights to put trains first over cars, launching an electric bus fleet, creating better traffic light synchronization, and debuting bike- and pedestrian-friendly projects.
Los Angeles is also home to one of the Manufacturing USA institutes, CESMII (Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute), that focuses on smart sensor and digital process technology to make manufacturing more efficient.
One of Boston’s many innovation, infrastructure, and sustainability projects is the Vision Zero initiative, a smart-street project with the goal of reducing traffic accidents and fatalities through data gathering and analysis.
Through the program, Boston is investing in new infrastructure on the streets, including LED lights, surveillance cameras, sensors, and a public dashboard. The data collected will inform future decision-making on roadway improvements, like safer sidewalks and streets and advanced signage.
Other traffic-centric innovative infrastructure programs include giving drivers real-time information about where to find parking spaces or suggestions for taking another form of transportation. The point is to reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions. The city is also working on driverless car testing, smart parking sensors, and IoT.
Additionally, Boston is working to modernize information systems and technology in utility infrastructure to make utilities more affordable, equitable, and sustainable through the Smart Utilities Vision project.
“[Boston] has been trying to position itself as a technology hub, so that’s part of what’s driving a lot of their digital transformation infrastructure,” Chidester said.
Investing in innovation and infrastructure tends to attract larger companies and a highly skilled workforce, which boosts the economy, he added. Specifically, Boston has developed an environment to draw and support fintech companies.
The Boston area has the advantage of having several universities, including Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which the city partners with to test new technology and other projects.
“One of the things you see is cities with large, very advanced universities with good engineering programs are some of the furthest along, simply because they’ve got the partnership between academia and city government,” Schafer said. “You’ve got engineering programs going to the city to say, ‘Hey, we’re working on this technology to be tested in our city.'”
Denver’s population has increased 20% over the last 10 years, so the city has seen more construction and traffic, which has worsened its air quality.
To address the issue, they launched Love My Air, a program to measure air quality in real time using pollution sensors.
The city is tackling its transportation issues by participating in Vision Zero, like Boston. This includes launching an intelligent transportation system to address traffic and road safety. The program will deploy connected vehicle technology to allow trucks to communicate with traffic signals and connect city vehicles.
And to address and manage data around its infrastructure, Denver is creating an IoT platform to gather data about transportation, environmental health, weather, and freight. The data is pulled from road and weather sensors, street lights, universities, and other city infrastructure, which the city will use to drive future projects.
Denver also has a partnership with Panasonic on a project called CityNow. It’s creating smart city infrastructure in a remote area that includes high-tech highways and driverless vehicles. They’ve installed WiFi, LED street lights, pollution sensors, security cameras, and a solar-powered microgrid.
One challenge cities face in their digital transformation and innovation initiatives is that they start small, maybe with specific neighborhoods. While this makes sense, Chidester said it often creates disparate technologies, giving cities an additional challenge of making everything work together for the benefit of residents.
“You’re not going to drop a whole bunch of technology to encompass the entire city,” he said. “Ultimately, as you crawl, walk, run, there’s the need to ensure interoperability, and the ability to take information and analytics and drive value on behalf of their citizens.”
Data and analytics are necessary for sustainability and infrastructure efforts. But another issue cities will need to address revolves around the data they’re collecting through sensors and other means, Schafer said — specifically, who owns the data and what it’s all used for. And do citizens have the right to take their data back?
“That’s a thorny issue that a lot of them are going to have to deal with,” he said. “Whether they like it or not, it’s coming.”