In Car-Loving St. Louis, Pedestrians, Cyclists and Transit Riders Have Many Miles to Go

Metro riders made nearly 2 million more trips via public transportation in 2014 than in 2013.
Metro riders made nearly 2 million more trips via public transportation in 2014 than in 2013. Matthew Black / Flickr

On his way home from running errands, Robert Schmidt doesn't appear to be in much of a hurry. The octogenarian pumps the pedals of the bicycle perhaps once per second, his trousered legs bending outward in a diamond shape around him. Four plastic grocery bags are strapped to his handlebars, two to a side, and the orange cap of a repurposed Gatorade bottle peeps out from his rear left pocket. Passing drivers, to their credit, afford him plenty of room on the neighborhood street.

Along 12th Street, at the stop sign at Sidney Street in Soulard, Schmidt slowly leans down to pet a small dog that wags its tail with gusto. On Pestalozzi, beside the towering Anheuser-Busch brewery, he greets a young woman who stops jogging, pulls out her earbuds and engages him in conversation for a few moments. Near the middle of the overpass that cuts across Interstate 55, he smiles at me, scooting the bike over to the gutter when I say hello.

"I like the bike because I can go down to the river and take my binoculars and look at the trains," he explains over the whir of motors on the highway below. There are too many cars in St. Louis, he adds, but he has never driven one in all his years here. He enjoys the simple life he leads and thinks the bike — "a girl's bike," he chuckles, pointing at the frame's telltale diagonal top tube — has kept him in shape.

In a region where residents log an average of 32 miles on their odometers every day, Schmidt's car-free habits are far from the norm. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, drivers in the St. Louis metropolitan area outpace U.S. cities of similar population, including Baltimore and Denver, by more than 5 trillion total miles per year. The wealth of highways skimming across or around the heart of St. Louis accounts for much of this. Why take a train, bus or bike when the freeways will get you there faster in most cases — and within the comfort of your own enclosed space?

But Schmidt is not alone in his alternative approach to getting around. Nationwide, figures for total vehicle miles traveled have remained relatively flat in the last decade, coinciding with a frail economy as well as a significant uptick in the percentage of young adults opting out of car ownership. Locally, bike commuters are a growing presence along city streets, and Metro riders logged nearly 2 million more trips via public transportation last year than they did in 2013. Still, those are mere drops in the bucket in America's steadfastly automobile-centered culture.

As I listen to Schmidt and other non-drivers around town, many point to financial and situational necessity, rather than ecological reasons, as the main impetus for getting around the way they do.

"You want to know why people take the bus?" asks one woman, sitting on a painted cement curb at a bus stop. "It's obvious. The bottom line is that it's our only means of transportation."

Theresa, a senior citizen, echoes this sentiment: "I don't really like taking the bus, but I don't have another choice. You gotta do what you gotta do."

While I find it satisfying to consider the way that getting rid of my own car four years ago has reduced my carbon footprint, comments like Theresa's are a reminder that for me, too, the primary incentive for going car-free was economic. When my '96 Saturn bit the dust, I was living only a mile from the nearest MetroLink connecting station, and it simply made good financial sense not to replace the vehicle considering my close proximity and employer-subsidized access to public transportation. The thought of trading the stress of city driving for good exercise helped, too.

For some, such lifestyle shifts result directly from the cultivation of an environmentally mindful conscience. David Ziolkowski, an architectural-lighting designer for HOK in downtown St. Louis, is a good example. He gave up his car about five years ago, a decision that required major changes for him and his family of four.

Back in 2009, as Ziolkowski and his wife were contemplating a move, they set unique transit-oriented criteria for their search, deciding they would only consider homes within a mile of a MetroLink light-rail station and a quarter-mile of a bus stop, so that Ziolkowski could get to the train in a reasonable amount of time by foot, bus or bike. When they found a house that met those specifications in the Richmond Heights area, they purchased it, moved in and sold Ziolkowski's car on Earth Day in April 2010.

Over an early coffee at Kayak's at the corner of Skinker Boulevard and Forest Park Parkway, Ziolkowski admits to feeling "a bit odd" for making such a shift. He has friends, he notes, who "don't give a rat's ass" about sustainability. But he's always been motivated by accomplishing things, getting things done, he says, and sustainability issues have long been on his radar at work. HOK was an early adopter of the LEED certification system, and the company is serious about green design and efforts to significantly reduce lighting-related energy use in buildings.

"Being part of the company has just instilled those values in me," Ziolkowski says. "I think about what the world is going to be like in fifteen, twenty years." Downsizing to a single car as a family has not been without its challenges, but he has no regrets.

click to enlarge James Harrison believes if you have proof of employment, public transportation ought to be free. - Nicholas Phillips
Nicholas Phillips
James Harrison believes if you have proof of employment, public transportation ought to be free.

The Cardinals aren't in town tonight, so James Harrison has the day off — from his line-cook shift at the Angry Beaver near Busch Stadium, that is. The Walnut Park resident and Metro commuter faces another tall order this afternoon: making sure he can afford to travel to and from the job.

"If I can't get bus fare, I can't make no money," Harrison explains, blending our phone conversation with Bluetooth-speaker sales pitches to fellow pedestrians. "I've been having a rough day so far." When one passerby turns him down, despite the contrast between the $50 that Harrison says Walgreens charges for the item and his own stated price, Harrison grows frustrated.

"I'm trying to get to work," he tells the potential buyer. "I need a bus pass, bro."

Getting around St. Louis without a car has proved far from ideal in Harrison's experience. During a Redbirds homestand, he typically works ten- to twelve-hour shifts at the downtown sports bar, often wrapping up after midnight. By then MetroLink and MetroBus lines are nearing the end of service for the night, and he's frequently out of luck for several hours until the next bus shows up between 4 and 5 a.m., long after his two-hour transfer has expired. So he kills the time at the 24-hour Eat-Rite Diner.

The layover itself — along with the company and food — is "cool," he says. But when it comes to his commute as a whole, he thinks "something needs to be done about Metro." He has been issued several citations for riding MetroLink without a ticket, and the penalty — as much as $85 a pop and eventually a warrant for arrest if fines go unpaid, according to Harrison — strikes him as overkill.

"Really, it should be free," Harrison says. "If you've got an ID for your job, it should be free. If you didn't have a ticket and were trying to get to work, you'd be jumping on that train, too."

Before we hang up, Harrison asks where I work — the University of Missouri-St. Louis, I tell him. I don't mention that one perk is a deeply discounted Metro pass that saves me roughly $60 a month on bus and train fare.

For commuters such as Harrison, a car would certainly mean a lot less hassle and exhaustion. Punch his commute into the default (automobile) tab of Google Maps, and the estimated one-way trip time frame is fifteen minutes flat. The transit options for the same trip range from about 50 minutes to more than an hour — even during the daytime, when buses run regularly.

A car was America's collective go-to solution earlier this year when the viral story of an older James (Robertson), in another American city, detailed the factory worker's roundtrip walking commute of 21 miles a day. Donors near and far funneled upward of $350,000 to Robertson — now better known as Detroit's Walking Man — plus a brand-new Taurus.

The outpouring didn't address the inadequate bus system that necessitated Robertson's superhuman work commute in the first place, however. And as Vice News contributor Charlie LeDuff noted in late February, "After that, everybody knew him. And everybody wanted something." Granted fame and money, Robertson found he had little choice but to move out of his neighborhood.

click to enlarge Jason Stenar Clark enjoys life as a "permanent pedestrian." - Paul DeCoursey-Clark
Paul DeCoursey-Clark
Jason Stenar Clark enjoys life as a "permanent pedestrian."

How do you use Metro? #DumpThePump," the transit agency (@STLMetro) tweets on June 18, National Dump the Pump Day. A handful of riders, including me, send enthusiastic replies: "For everything! We have been car-less for almost three years." "Car free's the way to be!" "Metro makes it possible for our two 12yo cars to sit most of the time. Saves us big $."

Soon enough, two other Twitter users take it upon themselves to dampen the tone of the discussion.

" much do you value time," writes one.

Another chimes in, "For someone who owns a car it's not a competitive option, it's a massive time suck."

In the time it takes to think, 'Let it go,' I've begun typing a comeback: "Could transit in #STL improve? Yes! ... The best way to contribute to a better transit system is to ride it." That's no guarantee, of course — especially in a metropolitan area where voters have at times turned down needed investment and expansion — but increased demand for the service and vocal participation build the case for making it a regional priority.

Our lifestyles and circumstances can be emotionally fraught, especially when it comes to a subject like transportation. Status, class, race and values invade the seemingly mundane topic of how we get where we're going. In my own experience, choosing to give up my car has exposed a rough edge here and there among friends and family. Most people are encouraging, but a few conversations — not just online — have left me feeling silly, even careless, for going car-less. And I can be prickly and defensive about it myself.

On my birthday a couple years ago, my casual comment over ice-cream cake that reckless and mean drivers can make bike commuting really stressful drew an unexpected reaction from a characteristically kind-hearted, generous, suburban-dwelling friend.

"You're driving me crazy!" she suddenly fumed, standing up to leave the room full of acquaintances. "What do you expect me to do — strap my kids on the back of my bike? Cyclists are in my way, and I'm trying to get somewhere. You need to get a car." We've since patched things over and remain close friends, but I am more cautious now in approaching these issues, sensitive as they are.

Catherine Werner, St. Louis' director of sustainability, notes that patience with each other is crucial.

"In my opinion, the key to effective sustainability lifestyle shifts is not encouraging people to go from standstill to full throttle, but to gradually ease in to the change by slowly accelerating," she says. "Lots of things come into play, and we need to be respectful of the fact that everyone has their own personal timeline, preferences and experiences. If we can each just worry about ourselves, and ensure that we do one new thing to become more sustainable, my feeling is that will be the answer over time."

Meanwhile, climate change looms eerily before us, and a sense of urgency and impatience with the status quo feels appropriate. How is it possible, in the face of the sobering challenges ahead, that so many of us still consider doing without a car such a strange option?

"It's an American thing," says Jason Stenar Clark, a thirty-something poet and teacher who became my friend when we were both graduate students in Laramie, Wyoming, before I moved to St. Louis five years ago. "Some have found it shocking, truly shocking, that I have lived my entire life without owning a car and have only rarely driven one."

It was Clark's father who most influenced him to "walk lightly," as he puts it. The Clark family explored, ranched, farmed, fished, hunted, mined and wandered the West, with his father providing a strong example of living delicately, he says, "with care for animals, plants, what Wallace Stegner called 'all the little live things.'"

Clark regularly walked three miles from west Laramie, a more rural part of town with livestock and dirt roads, to the University of Wyoming campus. Several times I drove past him, in my then-not-yet-donated sedan, as he trudged through one of the coldest locales in the country, where snow regularly blankets the landscape as early as September and as late as May. Easy to spot with his lanky frame and, sometimes, cowboy hat, he didn't look miserable or weary, despite the brutal chill and lack of sidewalks in many places. It was his time to think, and he still considers walking the best way to enjoy a city or countryside.

"As a permanent pedestrian, the pacing and appearance of life is more deliberate, slower, and allows for more attentiveness," Clark says. "Living in west Laramie, I got to know on which houses the owls stopped, where the lambs were being raised, how the colt that lived next to the highway felt most mornings, the mood of the red-winged blackbird flocks, what freshly pressed rabbit paw prints look like in untouched snow, and what is happening at any given moment in the day with friends and neighbors."

The collective momentum for alternative transportation in St. Louis has grown in recent years, with help from organizations such as Citizens for Modern Transit, Trailnet and Great Rivers Greenway, as well as a responsive city government and the Metro system itself. These entities each make an effort to emphasize the health benefits of leaving the car behind, the positive impact on traffic congestion and air quality, and the affordability of such a choice. In addition, they all share a vision for making the region more convenient to navigate by non-automotive means, "allow[ing] more people to become less car dependent," as the mayor's Sustainability Plan Action Agenda succinctly puts it.

One concrete example of this momentum is the now-underway Loop Trolley project, set to connect the Loop and Forest Park, and in doing so "promote connectivity, environmentally friendly transportation, economic development and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods." The major funding for the 2.2-mile system is a $25 million Federal Transit Administration grant.

click to enlarge The cover of the October 21, 2015, Riverfront Times. - Noah MacMillan
Noah MacMillan
The cover of the October 21, 2015, Riverfront Times.

As eager as I am to try out the lovely looking trolley system when construction is complete, the project also suggests something troubling about our regional priorities. MetroLink's red line already connects Forest Park and the Missouri History Museum to the eastern edge of the Loop. Why the focus on a small trolley line that will run along a rather similar path, when whole swaths of the region would benefit from, for instance, a north-south expansion of MetroLink?

It can feel as though something is absent from the conversation. Especially as I observe the range of people around me every day on the bus, on the sidewalk and on my bike, my enthusiasm for this car-free movement is complicated by an unsettling fact: that so many of the most vulnerable in our midst are already living without a car, are already "part of the solution," and it's not exactly a party.

It's not just people like James Harrison. Paul Fehler, a local filmmaker and cyclist who has been without a car for seven years, has little patience for cycling advocacy groups, believing them to be largely ineffective and even misguided as they rally around what he considers very minor successes, such as "a Bike to Work Day that expends huge amounts of their attention and budget just to court some pathetic purchase on a sliver of middle-class respectability that then vanishes almost completely the day after."

"The majority of cycling advocates also completely ignore the single largest group of cyclists in this town: working class and poor transportation-cyclists," Fehler adds. "The folks who make up the most bicycle miles traveled here are poor folks on full-suspension Wal-Mart mountain bikes, riding on the sidewalk, just trying to get to Point B. Local bike advocates don't even pretend to care about them, and it's shameful."

click to enlarge Bike racks around St. Louis are meant to encourage cycling. - Paul Sableman/Flickr
Paul Sableman/Flickr
Bike racks around St. Louis are meant to encourage cycling.

At Chouteau Avenue and Tucker Boulevard — just south of a web of Amtrak, freight train and Metro tracks outlining the edge of downtown — flocks of automobiles blast by. All of the cars along this thoroughfare seem to be heading somewhere important. Their errands are urgent, time-sensitive, serious. Inside the sealed interiors all may be calm, but for those outside the steel bubbles their presence is far from peaceful.

A woman named Hawa sits at the No. 73 stop, waiting. She just missed the bus, and now she is waiting for a friend who has agreed to give her a ride. She is weary of waiting, and when I ask about her chosen mode of transportation, her eyes suggest that the topic makes her sad. She used to have a car, she explains, but when she lost her job, she could no longer afford one.

Along with saving money on gas and shrinking our carbon footprints and waistlines, can the more uncomfortable realities also be part of the appeal, part of what makes going car-free worthwhile for those of us in less dire straits? Perhaps it's a kind of "causal enjoyment of the world," as Clark puts it.

Several years ago, Fehler decided he would bike down every street in the city of St. Louis, partly in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of others.

"It proved logistically much harder than I thought, but little by little I covered every stretch," he says. "The things I saw and the people I met made me feel like I understood things better, and by that I don't mean just 'the city' and 'its people,' but more fundamentally 'cities' and 'people.' That feels good, and I'm very thankful for it."

At the Civic Center MetroLink station in downtown St. Louis, the sun is high in the sky. Around 11 a.m., a westbound and eastbound train arrive at once. The doors snap open and a crowd of roughly 40 people spill onto the platform, all but one of them African American. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, or at least distracted by the idea of getting where they need to go.

Charles Parker, a surprisingly youthful 73-year-old, is an exception. He flashes his senior Metro pass proudly and says it's the most economical transportation he can get, at $20 a month.

"And it's good for my health," he adds, puffing out a small cloud of smoke. "The cigarettes are not."

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