St. Louis Roads Don't Have To Be This Dangerous

BWork's director says education, enforcement can the stop epidemic of traffic deaths

Aug 5, 2022 at 10:18 am
A bike memorials often mark the spots where cyclists are killed on roadways. - Lindsay Toler
Lindsay Toler
A bike memorials often mark the spots where cyclists are killed on roadways.

Name a crime. Then put all of your resources into physical engineering to prevent that crime.

Let’s look at home burglaries as an example. We can build or buy stronger doors, put bars on windows, install alarm systems, train dogs — all forms of physical things that could help prevent someone from breaking into your home.

But why, if you are trying to address a crime, or better yet prevent a crime, would you stop here?

Let’s add education. We can educate residents about when burglaries are likely to occur. We can inform our neighbors when we’ll be out of town or away. We can educate one another, and the citizenry as a whole, on what makes for an easy burglary victim.

We can also add enforcement, investing in extra patrols or police officers in areas where known problems are continuing to occur. We can encourage residents to join or start neighborhood associations or watch groups. And we can make sure that our prosecutors and judges are doing their jobs.

Repeat this exercise as many times as you like; name a crime, and give examples of ways society tries to mitigate that crime through engineering, education and enforcement.

These are the three pillars on which cycling and pedestrian advocacy groups have grounded their safety-related efforts for decades — because each time you add another layer, another partner, another possible solution, there is an overall reduction in the crime or the potential for crime.

But in St. Louis, we seem to have lost sight of this three-pronged approach when it comes to cutting down on incidents harming pedestrians and cyclists — particularly when that harm is caused by automobiles.

We do lots of engineering in St. Louis to try and address these crimes. We paint crosswalks to help identify where people might be. We build curb bump-outs to shorten the distance pedestrians must walk in the roadway. We build bike lanes of every shape and color imaginable, from paint on busy roads to fully isolated trails. We build tunnels and bridges that go over, under and around busy roads to limit interactions. We spend millions upon millions of dollars each and every year on engineering.

But when it comes to the second pillar — education — we don’t require any driver’s education for those who get behind the wheel. We also don’t require cycling education. And I’m unaware of any local or regional group that does any pedestrian education beyond victim blaming. On top of all this, there is no required training for police officers when it comes to handling these car-vs.-person crashes.

Nor do we educate families on what resources are available to them after these terrible incidents. And we never educate convicted perpetrators on the true impact of their actions on the affected family or community. After all, we can’t seem to even educate some members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen (who insist on the freedom to Zoom while on the road) on the dangers of distracted driving.

The third pillar — enforcement — is also neglected in the St. Louis area. The city devotes few resources to traffic enforcement. And when it comes to consequences, judges and prosecutors routinely pass down minuscule punishments for killing pedestrians or cyclists, even when gross negligence is shown (e.g. DUIs and drag racing). Anything less than a fatal crash between cars and the chances of it even going to court are almost nonexistent.

Meanwhile — after decades of spending astronomical amounts of money on grand engineering plans — rates of crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists continue to increase, with 2021 totals the worst they’ve ever been. So maybe it’s finally time to start investing our efforts and resources in some other ideas, things like education and enforcement.

It's easy to argue that a bigger pot of money is needed to fund all of this and that we shouldn’t divert funding from engineering projects. But the reality is that the pool of funds is only so big. Combine this fact with the conflicts of interest of advocates and engineers with a seat at the table, and you start to understand why they are so vested in making sure the available funds stay where they are.

Over the past 18 years, I have been lucky to, in some small part, help put thousands of kids on bicycles (our staff, volunteer teachers and mechanics do all the heavy lifting) through the nonprofit St. Louis BWorks. In one corner of our building, there is a small red bicycle, the frame folded over. Only a couple of adults understand it: This bicycle was ridden by the only child, to our knowledge, who has passed through our program and was hit by a car. Thankfully, he emerged with just bruises and was wearing his helmet. The small red bike is a daily reminder of the tools we are giving our kids — and the seriousness of educating them.

I’m begging the city as well as our advocates for faster solutions, because I, our volunteers and staff are constantly concerned about our kids' safety and the effect this has on growing up.

When kids don’t walk to the park or ride a bike to the local store, they become adults that don’t do this either. Our kids and families deserve better. The only solution we have right now involves decades of waiting for infrastructure improvements to reach all corners of the region. This is disappointing given the multitude of successful solutions we could borrow from other cities.

BWorks has a vested interest in seeing investments in enforcement and education when it comes to protecting vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists trying to simply live, work and play in our region. This isn’t about me pushing for funding that can be used for our youth programs, but rather about urging those in charge to do what’s right and ensure that changes are made, and soon. Adults have created these problems, and adults need the education and enforcement that can help correct them. And the adults in the room need to recognize that engineering as a single solution to such a complex problem is not the answer.