As St. Louis Aims for Safer Streets, It's One Step Forward, Two Car Crashes

Winning the hearts and minds of drivers used to treating side streets like highways isn't easy

Apr 5, 2024 at 6:00 am
The traffic-calming infrastructure at Chippewa and Louisiana has seen multiple crashes into it.
The traffic-calming infrastructure at Chippewa and Louisiana has seen multiple crashes into it. ZACHARY LINHARES

Alonzo Harris knows the dangers of St. Louis streets more than most. He's a postal carrier, which means a lot of time on foot, and with a route that extends from Montana to Chippewa, he sees the worst of Dutchtown drivers.

"It's like a NASCAR track down Louisiana," he says, smiling as he walks his route at Osage and Louisiana streets. "All gas, no brakes."

Four blocks north, at the intersection of Chippewa and Louisiana, scooters, strollers, cyclists and sedans shyly swing around a circular roundabout — a landmark of a city street-calming initiative that currently extends down Louisiana from Gravois to Meramec. The traffic-calming infrastructure includes traffic circles, extended sidewalk corners (bump-outs), higher visibility crosswalks and speed humps, each with goals to reduce speed and foster safety. The project, 10 years in the making, aims to extend south to Carondelet Park in its second phase and north to Tower Grove Park in phase three, stretching just over three miles to connect the two popular parks.

Yet part of a navy-blue car bumper decorates the edge of this particular bump-out, suggestive of cars driving into the traffic circle, instead of around it.

While Harris is hesitant to say drivers' habits have significantly changed, he believes the speed humps in particular have worked to slow accelerators. Still, he sees drivers with a level of uncertainty — perhaps confusion — meet stubborn speeders at the traffic circle, which was completed in spring of 2023.

Speeding is not a new story in St. Louis. Streets meant to be thoroughfares encourage thoroughbreds, though this breed is not so selective. Honda Civics, Chevy Tahoes and Dodge Chargers treat many St. Louis city streets like a racetrack, which often turns walking and biking them into a risk.

St. Louis has hit an inevitable crossroads, no pun intended. A city built for a million residents struggles to properly serve a population that hovers around a third of that anticipated number. Our roads, simply too wide for the volume of motorists they serve, pave a particular historical narrative.

In the early 20th century, mass consumption and the increasingly accessible automobile ushered in a wave of calls for city planning and zoning. Harland Bartholomew arrived from New Jersey in 1916 to fill his position as St. Louis' first resident city planner. Just seven years later, St. Louis voters passed a then-momentous $87,000,000 public works bond, allocating a large portion of the funds toward street widening in anticipation of a bustling St. Louis.

Bartholomew's ideas and plans inspired funds and infrastructure for the remainder of the 20th century. His visions were solidified in the Comprehensive City Plan of 1947, which he completed only three years prior to St. Louis hitting its population peak of 856,000. The plan outlined a future for a flourishing St. Louis and called on city developers to address an anticipated population of 900,000 by 1970. Bartholomew's blight designations bulldozed entire blocks and neighborhoods, namely Mill Creek Valley, displacing primarily Black residents in the name of urban renewal — an all-too-common story in cities across the U.S.

Leaders built and remade roads for an imagined city, one that is not present-day St. Louis. They lacked vision for the present, and their actions aided patterns of white flight and disinvestment in inner-city neighborhoods.

click to enlarge Kari Bell (with her daughter, Lyrik) says the traffic-calming measures make drivers pay attention. - LAUREN HARPOLD
Kari Bell (with her daughter, Lyrik) says the traffic-calming measures make drivers pay attention.

Seventy-seven years later, Kari Bell waits for her daughter, Lyrik, on the threshold of a vacated building at the corner of Meramec and Louisiana in Dutchtown. Bright yellow school buses parade up and down south city at this hour, and one eventually stops at the corner. Bell takes her daughter's hand as she steps off the bus and crosses the intersection to walk home.

This particular intersection hosts one of the calming traffic circles, which resembles a double-tiered birthday cake. Bell says she's grateful for the infrastructure because it "makes drivers pay attention." They've lived in the neighborhood since October, and though sounds of tire treads and engines revving puncture the air, she hasn't seen any accidents.

Cindy Mense, CEO of Trailnet, St. Louis' nonprofit dedicated to making streets safer for bikers and walkers, emphasizes the need for traffic-calming efforts to protect children, who are often below the line of sight of today's oversized trucks and SUVs. These measures are necessary to shield children walking from school or the bus stop, like Lyrik, who wants to be a writer and is already working on her first novel.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, today's vehicles are safer than ever for passengers, and average models have only grown in size. But for foot-traffickers, whether walking to work or to the bus stop, not much stands in the way to provide safety. This is the theory behind traffic-calming infrastructure. Cars, including police cruisers, need a permanent reason to slow down.

Trailnet has been the primary community advocate for traffic-calming infrastructure for the past 30 years. But they say their biggest obstacle isn't our overly wide streets.

Public opinion shapes the formation of our cities. It created the St. Louis we see today and will continue to form what becomes of our city. For Trailnet, public opinion is both the biggest obstacle and the biggest reward.

Pushback for the Louisiana Avenue Calm Streets Project has focused on vehicles running into the traffic circle — which has happened more than is ideal. Yet Mense points out the tradeoff: "What if that was a person? What if that was a child on a bike?" Next time, the driver might slow down.

click to enlarge Bikers ride by a traffic calming device at the intersection of South Spring Avenue and Russell Boulevard on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in the Shaw neighborhood. (Zachary Linhares)
Cyclists pass a traffic-calming device at South Spring Avenue and Russell Boulevard.

Citizen voices and opinions help to create St. Louis' future. Currently, the city actively seeks citizen input in the Strategic Land Use Plan, which will authorize and guide future physical development in the city. The plan faces its first comprehensive update since 2005, with policy changes, redevelopment strategies and zoning ordinances at stake.

The city is already putting some money into traffic calming. Last year's Board Bill 120, championed by Mayor Tishaura Jones after some high-profile fatalities on South Grand and other city streets, promises a portion of ARPA funds for safety improvements, traffic calming and sidewalk improvements, as well as updated 911 software.

Mense wants St. Louis residents to contemplate a vision for a community that engages neighbors, builds community and helps all residents feel safe, while accounting for the rich diversity of our city. This includes the range of modes people rely on to get from place to place: foot, wheelchair, bike, bus, Metro, car and more.

"In this region, we are not going to move forward if we don't take everybody with us," Mense advises. She references people who may not own a car and need to use public transport, as well as people with disabilities who need accessible sidewalks. "The transportation system has to be built to support all of these options so that everybody gets a chance to get around, to get to their jobs, and to meet their daily needs."

Post-pandemic trends revealed increases in reckless driving across the country, particularly marked by the uptick in motor vehicle traffic fatalities. But early reports from U.S. DOT indicate a slight decline in fatality rates in 2023.

While St. Louis drivers may still be notoriously fast, productive change conversely occurs at a notoriously slow rate — a necessary reminder to fully understand traffic-calming initiatives.

That's something Harris, the postal carrier, recognizes. He's not counting on drivers to stop speeding on Louisiana overnight, even with the new calming infrastructure components. Walking as he does at just a few miles per hour, he's hoping to see change in five years. Maybe even 10. 

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