Tree-lined paths and green space span a downtown highway. Grassy medians and wider boulevards temper traffic in city neighborhoods. Smooth pavement lines new trails.

At first glance, you might have a hard time deciding whether form follows function or vice versa for our area’s ambitious walking and biking initiatives. But don’t be distracted by aesthetics. Each of the projects puts safety first.

Sure, the CityArchRiver project has been timed as a 50th anniversary gift to the Gateway Arch, but its new pathways are designed to keep both walkers and cyclists safe while enjoying the manmade and natural beauty. About five miles of trails around the project will make the Riverfront, Arch grounds, Kiener Plaza and Luther Ely Smith Park flow as a unified pedestrian-friendly experience.

“Visitors will now be able to walk from Fourth Street to the Arch grounds without realizing there’s a highway underneath them,” said Ryan McClure, a spokesman for CityArchRiver. “At Washington and Memorial, on the northern end of the park, MoDOT has taken a confusing five-way intersection with blinking red lights and made it a normal, four-way intersection that is signalized and safe.”

Another major piece of the project aimed at cyclists is the raising of Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard along the riverfront by about 2.5 feet. That slight rise in elevation will keep the street, sidewalk, and bike path accessible in all but the heaviest of floods. The raised stretch also will connect two major bike paths operated by Great Rivers Greenway, the North Riverfront and River Des Peres trails, providing more than 23 miles of continuous bike path.

The pathways cost about $38.5 million of the $380 million budget for CityArchRiver. Though the southern portion took longer to complete than expected, the project remains on schedule to open to the public by this fall, 18 months before the last phase of the project is complete.

The lack of vehicular traffic near the Arch will make the grounds more aesthically pleasing. Safety is of greater concern, though, and proponents of pedestrian and cycling friendly streets hope CityArchRiver could serve as a metaphorical gateway to safer streets throughout the area.

Complete Streets
The need for heightened safety measures for pedestrians moved to the forefront after statistics compiled from 2006 to 2010 showed that the city reported 1,800 pedestrian‐related motor vehicle crashes, which put St. Louis on the Federal Highway Administration’s list of Focus Cities. Spurred to action, Mayor Francis Slay signed an ordinance to put St. Louis in compliance with the concept of Complete Streets — designing or redesigning streets with more than car traffic in mind.

Renderings show wide boulevards, medians, landscaped sidewalks, and dedicated bike lanes. Rather than view it as an urban utopia, proponents sell the concept as a necessity for ensuring safety for all users.

Opposition arose, though, from unlikely sources. Cycling advocates, in particular, noted dangers in the original plan.

“The problem is that a cyclist in a dedicated bike lane is in the peripheral vision of a driver and risks getting hit by opening car doors and turning vehicles,” said Karen Karabell of Cycling Savvy. “We want Complete Streets more than anyone. The problem is the culture is upside down. What people believe is safe is the opposite of safe.”

Cycling Savvy espouses that the best way for cyclists to avoid accidents is to be seen, so they advocate and teach cyclists how to ride safely in traffic lanes rather than on sidewalks or the extreme right edge of the road.

Counterintuitive? Only until you see the statistics, which show that riders are more likely to be hit when riding on the sidewalk or on the edge of the road, that they sometimes elude the peripheral vision of motorists, and that gravel and debris pose further hazards.

After Karabell spoke in opposition to St. Louis County’s original plans for Complete Streets last year, then-County Executive Charlie Dooley asked her to join the Complete Streets talk force, which refined its ideas.

Earlier this year, the City of St. Louis altered its plans to be in line with the county, to create more opportunities for collaboration among, urban planners, street, heath and parks departments, and advocacy groups to address safety issues on an ongoing basis.

Neighborhood Greenways & Beyond
Trailnet wants to take the concept to the next level with Neighborhood Greenways — bike lanes and protected bikeways that also produce benefits for pedestrians. Planners envision wide streets with families biking and walking in dedicated lanes from home to grocery store or school, reduced speed limits, improved crossings, and rain gardens to improve environmental sustainability.

At this point, the city has just one, on Des Peres Avenue, but Trailnet envisions a network to connect neighborhoods. It hopes to identify pilot projects by the end of the year; prime candidates are The Ville and JeffVanderLou, Forest Park Southeast, and Dutchtown. Then, it will apply for funding, which could include federal Transportation Improvement Program grants or other public/private sources.

“The hope is we can generate enough political will to build out the Neighborhood Greenways network over five to 10 years versus 10 to 20,” said Jennifer Allen, Trailnet’s director of strategic initiatives.

These neighborhood proposals are distinct from Great Rivers Greenway (GRG) projects, which include paved trails completely separated from car traffic. Another fundamental difference is that many of the GRG projects are under construction or near completion, including the following:

  • The Busch Greenway, which connects to the Katy Trail, Hamburg Trail, Missouri Research Park, and August A. Busch Conservation Area, was scheduled to celebrate its grand opening May 22. The series of trails makes a 14-mile loop.
  • The Missouri Greenway will officially open a new section on June 27 at the Earth City Levee. “We’re excited to give the residents of Bridgeton and beyond more greenway to have fun and stay healthy,” said Emma Klues, communications manager for Great Rivers Greenway. “You should not have to make an expensive and extensive plan to be able to lead a healthy lifestyle. We’re bringing the outdoors to you.”
  • St. Vincent Greenway, from Delmar to the Missouri History Museum, is under construction in conjunction with the Loop Trolley. Next comes a section though Pagedale and Wellston. When complete in 2017, cyclists will be able to ride from Forest Park to University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL).

Bike Share
This one sounds pie-in-the-sky but has been implemented in more than 30 cities, some as big as New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Most bike-share systems offer a network of shared bicycles available for short-term use. Some systems require annual membership; others offer daily passes as well. In each system, riders check out a bike from a network of stations to use on errands or short trips.

GRG, spearheading the project here, envisions nonprofit ownership and an initial network of about 500 bikes, situated in pockets of the region. It commissioned a feasibility study last year in which about 1,400 people offered feedback. More than 60 percent of those who responded said they were likely to use bike share, most frequently for traveling to entertainment and special events, or running errands.

The next step is finding partners to collaborate on an effective nonprofit model and to explore fundraising through events and grants. GRG estimates that the first phase of the system, which would serve downtown, midtown and west to the Delmar Loop, could roll out in 2017. Cost estimates range from $12 to $15 million. Annual membership fees (perhaps $75), daily, and weekend passes would merely defray start-up costs, though. The rest would have to come from sponsorships and grants.

“I’ve seen how successful it is in New York. Part of the reason it works there is because it’s such a nightmare to drive in that city,” Karabell said. “It’s still so easy to drive here. Will people leave their cars at home and use the bikes?”

Projects like Bike Share may seem a long way down the road, but the journey begins with first steps. In the almost here and now, St. Louis will host the Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals National Conference this fall at America’s Center. Held in conjunction with the conference will be the first Walk Summit in Missouri, September 28. Sponsored by Trailnet, the summit will rally activists, elected officials, engineers, and transportation professionals, urging them to focus on the pedestrian’s perspective in planning transportation projects.

“Things are really improving here. We have more political will, and bike infrastructure is improving in some good ways. We are much more behind on walking infrasfructure,” Trailnet’s Allen said. “We applied to have the conference here to help propel our local efforts. Trailnet sees it as very important to continue to catalyze change.”

Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine