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Street smarts: St. Louis strives to make 'Complete Streets' usable by all

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 14, 2010 - June 28 -- that was the day St. Louis contractors were supposed to begin work on a section of South Grand Blvd., between Arsenal and McDonald. The seven-block stretch was chosen as a "Great Street" by the East-West Gateway Council, allowing for federally funded alterations to make the street more pleasant for pedestrians and local businesses.

Initial lane and crosswalk modifications made last year earned widespread praise and will be made permanent as part of a more extensive makeover. Though work was expected to begin as early as April, officials were forced to postpone the start date to June 28 while waiting for MODOT's approval. More than two weeks have passed since that date, but actual construction has still not begun.

"There are just a few bugs" in the plan, said Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, D-15th Ward, which includes South Grand. In some cases, benches and bike racks were supposed to be installed on areas of the sidewalk currently used by restaurants. Consequently, engineers from Kozeny-Wagner Inc., the construction company assigned to the job, are surveying the street and making final adjustments to the design before beginning construction.

"My guess is, it's probably going to start sometime in August," Florida said.

South Grand is just one of several city streets, including sections of South Broadway and Morgan Ford Road, that will soon undergo pedestrian-friendly alterations. In fact, all city street projects must now be designed with pedestrians in mind. With the passage of Board Bill 7, the so-called "Complete Streets" bill on June 24, St. Louis joined 141 other cities, regional governments and even some states in a national Complete Streets initiative to support different modes of transportation.

The Complete Streets legislation requires city planners to design streets that cater not only to motorists, but to cyclists, pedestrians, public transit users and the disabled. The goal, as defined by the new ordinance, is to "encourage walking, bicycling and transit use while promoting safe operations for all users."


Specific improvements will vary depending on the project, but could include more bike lanes, increased lighting for streets and sidewalks, recessed bus stops or bus "turnouts," and even some landscaping. Pedestrian safety would receive a boost from the installation of medians and curb extensions, which shorten the walking distance required to cross the street. The ordinance also calls for improvements to help disabled residents navigate sidewalks and crosswalks, including full compliance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA).

"Honestly, we do have sidewalks throughout the city that aren't ADA-compliant." That's according to St. Louis Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, who sponsored the Complete Streets bill and pushed for its passage.

"I want to ensure that we design our streets to be safe, enhance quality of life, and allow people to travel freely regardless of whether they walk, bike, take transit or drive," Cohn said in a recent news release.

Cohn, who said he "really believes in livable urban communities," helped draft the bill after he was approached by a friend from Trailnet, a local organization that encourages active living. Over the past two years, Trailnet worked with Cohn and other city officials to drum up support for the legislation. They invited an expert on Complete Streets to talk to the aldermen and brought a small city delegation to a walking and cycling conference.

"We catalyze the idea, provide technical assistance, keep the conversation going," said Cindy Mense, Trailnet's director of community services. "We can't take the credit. It was really the alderpeople being receptive and realizing this was good for St. Louis."

Trailnet also helped pass Complete Streets legislation in Ferguson and DeSoto in 2008. Ferguson Councilman Dwayne James said the initiative has been well-received. "The feel around the city is this something that's good, it's something that's needed," James said. But officials in both Ferguson and DeSoto agreed that due to few active construction projects in their communities, the legislation's impact is yet to be seen.

Cohn recognizes the new ordinance "is not a piece of legislation or policy that's going to change things overnight." Indeed, the legislation grants city planners great leeway in applying the bill's provisions. The ordinance does not establish a blanket requirement for specific street improvements but only presents "guiding principles and practices to be considered in public transportation projects, where practicable (and) economically feasible."


With so much leeway, will the city follow through? Ultimately, that decision rests with the president of the St. Louis Board of Public Service, which oversees all public construction in the city. Richard Bradley, the board's current president, says the ordinance simply "puts in writing" what he is already doing.

"I have encouraged and embraced this Complete Street methodology since I was appointed in June 2009," Bradley said.

And though the ordinance allows him to veto Complete Streets improvements if they are economically unfeasible, Bradley anticipates rarely having to do so. "Nine out of 10 times we're going to be able to include everything," he said. Besides city funds, state and federal grants are also available for such improvements.

Like Bradley, Todd Waelterman, director of the St. Louis Street Department, is optimistic about building Complete Streets. But as overseer of street maintenance for the city, Waelterman says improvements should be made with durability in mind. "The point isn't to build something real beautiful and then have it look awful after five years," he said.

Waelterman was initially leery of adding bike lanes and similar improvements. "I had a little adapting to do," he said. But after talking to Trailnet and recognizing recent increases in cycling, he fully supports the initiative. "Twenty-five years ago, the idea was to put a lot of pavement down and move a lot of cars. We need to be aware of ... other modes of transportation," he said.

At the bill's signing, Aldermanic President Lewis Reed summed up the bill's long-term impact: "Cities that are more bikeable, that are more walkable, are cities that are more liveable."

Hodiah Nemes, a student at Yale University, is an intern at the Beacon.