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Bicycle nirvana: Mayor hopes to open city streets to foot and bike traffic on occasional weekends

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 8, 2009 - Imagine a broad thoroughfare where people bicycle, roller blade, walk or picnic. Maybe play a game of catch or fly a kite.

A broad stretch of asphalt or concrete open to everybody and everything -- except motor vehicles.

That scene, in essence, is what St. Louis city officials are contemplating to create at least several times a year -- and perhaps monthly -- on weekends along miles-long stretches of major city streets.

"You let the community have their street back,'' said Tim Embree, special assistant to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

Portland, New York and Chicago are among the cities that have successfully tried the idea of closing down a sizable chunk of a major street or two for several hours on a given Saturday, Sunday or whole weekend. 

If St. Louis were to follow suit, the idea would be to close down a major thoroughfare -- Olive Street and Lindell Boulevard are among the top contenders -- for at least six hours on a Saturday or Sunday. One possibility would be to connect major city parks or tourist attractions.

Slay, a health enthusiast who enjoys bicycling and walking, has been discussing the idea for months with Embree and other like-minded (and fellow cycling loving) aides. (Mayoral chief of staff Jeff Rainford bikes daily to work.)

Slay also has Tweeted occasionally about the venture, most recently today. The mayor observed online: "There are no drivers on the 260+ miles of the Katy Trail. We'll do the same soon (for a day) on a St. Louis arterial."

The mayor's office is hoping to launch the first such street-closing event this fall, but Embree said it's more likely that the project won't get underway until next spring.

"We want to do it right," the aide said, citing the importance of making sure that the right stretches of streets are selected. For example, the aim is to avoid those in front of hospitals or other public-safety facilities.

For the city, there would be the costs to shut down the streets, using street crews, and deploying police to make sure no errant vehicles somehow violate the temporary ban on traffic.

The mayor's office already has been conferring with cycling and hiking groups, like Trailnet and the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation, to see if an army of volunteers could be enlisted to help out on the selected shut-down days.

Phil Valko, Trailnet's active living program manager, said his group has been talking to St. Louis officials for several weeks about the idea -- which began about two decades ago in Bogota, Colombia.

Nationally, it's been successful in every major city that has tried the project, he said.

Locally, Valko said that Trailnet was the impetus for the city of Ferguson's Sunday Parkways' event on Aug. 23, when the city devoted a one-mile loop to pedestrians and cyclists. Two more are scheduled in Ferguson this fall: Sept. 27 and Oct. 18.

In the city of St. Louis, Valko said the aim is use a much longer stretch of street, perhaps seven miles long, to engage thousands of city and suburban residents.

The chief goal is simple, he said: "You're encouraging people to get out and have a good time on their street -- and get off their couches."

For families, Embree said, the aim is to provide a low-cost activity that promotes togetherness, fun and exercise.

"It's a start to doing more healthier activities, and getting citizens out of their homes,'' he said.

But a key objective is even broader: "It's a new way to show off the city and all the positive stuff that's going on around here."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.