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'We have a long way to go' on bicycle ridership and Complete Streets in St. Louis

vintage bicycles
Via Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

If numbers tell the story, bicycle ridership in St. Louis has boomed. A 2014 study from the League of American Bicyclistsshows the number of bicycle commuters increased 269.9 percent between 2000 and 2014.

That staggering number isn’t the only sign that St. Louis is making a push to be a bicycle-friendly city. As the area celebrates national Bike to Work Day on Friday, it's time to take a look at improvements that have been made and needs still to be addressed.

In 2010, thecity passed comprehensive legislation known as “Complete Streets,” aimed at making city streets more rider and walker friendly. A year later, the city of St. Louis, in partnership with local groups, opened the Downtown Bicycle Station. In 2014, the city updated its Complete Streets legislation. (St. Louis County has started working toward a Complete Streets program, and several municipalities offer a hodgepodge of aids and regulation.)

So what brought what: Did the increase in ridership bring aids to bicyclists like Complete Streets and the downtown station or did the amenities bring more riders?

It's “chicken or the egg. It’s both. These things evolve together,” said Alderman Scott Ogilvie of the 24th Ward, who introduced the updated 2014 bill. 

‘We have a long way to go’

While the city has seen a massive increase in ridership over the past couple of decades, it still lags behind other major cities in overall ridership. The 2014 study from the League of American Bicyclists also shows that 1.3 percent of St. Louiscity residents commute to work. That ranks 22nd out of the 37 cities studied.

“We are definitely making progress, but I think we have a long way to go,” said Jennifer Allen, director of strategic initiatives at Trailnet.

Trailnet worked with Alderman Shane Cohn, 25th Ward, to draft the city’s initial Complete Street’s legislation.

“With Complete Streets, when it comes to implementing that policy, we think what is most important is that things become institutionalized … the effort and success of implementing complete streets is kind of hard wired into different department’s internal procedures and practices. We think we haven’t gotten to that point where it just becomes business as usual, that departments are looking at all these kind of different ways to integrate complete streets.”

Trailnet's Jennifer Allen discusses Complete Streets

Still, the city is making progress in enacting such measures, Allen said.

She pointed to the advocacy group’s work with the city on the Neighborhood Greenways St. Louis Project. In addition, she highlighted the city’s work to implement traffic calming measures such as speed bumps, traffic circles and narrower roads, meant to reduce the volume and speed of cars on the road, and its hiring of its first bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, Jamie Wilson, who has been on the job since October 2015.

Allen also lauded the Downtown Bicycle Station, but described it as more of a “project” than “institutional measure.”

“It’s something that is really important to have and it kind of reminds people that when it comes to encouraging bike commuting, you can’t just think about what is painted on the street. You have to think of someone’s full trip. From start to finish, do they have what they need?”

That mindset helps create a holistic approach to streets, one that focuses on such issues as education and evaluation, said Allen.

Working toward an institutional and data-driven framework

Evaluating the effectiveness of Complete Streets has been a challenge. When asked what street or streets are most complete in St. Louis, Ogilvie said it's complicated.

“There are a lot of streets that work because they were built in a way that works from the beginning. That means you have moderate traffic speeds, you probably have parking, you’ve got street trees, you’ve got space on the sidewalk. I think what a complete streets policy does, it recognizes that for a long time, the country got away from that and all the investment was focused on the automobile,” Ogilvie said.  

Wilson indicated he intends to begin the process of evaluating the level of complete streets within the city.

"Safety is our overall mission here. We obviously have a demand increasing for bike and pedestrian use in the city so we’d like to focus on some of the areas where safety is the biggest concern," he said in a November interview with St. Louis Public Radio. To that end, he plans to go through accident data from the city and "focus on ... the [areas] that we know are a problem right now and prioritize those first.

“We want to take it to the next level. We want to start adding some data to the efforts here. We’re going to start adding traffic counters to both count vehicular traffic, like we traditionally do in traffic engineering, and we’re also going to put them in to start picking up bicycle counts.”

Follow Nathan Rubbelke on Twitter: @naterub