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Great Rivers Greenway works to make the area bicycle friendly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 5, 2012 - When it comes to being a bike-friendly city, St. Louis seems to have a flat tire. That said, one local organization is looking to connect St. Louis cycling routes to promote healthy living and environmental consciousness.

Great Rivers Greenway, a public organization dedicated to developing the region's parks, trails and greenways, recently led the effort to create the Gateway bike plan. Great Rivers Greenway is the organization behind the River Ring -- an interconnecting web of greenways, bike routes and parks throughout the St. Louis area that totals more than 600 miles.

The Gateway bike plan serves a similar purpose: to connect St. Louis with bicycle accessible routes that, if all goes as planned, will total 1,011 miles. The plan has been finished for a few months, now comes the followup and more bicycle-friendly facilities.

"We basically just took our River Ring plan and tied it together with one system," said Todd Antoine, deputy director for planning at GRG. "This is a progressive community that really wants to take bicycling seriously." The Gateway bike plan was finished in August after 16 months of work with MoDOT, St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Trailnet, other organizations and more than 100 municipalities.

If anything, Antoine said, bringing municipalities together was a great achievement.

"That was one thing that really came out of the plan and talking in the meetings with everyone: more communication," he said.

Most plans to include bike lanes are subject to municipal jurisdiction. A region with many roads that criss-cross municipalities, such as St. Louis, can have difficulty implementing such widespread plans as the Gateway bike plan.

Take, for example, Lindbergh Boulevard. If Florissant added a bicycle lane to its section of Lindbergh, but neighboring Hazelwood did not, cyclists could suddenly find themselves in the midst of traffic. Early communication among municipal governments helps to prevent this problem.

Great Rivers Greenway hosted two public forums led by citizen advisory committees made up of residents from St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. The majority of the feedback, Antoine said, was positive and expressed eagerness to get the plan implemented as soon as possible.

The initial approach to funding is aimed at targeting road resurfacing, construction and reconstruction in their design stages. Since roads are not re-built or even re-paved annually, GRG expects implementation to extend over the next 20 years.

"You can go in when road projects are coming up in the initial planning and design work. You accommodate for bike facilities in the first place," Antoine said. "It's pennies on the dollar. That's how we talked about doing it. It's just paint, basically."

As the project was wrapping up, GRG was already identifying road projects that could adopt bike-friendly changes.

"We were successful in getting some small projects going," Antoine said. "Since then, we've been working with St. Louis on implementing some early action projects."

Other areas identified by the Gateway bike plan began as early action projects, such as Clayton Road in Frontenac.

"What we're working for in 2012 is to keep track and monitor the progress and keep the community up to date," Antoine said.

Some local cyclists, though, are skeptical of any long-term plans, but agree that it's about time that something is done.

"It's long overdue," said Ed Foster of Sunset Cyclery. "But it's a start."

Foster has been in the bicycle industry for 20 years and does not believe St. Louis to be a bike-friendly city. He also is wary of any plan, since he has seen others produce ineffective results or fall through all together.

"I saw planning when I was 15," Foster said. "I'm 46 now, and there's still nothing."

However, Rhonda Smythe, policy specialist for Trailnet (a nonprofit instrumental in developing the plan), is confident the Gateway bike plan will be implemented. She does understand the concerns based on the current economic environment.

"With active participation from the beginning of the process, local municipalities have dedicated their commitment to make cycling an integral component of the regional transportation network," Smythe said in an email. "Based on what we've seen so far, the Gateway bike plan is going to have a significant impact on the St. Louis region."

Foster, though, also has concerns about the proposed facilities, citing other initiatives that have fallen short in the past.

"Drive along Watson Road," he added. "And tell me it's not the least intelligent thing to add a 'Share the Road' sign."

Foster's friend Dan Gauvain agrees with Foster's safety concerns. "Are they just going to paint or build a concrete barrier?" Gauvain asked.

The plan addresses safety concerns by providing educational classes for the public as well as municipal employees. During the drafting process, Trailnet brought in speakers who created similar plans in other cities. The key to safe riding, Smythe says, is education.

"Some people will never feel comfortable riding on Watson Road, no matter what kinds of improvements are made," she said. "That's why Trailnet also stresses the importance of cyclist education to help people gain the skills, confidence and experience necessary to effectively operate their vehicles on the road."

Ryan Schuessler, a journalism student at the University of Missouri Columbia, was a summer intern at the Beacon.