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Pedestrian Deaths In St. Louis Nearly Doubled In 2020, Fueling New Push For Safer Streets

St. Louis' Community Mobility Committee wants to make area roads better for everyone, including cyclists as well as those walking, using a wheelchair or riding transit.
Jacque Knight
St. Louis' Community Mobility Committee wants to make area roads better for everyone, including cyclists as well as those walking, using a wheelchair or riding transit.

This past fall, St. Louis on the Air took a close look at what author Angie Schmitt has described as a “silent epidemic” of pedestrian deaths. Across the U.S., more and more people have lost their lives in recent years while simply walking around their community or attempting to cross the street.

Locally, the statistics are sobering: In 2020, a total of 22 pedestrian deaths occurred in St. Louis. That’s nearly double the 12 pedestrian fatalities the city saw in 2019. And last year’s uptick comes at a time of less driving and significantly fewer vehicles on the road.

City resident Pete Henry, who is an avid cyclist and pedestrian as well as someone who regularly drives a van around the region for his job, is disturbed by the numbers. But he said he’s also not shocked given what he’s observed on area roadways in recent months.

“I’m [seeing] people do insane things,” Henry said. “I’ll be at a stoplight and my light will turn green, and it’ll have been green for a while, and someone just comes ripping through the intersection. And it’s like, I don’t know how [even] more traffic accidents, just car accidents, don’t happen more, much less pedestrian accidents.”

Jacque Knight, a multimodal planner who chairs St. Louis’ Community Mobility Committee, shares Henry’s concerns. During the pandemic, she said, “Roadways essentially became much larger, much bigger spaces for these motorists to not abide by the traffic laws and to travel, in some respect, with disregard to other modes of transportation that are out there.”

Multimodal planner Jacque Knight chairs the Community Mobility Committee.
Jacque Knight
Multimodal planner Jacque Knight chairs the Community Mobility Committee.

But Knight also sees a silver lining from the events of the past year. She said that having a taste of fewer cars on the road has made people interested in taking back their streets for cycling, walking and even green space.

The Community Mobility Committee hopes to build on energy for such solutions.

“While we traditionally have been planning our roadways, at least since the advent of the automobile, for cars to travel from point A to point B,” Knight said, “one way to think about it is to really kind of switch that idea of planning and think about planning our roadways for our most vulnerable road users.”

So many crashes, she said, could be prevented by “a little bit better roadway design” and more attention to different modes.

The Community Mobility Committee formally became an advisory group for the city in March 2020. One of its early successes last spring was getting a workzone mobility ordinance passed by the Board of Aldermen.

“We’ve all seen the construction that’s taking place in St. Louis [and] I think it’s really exciting. … But oftentimes bikes and pedestrians get left out of the mix when looking at routes around and through construction zones,” Knight said. “[Now] when construction is taking place on buildings adjacent to the public right of way or within the public right of way, [contractors] need to provide some sort of safe path of travel for pedestrians and cyclists either through or around the construction zone.”

The committee’s current efforts include “Open Streets” initiatives, which temporarily close street areas to motorists, and “parklets.” The latter involves turning street space that is typically reserved for on-street motor vehicle parking into public space for pedestrians and passersby.

The mobility committee currently includes 31 people and is still recruiting. Knight urged those interested in getting involved or sharing opinions and ideas to get in touch and learn more on the group’s webpage.

Listeners also called or wrote into the show with their own ideas for improving conditions, ranging from lowering speed limits and increasing enforcement of traffic laws to requiring drivers to retake a driving test when their license is up for renewal.

Denis Beganovic wrote on the talk show’s Facebook page: “[We need a] dedicated funding source and a five-year list of improvements. In the city (and county) we are always flying blind and being reactive to pedestrian issues; only after a few murders of pedestrians does a location just begin to be talked about. That doesn’t work; we need to be proactive, have a plan and fund it. There are plenty of capable transportation planners in the City that want to help.”

Mary Fitzgerald wrote in saying she sees a need more, and better, driver education.

“In 1996 while crossing Clayton Road at Lindbergh, my father was killed by a teen driver,” Fitzgerald wrote. “He had commuted by bike and Bi State to teach at [St. Louis University] for 30 years. [We need to] plan with transit commuters in mind. Our school children need the safe routes to school program. City planning includes their routes! We need to change the ethos to a community of drivers who put pedestrian and cyclist safety first. Like Portland.”

Resident Brian McCary suggested the region install “graceful, beautiful pedestrian bridges over wide, high-volume streets, to encourage more mobility.”

“A good starting point would be crossing points over the major roads around Forest Park — Kingshighway, Clayton and Forest Park Parkway, on the northwest corner as well as the I-64 ramps in the Hi-Pointe area,” McCary said. “This idea could be applied other places as well, but this would let bikers move along bikeways and not have to stop and wait to cross these wide thoroughfares, and would give slow walkers all the time they need to cross.”

Others weighed in on Twitter.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.