Slowing the Cars in St. Louis

Marielle Brown is a Strong Towns member who recently undertook an impressive tactical urbanism project in the city of St. Louis to help make streets safer. Today, she's sharing that story.

The Trailnet traffic calming team

The Trailnet traffic calming team

Like every U.S. city, St. Louis has a speeding problem. For years, St. Louis used stop signs and street closures to try to slow cars down. Residents and elected officials had asked for more effective ways of calming traffic, but the city said no to speed humps.

In 2012, when I moved to St. Louis to work for Trailnet, a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization, the conversation around traffic calming felt rote. Community members, elected officials, and advocates would point out the high rate of pedestrian fatalities in the City and look to successful traffic calming programs in other American cities using speed humps, miniature traffic circles, and bumpouts. City officials and engineers would remind us that there was no funding and that Missouri law was murky on traffic calming.

Each side was talking about what the street should look like, but we were not talking about why we wanted it that way. The people advocating for traffic calming wanted to make the streets great for walking, bicycling, and talking with neighbors. For us, the problem to be solved was speeding cars making it unsafe, and we saw the solution in copying the traffic calming that cities like Kansas City were installing.

But for our engineers, traffic calming seemed to exacerbate several of the problems they were officially tasked with solving. While they were charged with cutting costs, traffic calming meant new construction projects and made street cleaning more complicated. Instead of seeing traffic calming as reducing congestion and crashes, engineers viewed it as slowing cars down and putting obstacles in the streets for cars to hit. The Streets Department already routinely received complaints about anything that removed parking or slowed cars, and traffic calming promised to do both.

The advocates had answers to all of these objections, but none of them addressed the fundamental issue that we valued safety over cost and speed, while our engineers were trained to consider cost and speed as primary (and held to that standard by their job descriptions). Community members had politely asked for traffic calming, aldermen had proposed bills, and Trailnet had brought in experts for professional development on traffic calming, but none of us had effectively challenged the assumptions behind what a street is for.

So, in 2015, I worked with the Missouri Chapter of the American Planning Association and the Healthy Eating Active Living Partnership (HEAL) of St. Louis to get a grant from the American Planning Association (APA) that would allow us to test out temporary traffic calming and educate elected officials, city staff, and residents on street design. Working with the City of St. Louis and several partners, we tried out traffic calming in four different neighborhoods and made the following video to show the impact of traffic calming:

Since the traffic calming demonstrations last fall, we have had one intersection in front of a school completely overhauled. The City of St. Louis has also adopted an ordinance that will allow our engineers to use speed humps to slow traffic. Several aldermen have already set aside funding for traffic calming, and Trailnet continues to loan out the traffic calming equipment to neighborhoods interested in testing out new designs for their streets. As a community, we are working together to reimagine our streets as public spaces that are safe and enjoyable for people on foot and on bike.

If you want to learn more the technical details of the project, APA will be hosting a webinar with my colleague Grace Kyung on September 28. You can also download our guidebook for pop-up traffic calming, Slow Your Street: A How-To Guide For Pop-Up Traffic Calming.

Read more about Strong Towns' Slow the Cars campaign.

(All photos courtesy of Marielle Brown)

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Marielle (left) and her friend and colleague, Grace Kyung, featured in a Strong Towns membership meme.

Marielle (left) and her friend and colleague, Grace Kyung, featured in a Strong Towns membership meme.

About the author

Marielle Brown, AICP, is passionate about helping communities create lovable places that work for people of all ages and abilities. She is the Director of Policy and Strategy at Trailnet, in St. Louis, where she has worked on bicycle and pedestrian planning, transportation policy, and tactical urbanism. In addition to her planning work, she has first-hand experience with multi-modal transportation planning around the world through her experiences living in Beijing, Hiroshima, Paris, and Seoul. Marielle received her Master's in Urban and Regional Planning from Portland State University.