Dangerous, fast-moving streets deplete our communities of wealth and prosperity — and often that cost is hitting the poorest neighborhoods the hardest. This article is the second in an ongoing conversation about this topic. Read the first piece here.
Of the 64 fatal pedestrian crashes over the last five years in St. Louis, Missouri, 45 have happened on the north side of the city (Source: State of Missouri). The continual rise of pedestrian deaths in poor neighborhoods, largely inhabited by people of color, has been a point of indifference in a city plagued by almost exclusively auto-oriented design.
The significant majority of these fatal crashes have happened along four main stroads in St. Louis. Stroads are defined as a street/road hybrids where high speed auto traffic mixes with pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. They have shaped the transportation culture of St. Louis (and many cities like it) into one that is auto-focused. The dangerous mix of high speed traffic across the city’s streets has led to unsafe conditions for pedestrians.
St. Louis has a long history of segregation and unequal resources. Manufacturing decline in the mid twentieth century disproportionately affected black residents, according to Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline. His outline of redlining also illustrates how restrictive covenants plagued much of North City. According to crash data, what is also inequitable in St. Louis is the placement and effects of its stroads. On the map above, you can see where 12 deaths occurred on just one street, Natural Bridge. Another three pedestrian fatalities have happened at a single intersection of North Broadway and Christian Ave.
The map is striking because the correlation between fatal pedestrian crashes does not seem to follow population density or traffic patterns, but rather a stark economic and racial line.
Desperately in Need of Safe Ways to Cross
A recent KSDK segment highlighted these poorly designed stroads and the detrimental effects they have on safety. In it, the Director of the Streets Department, Jamie Wilson, was quoted as saying the burden of responsibility is “a two way street.” (Wilson previously served as Bicycle/ Pedestrian Coordinator, a position that has been vacant in St. Louis since September of 2017, despite growing need.)
The section of Natural Bridge discussed in the piece is home to several bus stops, small businesses, bike lanes, a grocery store, Fairground Park, and Beaumont High School — and as a result, it’s full of people walking. Yet despite all of this activity, crosswalks are few and far between.
Doletha Hudson, mentioned in the KSDK video above was tragically struck crossing Natural Bridge near the Lambdin intersection, while she attempted to reach a bus stop on the other side of the street. Unfortunately, the section of the road she was on stretches for 9/10ths of a mile between crossings. From where she was standing, she would have had to walk almost a mile to the stoplight and back to safely cross — at least a twenty minute detour.
This scenario is hardly an outlier. Most crossings on North Broadway sit more than a half mile apart. A section of South Grand requires pedestrians to travel a half mile to safely get from a heavily used bus stop to the popular grocery store just across the street.
Most notably, at the intersection of North Broadway and Christian Ave (mentioned above), three people have lost their lives trying to cross the busy, five-lane Broadway. Another four crashes have resulted in injuries at the same site.
Thanks to an agreement by the city, new sidewalks are being put in at the nearby business district of Baden, which will narrow the street and make progress toward slowing traffic. However, despite the number of severe crashes, Christian Ave remains without a safe way to cross.
I asked James, a resident of North City near Natural Bridge, about the situation for pedestrians in his neighbrhood, and found that he also felt the streets were a poor design. He was not hopeful about a solution. “The streets are so wide, and the traffic is so fast. I don’t really know what can be done,” he said.
Outside Goody Goody Diner, an infamously delicious favorite in North City along Natural Bridge, I chatted with more residents about barriers for pedestrians. One man, who preferred to be referred to as Q, had been personally affected. Someone he knew had been hit in the area last year, sustaining several injuries. “People will be going 100 miles per hour. I don’t know how you slow that down.”
A Divided City, in More Ways than One
The infrastructure of St. Louis utilizes an auto-oriented development scheme typical of many Midwestern, industrial cities. It is split open by interstate highways, separating its downtown from its historical riverfront. It’s developed along a network of five lane roads, often intending to serve busy bus lines with 40 mph+ traffic, infrequent crosswalks, and disappearing bike lanes.
Other geographic divides split the city beyond architectural design. “The Delmar Divide” is a well-known cultural barrier, separating North and South City. The dividing line is so named by a main road running East/West through the city center. These two halves of St. Louis often act as separate entities, with many residents in the south wholly ignoring the top half of their own town.
The existence of this divide was illustrated recently by a popular running and bike tracking app called Strava. When the company released its heat maps of user activity, the stark line in St. Louis was shared many times on social media. The 24th ward Alderman, Scott Ogilvie, a well-known cycling advocate, responded on Twitter to the viral map. “A Strava heatmap shows where people are using Strava. Not where people are walking or biking,” he stated, importantly pointing out that reports from one app is not a large enough data pool to draw conclusions from. Yet, the image is startling.
North St. Louis is known for being economically stifled, having limited resources due to redlining and an epidemic of gun violence. While the socioeconomic facts do little to paint a cultural picture of the people who live and make a home there, it does provide an insightful background to the disproportionate danger of walking in North City, especially along the four main stroads — Natural Bridge, Broadway, Kingshighway and North Grand. Each of which, have claimed 30 lives just in the last five years alone.
All of this is not to say that stroads are only located in impoverished areas, or that all impoverished areas are only in North City. Indeed, South City has an ample amount of stroads, and the dangerous walking and riding conditions they bring. Gravois and South Morganford each accounted for two pedestrian deaths over the last two years.
Many of these accidents tend to occur at night. Unsurprisingly, many stroads also lack proper street lighting. While traffic signal lights can cost anywhere between $250- $500,000 according to WSDOT, street lamps cost just a few thousand dollars to implement. Stop signs are even less expensive, averaging just $511.
Several intersections also lack proper crossing paint, to indicate for cars to expect pedestrians. High visibility crosswalks can help limit accidents. They also have the benefit of alerting pedestrians of the proper crossing point. Catherine Gilbert, a trained urban planner in St. Louis City, explains, “Crosswalks are important. They make people feel safe and are actually proven to improve yielding behavior of drivers. For a relatively low cost, we can drastically improve the both feeling of safety, and actual safety of people in our city. Seems worth it, right?"
A myriad of small steps — from adding crosswalks to installing additional lights — could make a world of difference for pedestrian safety and livability in St. Louis neighborhoods. And yet, most of it is completely ignored.
In Need of an Advocate
Despite the work of advocacy and safety groups in the city, City Hall lacks a true advocate for pedestrian and bicycling safety. Despite having created a Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator position in 2015 — once seen as a major win for a long term change in the car culture — the position has now been vacant for over seven months.
The original job listing had a strict engineering requirement, leaving many qualified urban planners and public health officials unfit to apply. A small coalition of people (including me), wrote a letter to the city after research showed that, of at least 27 other cities in the nation with a Bike/ Pedestrian Coordinator position, not one had an engineering requirement. Now the job posting has since been taken down with no solutions proposed.
During the research for that letter, I had the chance to talk to Bicycle/ Pedestrian Coordinator for Indianapolis, Jamison Hutchins. Indianapolis is a similar Midwestern city, with just over double the population of St. Louis. In recent years, the city has made large strides in bike and pedestrian focused design with projects like the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. They have also initiated a thorough Pedestrian Plan.
Hutchins came from a public health background, not an engineering one. “I don’t need to be an engineer to do what I do,” he said. He also stated that he often draws from his experiences biking year round when making decisions in his job. When asked, he said, “I don’t call myself a cyclist, but I bike everyday.” This is a sentiment echoed in one of Strong Town’s most popular pieces.
St. Louis is lacking a comprehensive pedestrian safety plan, despite the 1,189 pedestrian crashes of varying severities that have happened over the last five years (Source: State of Missouri). A request for comment on the disparity and updates about the position went unanswered by City Hall and the Streets Department. Meanwhile, pedestrian safety is a growing public safety issue — one that impacts our city's most vulnerable residents the most.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aubrey Byron is a writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. She began engaging with public space as a cyclist and spends much of her free time trying to inspire more women and non-binary people to be comfortable on bikes through the advocacy of a local nonprofit, The Monthly Cycle. Aubrey works in development at St. Louis Public Radio. She is also passionate about outdoor adventure and reading.