Liane Constantine and her 6-year-old son, Ashton, live about half a mile from where he takes taekwondo classes in a small strip mall in Kirkwood. It would be easy enough to walk there, if only they could safely cross Manchester Road.
“ … I’d have to grab him by the hand and say ‘run when we don’t see any cars’,” she said, standing on the unpaved street corner that doesn’t have a crosswalk. Instead, they’re forced to drive, unnecessary as it seems.
The difficulty in traveling even short distances without a car prompted Constantine to ask our Curious Louis project why sidewalks are often so few and far between in St. Louis County.
Auto-centric street design has divided where people live from the rest of community life for nearly 70 years, according to St. Louis County Planning Director Justin Carney.
Municipal zoning ordinances since the end of WWII most often dictated minimum lot sizes and excluded any development other than single-family homes, Carney said, segregating dwellings from other elements of communities like coffee shops, theaters or martial arts studios.
“As the county developed through the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, it was very car-oriented. The land use pattern, the emphasis wasn’t on walkability. It was on separating those uses,” he said.
The term “walkability” is a measure of how easy it is for residents to walk to basic necessities such as grocery stores, parks, doctors’ offices or libraries. In addition to sidewalks and crosswalks, other factors determining walkability include access to public transit, building accessibility and public safety. The term is also a measure of how comfortable and interesting the walk is for pedestrians.
Still, some areas of the county, especially older communities, are pretty good for walkability, said Carney.
“You see that in the Maplewoods, and the Shrewsburys. You see that in downtown Kirkwood as an existing community. You see that in Overland that has a very downtown, mainstreet sort of segment” he said.
Where the sidewalk ends
But on whole, the hodgepodge of zoning and land-use ordinances among the county’s 90 municipalities have complicated efforts to improve the sidewalk situation, he said.
“Sometimes you’ll see some patchwork of that where we’ve gotten a new development that put a sidewalk in that’s surrounded on both sides from developments that haven’t been redeveloped,” Carney said. “So there’s a little bit of ‘where the sidewalk ends’ nature to that.”
Addressing where the sidewalk ends also depends on figuring out who has jurisdiction on a particular street.
Marielle Brown, director of policy and strategy for Trailnet, a local nonprofit that works to boost foot and bike traffic, said what’s lacking in pedestrian infrastructure is often rooted in the limits of the municipality or the county or whoever owns the road.
“So maybe you’re in Maplewood. Not all the roads in Maplewood are owned by Maplewood. Some of them are owned by the county and then some of them are owned by MoDOT (Missouri Department of Transportation). So there might be different design standards, or maintenance standards or different budgets ...,” she said.
'Great Streets' push
According to East-West Gateway’s website, the initiative takes a collaborative approach to prioritize planning and resources for greater walkability.
“Rather than viewing a roadway project as solely a way to move more cars and trucks faster, the goal of the St. Louis Great Streets Initiative is to trigger economic and social benefits by centering communities around interesting, lively and attractive streets that serve all modes of transportation,” the site says.
One of the effort’s recent examples is Natural Bridge Road in Normandy, which reduced lanes for cars, widened sidewalks and improved landscaping and lighting.
But Carney and Brown both agree that retrofitting streets for pedestrians is not always the solution in areas where driving dominates. In many places, the scale of a road is too vast and population density is too low, Carney said.
“You’re not just going to put bike lanes everywhere for the sake of having bike lanes. You’re not just going to put sidewalks everywhere. It’s incumbent upon us to look at where does it make sense? Where do we have some of — we like to say, ‘This community has some bones we can build on.’ Certainly, running sidewalks along long stretches in a very suburban context may not be appropriate,” he said.
Brown adds that an even bigger challenge involves changing attitudes about where we live.
“It’s just important that we start thinking about our streets as public places, as places that people will love and identify as where they belong and not just a car driving through,” she said.
The benefits of better walkability on public health, economic growth and community identity are well worth the effort, she said.
Follow Joseph Leahy on Twitter: @joemikeleahy
This project is part of our collaborative reporting project Curious Louis. What do you wonder about St. Louis or its people that you would like St. Louis Public Radio to investigate? Ask your question in the form below. (If the form doesn't load, find it here.)