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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Open the Streets or Close Them?

St. Louis Open Streets kicked off on May 1. Most accounts of it call it a qualified success; qualified in that there could be several improvements the next go-around. A shorter or different route? Better advertising? And how to handle speeding cyclists? The success part comes from showing St. Louisans their city from afoot and doing so from the normally dangerous space where fast vehicular traffic usually courses. It's a great respite for a pedestrian. No curb cuts to worry about; fewer opportunities for collisions, and pedestrians and cyclists all around.

 Open Streets, on Locust Street, in downtown St. Louis. Photo courtesy of St. Louis Energized.

At the same time Open Streets were debuting in St. Louis, a road long closed to vehicles was anticipating a reunion with them. North 14th Street in Old North St. Louis now has curbs and bare tree wells; a paved street, which will allow cars for the first time in almost 40 years, will appear soon.

14th "Street" is starting to look the part! Photo courtesy of Old North St. Louis.

So which is it? Should we "open" or "close" our streets? Notice the cross-definitions here; 14th Street was closed to vehicles in the 1970s whereas Locust, Manchester, and Lindell, among others, were opened to pedestrians on May 1.

I say we do both! Open Streets is a great event that should become a semi-regular thing. Hosting it too often stifles the mystique to participants who find it a novelty to be able to walk calmly along major roads. Without constant programming, such events will inevitably thin out.

While most observers regarded Open Streets as a progressive move by the city and by the event's sponsors, so too is the long awaited re-opening of 14th Street in Old North advancing our city. The strange irony is that, for the benefit of pedestrians, cars should be on a lot more streets in St. Louis than they currently are even encouraged to go. An urban, traditional street grid works best because it gives the pedestrian and the motorist multiple options for making the same trip. This has implications for the sauntering pedestrian who might stumble upon a new corner store that she'll then patronize regularly as well as the emergency vehicle whose driver can choose to bypass a busy intersection's bottleneck by maneuvering down some minor streets. (Whenever we urbanists complain that tourists or suburbanites or who have you never see the "real" St. Louis, we need to realize that the city is hiding its best assets behind road blocks and private streets).

While closing off streets with barriers and bollards and such seems like a great idea for pedestrians, it actually renders streets semi-private and much too quiet for comfort.

Restoring St. Louis's street grid by re-opening streets to through-traffic (I'm looking at you, Forest Park Southeast, Shaw, and others!) will bring about connections that are currently unrealized. The fewer disruptions in both pedestrian and vehicular transportation networks, the better. It gives us all more options and allows us to more easily and more safely explore and traverse neighborhoods.

Our major roads could see traffic eased up a bit as drivers filter into neighborhoods now considered, unjustly, "off the beaten path". Combined with Complete Streets legislation, recently introduced in the City by Alderman Shane Cohn, these major streets could better accommodate pedestrians trying to use/cross them as well! This would be an equitable network that could encourage pedestrian-oriented development on all roads while simultaneously not restricting vehicles--except on those exciting, every-once-in-a-while Open Streets events!

We need to re-assess policies that keep vehicles from winding through our great quilt of neighborhoods, because a lot of explorers and admirers would otherwise arrive on four wheels. Confining noise, traffic, and pollution to a handful of large arterials is only doing a disservice to our city. These streets (Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, Grand, etc.) become the face of our city to most; and not even a great street like Grand is without its unforgivably autocentric gaps. We can change this by depressurizing the stress we put on these few roads and opening the grid to all. Close the streets to any and all vehicles a couple times a year? Sure! Otherwise, open them all up to everyone.

Open the streets and close them!


Anonymous said...
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Justin said...

I definitely agree. I lived in Shaw and it was a nightmare getting from one place to another in the neighborhood. Luckily, I could often just take 39th to Chouteau, but when I needed to get off/on Grand, I always went out of my way to get home. If I hadn't lived there I would be perpetually lost. Open up the streets!

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