By Jim Zavist, AIA
One of the first things I discovered after I moved here in 2004 is that St. Louis has a lot of 4-way stops.Â Some appear to have replaced traffic signals, at intersections where the cost of maintaining them could no longer be justified (Jamieson & Fyler or Olive & Sutter, for example) – it makes sense given the city’s financial struggles over the past several decades.Â But there are many other locations where they seem to have been installed because someone (not a traffic engineer) convinced someone else in the city (likely the alderman) that doing so would make the neighborhood “safer” – Arsenal and Chippewa between Grand and Broadway are both classic examples*.Â A not-so-surprising discovery is that many people don’t actually stop at all our STOP signs, many just slow down, then keep going.
It turns out that one of the traffic engineers I worked with in Denver grew up in St. Louis and southern Illinois, and he enlightened me a bit on how things worked in an earlier time, after I sent him this picture:Â “In those days, the 1950â€™s, they used a lot of yellow stop signs and red ones they called boulevard stops.Â I think the idea was that the yellow ones were meant to be like a yield sign because you didnâ€™t have to stop at them unless there was cross traffic.Â I remember my grandpa hollering at my mom not to stop at stop signs because you didnâ€™t have to.Â It made her mad because he did not have a car nor a drivers license.”
My wife also informed me that one of her older, senior friends remembers when the standard practice at 4-way stops in St. Louis was two cars at time alternating, not just one, as is (supposed to be) current practice and law.Â Combine these two aberrations from current standards and practices, along with only token enforcement by the St. Louis Police and many people learning to drive/bad habits from their parents, it becomes easier to understand why a STOP signs here are viewed by many as only a suggestion!Â As both a relative newcomer and an occasional cyclist, I’d like to hear what natives have to say on this one – is it a quaint St. Louis tradition, a clash of generational values, or something else?
*Having become pretty active in neighborhood politics, I had suggested the addition of 4-way stops at certain Denver intersections.Â Since the city actually lets their traffic engineers design and manage a functional system, I quickly learned that 4-way stops are not the “preferred alternative”, that they were reserved for use almost exclusively at schools, where there would be a large amount of pedestrian traffic.Â The engineers found, as we see here, with 4-way stops, that a large number of drivers assume that the other driver will actually stop, so they can just slow down.Â They found, and secondary streets with moderate traffic, that alternating 2-way stops (E-W, N-S, E-W, N-S, etc.) was much more effective in both obtaining compliance and in balancing smooth traffic flow and safety than 4-way stops.
Local Architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.