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This might explain a few things . . .

April 8, 2009 Guest, Transportation 32 Comments

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.  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.  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*.  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:  “In those days, the 1950’s, they used a lot of yellow stop signs and red ones they called boulevard stops.  I think the idea was that the yellow ones were meant to be like a yield sign because you didn’t have to stop at them unless there was cross traffic.  I remember my grandpa hollering at my mom not to stop at stop signs because you didn’t have to.  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.  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!  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.  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.  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.  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.

  • dumb me

    In a traditional neighborhood street grid arrangement, with blocks and alleys like St. Louis, there are literally thousands of intersections. It’s nothing like a cul-de-sac suburban area with a only a fraction of the number of intersections per the same amount of developed area.

    On our streets, we can’t have drivers entering blind intesections from both streets with each having the right of way without a stop sign. Then there would be more accidents than we have now, and much more serious ones.

    Stop signs work more like speed bumps, they slow people down just enough to make it safe. As you become more familiar with the area, you know the difference between the critical “stop” corners, and those you can crawl through with a St. Louis rolling stop.

    The practice is a quaint tradition that is practical for our quaint and charming historic neighborhood street grid. What I like is when out of towners, often more familiar with the suburban cul de sac street layout, panic as a St. Louis driver does rolling stop after rolling stop. Then its a fun, quaint tradition, offering the moment to describe the unique nature of St. Louis. Dumb me.

  • Nameless

    My car has a standard transmission and without double clutching/rev matching to get into first gear, I have to stop to select first gear. The speeds for a St. Louis stop are too slow for second gear in my car, so considering that I value it, I have to use first gear. It seems like I will get rear-ended eventually… so many impatient drivers…
    .
    I could very easily go off on a racist tangent here, but I won’t… yet.
    .
    I also agree that most stop signs aren’t evaluated engineering-wise, it’s just some nancy who convinces her/his alderman that a stop sign is a good idea… On a similar note, take a look at the stop sign in front of Cleveland High School; come on street department, eliminate it already!

  • Linsey

    Maybe this helps explain what my husband and I call the “St. Louis wave-through.” That’s when someone who has obviously been at a stop sign longer than you, inexplicably waves you through. Its our pet-peeve as newcomers in a neighborhood flooded by stopsigns. But that wasn’t answering your question.

    Its taken me 5 years, but just over the past month or so I’ve rolled through a few stop signs. Its a little addicting, especially with a manual transmission.

  • http://south-city-musings.blogspot.com Bridgett

    My mom always called 4-way stops boulevard stops, and she’s from St. Louis. I always wondered why…

  • dumb me

    I think it’s wonderful. I especially love the times when rolling through a stop, I see a cop down at the other end of the block. I wonder, is he going to write me a ticket?

    Then I am comforted in the knowledge that we are a union of the good people. If you go slow and respect the tradition, the cops usually look the other way. They know what’s going on, and good citizens rolling through stops is part of St. Louis.

    This tradition of course depends on where you are in the city. Rolling through a touristy area or hospital zone with lots of pedestrian traffic like the CWE is much more likely to get you a citation than rolling through a sleepy neighborhood street with no one around.

  • Jerry A

    I can’t stand the wave-through. Sometimes I’ll position my head so I appear to not be able to see the wave, and I’ll out-wait the other person. I know they’re being courteous, but we have right-of-way laws, and I’m afraid that one day, I’ll get waved through, and have some kind of accident in the intersection. If it turns out that I violated a right-of-way, I’ll be the one getting a ticket, and that’s not right.

    Also, I can’t stand the two-cars-go-through a stop. This happens to me often at the 4-way at Jamieson and Lindenwood. I’m turning left at the park after a car comes across the intersection, and another car sneaks through behind him. And it’s not old people doing it. What is that? The sign doesn’t mean you have to stop only once for the intersection, no matter how far back you were!

  • dumb me

    This thread is quickly turning into one about the bad habits of St. Louis drivers. No doubt about it, we are the worst. We St. Louisians are by our nature overly courteous.

    I think this is all a part of the dominant Catholic culture. Whether driving a car or doing other things, we are always deferring to the next person. It’s an interesting pattern in need of much further study.

  • john

    My wife also drives our manual transmission which requires a non-StL stop but she got a ticket for supposedly running a stop sign. The officer threatened to keep her driving license. Favoritism (“Cops know what’s going on, and good citizens rolling through stops is part of St. Louis.”) is not good public policy.
    – –
    I question this excuse for the reason why StL drivers drive the way they do. Just because something supposedly happen over 50 years ago has little logic in explaining current behavior unless you can link genetics with failing to respect STOP signs. Rolling through stops with manual transmissions becomes addictive when shifting to first gear is considered too inconvenient. Running STOP signs is neither quaint or charming.

  • Jim

    St. Louis traffic policy is similar to its other policies – outdated and useless. I would like to know what it takes to get pulled over in St. Louis. I’ve witnessed people going through red lights, stop signs, and speeding (35 is too high a speed limit on any city street to begin with, people), right by a police officer and NO TICKET. I have seen a lot of African-Americans pulled over, but not sure what for.

  • dumb me

    I have seen a lot of people of all different colors stopped and given warnings or tickets. I also waited nearly two hours for a police officer to show up when I was involved in a very minor accident on a parking lot.

    Multiple cops drove past the lot, but none ever stopped. They probably figured it was either too minor to worry about, or they had no jurisdiction on a parking lot.

    It’s easy to chide the way things are done in St. Louis. Whether the policies don’t make sense, aren’t charming, or quaint. The thing to remember is, these practices have developed over a hundred plus years. There are usually sensible, common sense reasons for most of the things that happen here.

    Valet parking rules? Maybe not so much. Private tow lot operators run amok? Yeah, that’s a serious problem. Ridding St. Louis of the St. Louis rolling stop, don’t count on it.

    When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in St. Louis, same rule applies. Would it make sense to move to Rome and try to change how they do things? So why should St. Louisans be expected to change? (Notice the common Roman Catholic connection?)

  • studs lonigan

    Local cops don’t pop nearly as many crummy drivers as they could. Observe, my gawd, the intersection of S. Kingshighway and Arsenal. With school buses parked there in the afternoon and the Walgreen’s infestation on the corner, it’s positively dangerous. Add to this that there is no left turn onto Kingshighway north when eastbound on Arsenal. Still, some dickhead is always holding everyone up to do precisely that. The other day it happened while a cop was directly behind the scofflaw trying to turn! You’d think a cop would pounce at this, but he just sat there like a hammer hit him and didn’t make a move. It’s a drag to have to sit through that long light two times or more because of this.

  • Steveo

    Our city would be better and safer with many, many fewer stop signs (and stop lights).

  • Steveo

    To elaborate: stop signs can and are ignored quite often. Other traffic calming measures such as tabletop intersections and bumpouts should be used – they’re unavoidable.

  • Jim Zavist

    Every region has its own idiosyncracies. In the northeast (NYC, Boston) most lane markings are viewed as optional, especially with the acceptance of double parking – squeezing happens. In Denver, as long as you enter a signalized intersection before the light turns red, you have the right of way – during busier times at major intersections, you expect/need to wait before going on the green. In southern California, the normal traffic flow on any freeway is well above the posted limit, when things are moving.

    Obviously, the rolling stop is a local tradition with same basis in reality. The two major challenges are that it doesn’t match what much of the rest of the country does, and, more importantly, not everyone is following the same set of rules or expectations. We have wavers and we have rollers. We have too many drivers who are paying minimal attention (cell phones!) and we have more than a few cyclists who assume the rules don’t apply to them. Personally, I think Chicago may have a better answer in its residential neighborhoods – two-way stops with YIELD signs instead of four-way stops with STOP signs. The end result is essentially the same, and you have less confusion.

    As for not getting pulled over in the city, I’d chalk a whole lot of that up to limited resources and other priorities, combined with minimizing the opportunities for getting shot and/or having to go to court. I even heard one cop on the radio explaining that a lot of traffic stops are used as a pretense to make contact with a vehicle and/or its occupants (and that’s why they were opposed to red light cameras) – the actual violation seemed to be a secondary issue. And, dumb me, to make it clear, I’m not advocating for uncontrolled intersections; I just think we have way too many 4-way ones, when 2-way ones would be less confusing.

  • Don

    As a scooter rider, I hate the rolling stop. Too often, those doing the rolling aren’t looking closely enough at the cross traffic. Too many times, I’ve nearly gotten hit by motorists who take the rolling stop as an excuse not to look.

    But it cuts both ways! I’ve nearly slammed into bicyclists who don’t stop either! Coming south on Tower Grove, one fine morning, I was waiting at the light to turn left onto Clayton. Just as the light turns green, and I begin to pull away into the intersection, a bicyclist flies by me on the right, and cuts in front of me, turning left. He was headed full-tilt into a red light, and had no intention of stopping, and was surprised when the light turned green, and I began moving. I came within inches if slamming into him. And he had the gall to yell at me, as though I were in the wrong.

    I hate the rolling stop with a passion, and those who defend it. The rolling stop is not quant, is not tradition, is not courteous, it’s dangerous, full stop.

  • Dennis

    dumb me, I don’t think St. Louis drivers are overly curtious. They are overly stupid. The wave thru thing is just because it’s easier for some people to just wave the other guy thru rather than decide who has the right of way.

  • Becker

    I’m sure there are plenty of stop signs that were installed just because someone thought cars were going too fast on their street. An alderman once told me that he regularly had to educate people as to the purpose of stop signs as they thought they were for slowing cars down or “just because”.

    I don’t really mind the St. Louis rolling stop. I know it can be annoying to some to see others only “kind of” obeying the law. But if someone slows down as they approach a stop sign, sees that no one else is around who would have the right of way, and continues on – the sign has done its job. The right of way was established. Whether they slow down to look around or do the 1-Mississippi 2-Mississippi stop makes little difference in my mind.

    Just get them off their damn cell phones.

  • Becker

    Oh and Don I’ve had that happen to me more than once. I know urbanists hate to hear this, but there are more a than a few bicyclist who insist that driving laws don’t apply to them.

  • laughing at you!

    I read this blog religiously and find it to be very informational (including the comments). I must confess, though, that I often come away thinking ‘this is the crabbiest bunch of people I ever met!’

    Now I’m reading about people who are ‘infuriated’ because another driver waves to them and gives them the right of way….hilarious! And clearly I’m right—this is a crabby bunch.

  • atorch

    Jamieson and Fyler never had a signal, even the next block where there is a signal now (I-44) at one time never even had a stop sign! I enjoy watching two locals both roll through stop signs and hit each other at about 5 mph, I have seen it happen 3 times in the past year on Jamieson….it’s kind of like watching slow-motion crash-up derby……roll on St. Louis…

  • Darrin

    John, I drive a manual transmission, and a rolling a stop is not required because of it. Maybe you should buy your wife an automatic if it’s too diffcult to safely drive a stick?

    And to those that like to tailgate and wave their arms as if suffering from a seizure behind me as I drive the speed limit AND come to complete stops at all stop signs along McCausland, Jamieson, etc.? It only encourages me.
    :D

  • john

    Darrin exactly my point… she comes to a complete stop as IT IS a manual. What can’t you understand? She like me has only used a manual transmission. Between us we have 70 years of driving without a violation until a StL cop decides he wants to write a ticket and has nothing better to do. The speeding laws are being violated here by most drivers on virtually every street. In our neighborhood, the posted speed is 20 mph and I witness drivers going over 50 mph passing other cars and doing it on the wrong side of the road.
    – –
    Drivers here are terrible and the police obviously assumes that “everyone” rolls through STOP signs, it is a Lou habit. Few in the USA drive the speed limit (latest poll show that 75% drivers readily admit such) as indiscretions have minor consequences. The truck driver who ran over ten cars last year (killing three and injuring another 15) was driving over 75 mph (along with the other speeders) on 64 according to witnesses.
    – –
    Yes way too many 4-way STOPs but roundabouts are too complicated for StL drivers since they require drivers’ attention… too taxing when trying to swallow down that BigGulp while talking on the cell phone. At least a stop allows both without guilt or much attention to driving responsibilities.

  • samizdat

    In the eleven blocks on Meramec between Broadway and Grand there are eight stop signs. Just because some yahoo psycho-mommy or some such other busy-body asked their alderman to install one “because those speeders are crazy”. Well, the speeders ignore the signs, and so do the 12, 13, 14 and 15 yr old whelps who just stole a car to go joy-riding. Frankly, the willful ignorance shown by dumb me, laughing at you, et al, is one of the reasons the City (and region, for that matter) are 50 years behind the rest of the country. “Well, that’s just the way it’s always been done” is not an excuse to stick your stupid head up inside your ass. My brothers are both City dwellers, and like me, are not “natives”, which means, basically, that the “natives” don’t like anybody telling them how to run “their” City. However, they often take the same position of these same posters when the subject of police scofflaws who can’t even be bothered to follow the same laws they are SWORN to enforce arises: “Well, it’s just how it’s always been”. Frankly, I find myself thinking about those cops who break laws (however minor), and I wonder, “Hmm, if he/she is so quick to violate those laws, what’s keeping them from taking bribes from a drug dealer, or looking the other way with a C-note tucked into their palm by an unscrupulous merchant?” How many of St. Louis’ “finest” have already taken that step and crossed the line? I mean, their oversight is in the hands of the state, and the state doesn’t give a flying f*** about the City. We pay them and they disrespect us and abuse the law. I believe a large part of the problem is because of this attitude that “it’s just the the way it is”. The disregard for the law in our country is becoming an endemic problem. From the very top of corporate, institutional, and governmental organisations to the driver on the street and the cop on the beat, our country seems to be disintigrating. Sometimes the status quo, and the attitudes supporting it, needs to be discarded and replaced. Screed over.

  • Jim

    Agreed Samizdat. The more people I meet in this town, the more I dislike it. Financially a town outsiders do not like is not sustainable in the global economy. People don’t need to change, they just need to understand that and stop complaining when their city continues to fall apart at the seams.

  • aaron.levi

    trying to get east-west across south saint louis can be a real headache. when i’m driving down arsenal from jefferson to sublette to get to the Y in the morning, i have to pass through about 2 dozen stop signs and 10 or so stop lights. the jefferson to gravois section is probalby the worst….and at 4:45am, i don’t mind rolling through most of the stop signs, and a couple of the stop lights as well.

    Southside is in serious need of a couple of east-west, limited stop, through ways. chippewa and arsenal would be 2 great options. getting north-south is no problem as grand/jefferson/kingshighway/broadway have all been designed to keep traffic flowing (assumably because these streets connect to the interstates).

    don’t even get me started on trying to ride a motorcycle across teh south side….a truly obnoxious experience.

  • Eric

    I’d also like to comment on another strange St Louis driving practice that almost got me into numerous accidents the first few years I lived here. In every other city I’ve ever driven in, when you are making a left turn at a light without an arrow, you pull forward into the intersection, wait for the light to turn yellow or red, then make your left when the oncoming traffic stops. However, in St Louis many intersections turn red in one direction but stay green for oncoming traffic. I have no idea why this is the case, nor have I found anyone from St Louis that thinks it is odd, nor anyone NOT from St Louis that hasn’t almost gotten hit turning left 3 or 4 times because of it.

  • john

    Rolling STOPs are not unique to StL, in fact the habit has become an integral part of the car culture in other cities as well. “Selective Perception” Rules! A study showed that bicyclists come to a complete stop only 7 percent of the time, it also showed that motorists stop completely only 22 percent of the time. http://blog.oregonlive.com/commuting/2009/04/so_you_think_cyclists_are_the.html

  • Eric

    To be fair, many states are considering passing laws that would turn stop signs into yield signs for bicyclists.

  • john

    STOP signs and the related administrative responsibilities (ie. numerous problems) are a direct result of the dependence on 3500+ lb motorized vehicles to move a 200 lb person. The inexpensive and healthy alternative is a 20 lb bike and few intersections would need STOP signs if most would be willing to sacrifice noise, pollution and laziness for health and civility. Cyclists have logical and sound reasons to roll a STOP but most drivers do not as they are operating a lethal weapon. Rolling STOPs are not at all unique to StL region but this issue demonstrates how divisive and dangerous communities become when the Car Culture Rules.

  • Jimmy Z

    john – explain why, when, last weekend, at a 4-way stop (I was driving EB on Pernod at Jamieson), as I stopped, waited for vehicles both NB and SB on Jamieson to stop, then proceeded through the intersection, a NB male bicyclist blew the stop in front of me (his female companion slowed down). When I yelled at him “You’re supposed to stop”, I received the standard “F you!” response. Apparently I was supposed to yield to him? Even though I had the right-of-way?!

    Hey, I’m a cyclist, as well as a motorist, so I “get it”. I’ve rolled many a stop on my bike, slowing down and looking both ways. I even don’t get too energized when I see other cyclists doing it when I’m driving – I understand momentum. But I draw the line when they attempt to become hood ornaments, especially on my car! If all the cars are stopped, you gotta have a minor death wish if you both slide by them on the right AND blow a STOP sign or a red light!

    And, unfortunately, as cyclists, we’re both outnumbered and outweighed, so yes, we gotta play the rules of the “Car Culture”. And no, a car-free world would not eliminate all need for traffic control – whether it’s painted centerlines or STOP or YIELD signs, there will always be locations where choice can’t be left up to individuals. The key issue remains “civility” – respect for others will go a loooong way to making driving or riding better for all of us . . .

  • john

    Yes JZ cyclists should stop when other vehicles are at a STOP. Cycling alone won’t prevent jerks and I never suggested that having everyone cycling would eliminate intersection stopping requirements. It is “respect for others” whether the other is a cyclists or a driver that should rule. But you cannot deny that it is easier for a driver to remain hidden than it is for a cyclist. As individuals, cyclists remain visible while drivers have tinted windows to avoid identification.
    – –
    Playing “dare you” games on a large scale began when the car culture took control. The police were at a serious disadvantage when trying to catch an auto driver (who could go faster and further) then they could on their horses.
    – –
    Since you “get it” you know we have become seriously unbalanced by becoming autocentric. Our streets have become zones of battle and “dare ya” games are being played by cyclists too. It also upsets me to see cyclists taking advantage of these opportunities.

  • http://lofistl.com Bill Streeter

    Ok I buy this explanation. Now explain why St. Louis drivers like to drive down the middle of the street on streets with no center line and will pull all the way over and sometimes even stop to let oncoming traffic pass when there is obviously plenty of room for two cars to pass on the street. This drives me nuts.

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