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Walkability Must Become a Priority for the St. Louis Region

June 9, 2009 St. Louis County, Suburban Sprawl 29 Comments

I love multi-story buildings built up to the sidewalk.  If these buildings have clear windows and doors at the sidewalk level the are inherently more walkable  than others.  I recognize, however. this is not for everyone.  But that doesn’t mean walkability needs to be tossed aside.  Most drivers like the option of walking.  Development can be both non-urban and walkable.

This is the story of one part of suburban St. Louis County that was close to being minimally walkable, not ideal but minimally.  But it falls short of even being minimally walkable.

Source: Google Maps

The area is around the Sam’s store at I-44 and Big Bend  (map link).  The Sam’s is obviously the big box in the bottom right corner in the above map image.   Out at Big Bend is a Hardee’s.  The other out parcel to the left of the drive is now occupied.  This is all in the City of Crestwood.  The left side of the image is in the City of Kirkwood.

As you can see a sidewalk runs along the edge of Big Bend Road.  Along one side of the drive into Sam’s the sidewalk extends into the development.  So far so good.  Except it doesn’t really work.  For sidewalks to be useful to the pedestrian they need to go door to door.

Say you live in the apartment complex on the left side of the above image and you want to get lunch at Hardee’s, then a few things at Sam’s? Would you walk or drive to each location?  Sadly this environment, because the sidewalks are mere decoration, is designed for driving only.

But let’s put  the destination closer.  You live in one of these apartments and work in the building on the other side of the fence.  It would be silly to drive.

Leaving your apartment complex your only option is the auto driveway — no sidewalk from your front door to the public sidewalk.

Once you’ve arrived at the top of the hill you can them step out of the auto drive and onto a public sidewalk.

Turning into the development you can see the entrance to your workplace but the grade difference and the fence block yuor direct route so you continue downhill.

Here you get to pretend, once again, that you are a car because you weren’t provided with a sidewalk to get you to the door. Now you decide to walk over to Sam’s on your lunch break.

Nice, you are just dumped in the parking lot.   By now you are thinking you should have driven.

You turn around and look back at your workplace.  You are in the middle of a Sam’s parking lot.  You, the pedestrian, have been treated like a car.  With the exception of a small part of the journey you don’t have your own space.  But of course you feel vulnerable compared to cars.   Tomorrow you decide to drive to work rather than walk.  Next time someone tells you that “nobody walks” in the suburbs this is part of the reason — it is not designed to accommodate walkers.  Sure, an employee that lives miles away is not going to walk.  But even the close proximities are hostile to the pedestrian.  The apartment developer in Kirkwood is partly to blame.  So is the commercial developer in Crestwood.    It is sad that we are supposed to be among the most advanced nations yet we can’t figure out how to create an environment where a person could go to work next door without driving.



Currently there are "29 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jimmy Z says:

    “Most drivers like the option of walking.” You think? I don’t. If they did, there’d be a lot less driving.

    One, the Kirkwood development is saddled with a whole racial component that complicates any discussion on access/”security”. Meacham Park is/was an historically African-American community that was blighted and acquired to build the big boxes for Sam’s, Lowe’s WalMart & Target. The new housing is an effort to mitigate the impacts on the existing residential community. And two, I doubt that many of the medical professionals in the Urgent Care building are regular patrons of the Monster Thickburgers at the Hardee’s!

    My experience is that most existing residential communities insist on privacy fences and little or no access to any new commercial or retail developments. There’s an inherent fear of “strangers” and “those people” invading their little piece of paradise, and the developers are more than happy to meet those requests if that’s what it takes to get their developments approved (plus it’s usually what many local planning departments require). And since most commercial developments are backing up to people’s backyards, I can sort of understand.

    The most interesting example I’m aware of is in Denver. A few years back, a new light rail line was built along the west side of I-25. The Southmoor station, along with the rail line, is built behind existing homes. The residents insisted that there be no access to the station from the west side, so ALL access is from the east side of the freeway, via a tunnel under the freeway. If they want to get to the platform behind their homes, it’s a mile drive, through multiple stoplights!


  2. One way to increase walkability is through public transportation. Buses and light rail can get people to where they need to go without driving. If you want to discuss more about mass transit I write for a blog on St Louis area transit issues.

  3. frank says:

    The problem you are describing is exactly what we were focusing on in our Suburban General Store project. Unless suburban residential areas become more walkable, they will remain dependent on the car.
    The subdivision you focus on even has a poolhouse which is where we believe the stores would best fit in most residential subdivisions.
    You should check it out.


  4. The San Luis is on the agenda of the Preservation Board. Email Lyda Krewson and tell her you don’t want this building demolished as it undermines the walkability of our City, the socioeconomic potential of the Central West End, and the local Central West End Historic District.


    Attend the meeting:

    June 22, 2009 at 4:00 P.M.
    1015 Locust Street, Suite 1200.

  5. john says:

    The creators of “blah” in the StL region are obvious:
    1. MoDOT
    2. EWGC
    3. Metrolink
    4. Auto-dependencies
    6. Poor zoning policies

    As JZ pinpoints, there is a general attitude here that prevents integration of neighborhoods and connectivity: “most existing residential communities insist on privacy fences and little or no access to any new commercial or retail developments. There’s an inherent fear of “strangers” and “those people”.
    – –
    As you well know Steve, there are areas that were once “walkable” in the inner suburbs but were made less than walkable do to MoDOT, EWGC, MetroLink and the silence of local advocates who are responsible for speaking loudly when these violations occur.

  6. Jimmy Z says:

    The attitude isn’t just here, it’s evident in suburbs across the nation . . .

  7. Brady Dorman says:

    This post is spot on. The lack of foresight and simple common sense in most suburban development is astounding.

  8. Ran Dom says:

    On the point about how to get to the front door…how do you think all drivers get to the door? Answer: They walk across the parking lot. The entire paved area is the sidewalk. If its safe for me to walk from my car from where those pictures were taken, I’m sure its safe to walk not coming from a car. Granted, there needs to be a way to get into the parking lot not walking along a road, but once there everyone is equal.

  9. PT says:

    Terrible example. How many people in those apartments work in that single medical office? What % of people within 1 mile of this development(residential and worker populations) will walk to this development if it were a “walkable destination.” The hwy is a physical boundary…so remove all populations from the east right off the bat. What % of sales at the Hardees is made up by the people who live and work within .5 mile of this development? I bet its less than 1%…and not because they cant’ walk there. These are the things that people were thinking when designing this center. Development is about making money. Walkers do not account for significant profits at Sam’s or Hardees.

    Fact is, this particular development (and the tenants within) is a perfect set up for a driver friendly environment (which this locations is!). How many people are going to lug a 42″ TV from Sams up the “walkable sidewalk” to their apartment?

    You could say the same for Loughborough Commons. People within a mile of that development WILL NOT walk there. Even if it was walkable! (and don’t just give me 50 examples of people who would….you need thousands and thousands of people to walk there to make these stores profitable!)

    Some developers have a “build it and they will come” mentality. Its called Greenfield Development.
    At the same time, You can’t build a “walkable development” and expect that people will just all of the sudden start walking there. The site and surrounding population have to make sense. Sorry, but this Sam’s club is successful because of the SUVs that come from miles and miles around to trade there.

    Check out the Murdoch Perk in South City. I bet less than 25% of its sales come from “walking customers.” (This is a stat I would LOVE to know for a fact!) You couldn’t find a more “walkable location.” What if only walking customers ate/drank there? They’d be broke.

    Stop blaming the developer or city council and start blaming the lazy, fat Americans who drop a lot of $ there.

  10. GMichaud says:

    PT you have it wrong, design matters. If you create obstacles then people won’t walk. Even the notion that people want fences between themselves and the “undesirables” is more a problem of poor design than anything else. I’d want a fence between me and a massive parking lot also.
    The trek across the parking lot alone would hamper any walk. That is why some cities require street front buildings (design).
    Notice there is not a fence between commercial and residential in Soulard, even with very active bars and restaurants, again design is the difference.
    Blaming the lazy fat Americans who shop there is hilarious. Until the corporate/government policy making is stopped, America will continue its decline.
    People would in fact walk if the design was conducive to it. There are many cities in both the US and around the world that understand how this works.
    There is even examples of walkable environments here in St. Louis you can view. An integrated mass transit system is an important design component in the best examples around the world, thus St. Louis falls to the bottom of the pack.

    In the end the developer should not be making these decisions, it is another example of the free market ideology that has failed. The design of a city should meet the needs of all citizens, not just some isolated corporate chain.
    Wal Mart or Hardees does not have the job of insuring connectivity to the larger city. Following their development plans (and the plans of other developers) leads to the chaotic, energy inefficient, dehumanizing environment we live in today.

  11. maurice says:

    I agree with PT, there are many lazy americans….period. They aren’t going to Sams walking. No one does. Defeats the purpose of buying in large quantities if you can’t take it with you. They built next to a highway for a reason.

  12. john says:

    Carheads will never understand what they can’t see. People who use to walk are thus prevented from continuing to do so by policies that favor cars over people and scale determines outcomes more than personal shortcomings. Once an area becomes auto-centric, reversing such requires leadership with vision and spine… local leadership-local attitudes display neither. People are made lazier over time as healthy lifestyles are replaced by lazy lifestyles, in mind and body.

  13. Mary Homan says:

    I’m one of those “drivers” a lot of the time. I vividly remember gasping at my sister who walked from essentially Machachek Library to the Walgreens at Hampton/Chippewa. Like maybe a mile and a half. But in my mind it seemed so much longer and walking along Hampton or Watson isn’t a beautiful stroll. She looked at me as if I had 4 eyes. She patiently reminded me that for the last 2 years while she was in Germany she was reliant on her own 2 feet and public transportation. After visiting her in Germany and walking everywhere because the car wasn’t allowed in the city limits, I began to understand a whole lot more.

    I remember making fun of a boyfriend who lived in Manchester because walking simply was not an option–no sidewalks. Now, I’m the one to criticize. I think we do allow a lot of leniency with our elected officials to build big box stores with gianormous parking lots BUT I think they feel pressure from car-reliant voters. Public health officials will tell you that kids are more sedentary and don’t have a desire to be active. That is “bred” into them by parents who don’t want to walk due to ill health and/or personal desire.

    I firmly believe that making a neighborhood walkable is only half the battle. We have to get people motivated to do the walking. What’s the incentive? Oh sure, good health but clearly with obesity on the rise that’s not sufficient. We’re talking about breaking years worth of reliance on cars. I think about walking around Trier, Freiborg, Strasbourg, Bodensee and very infrequently seeing cars except on a couple main thoroughfares that were on the edges. Most of the side streets were too narrow for cars and forced use by pedestrians. And oh my goodness, so many bikes (okay granted 2 of those cities were college cities-but still!). So what do we do to motivate people to explore their neighborhoods? I think we need to start with people already living in walkable neighborhoods before we start changing the structure neighborhoods where people never walk.

  14. Jimmy Z says:

    The older parts of most European cities, as well as Soulard here, predate the automobile and were built to serve the needs of pedestrians. Development in the US today (and for the past 75 years), both here and elsewhere, is done to accommodate the wants of the vast majority of its users, and in most cases, that includes the private automobile. We love our cars because they give us greatly expanded mobility and the comfort of a personal, climate-controlled environment. Most of us can afford it, so most of us choose it. Sure there are times, when we’d like the option of walking, but for the majority of our trips, even if it’s only 6 or 9 blocks away, the car is the clear winner. IMHO, the ONLY way this will ever change is if the hassle factor (parking and/or paying for fuel) gets to be much, much, much worse than it is now, and that needs to factor in a built environment that is NOT pedestrian friendly in too many parts of our community . . .

  15. john says:

    Good habits beget other good habits just as bad habits begets more bad habits. The old explanation that Euro-cities are pedestrian friendly because of their historic designs misses the point, – – they proactively pursued such a strategy and continue to do so. According to Mercer Consulting Top 30 cities in the world (based on employment opportunities, housing, educational level and support, healthy environment, etc.), only one is in N. America (Vancouver) and 5 of the top 12 are in Germany. There is a dramatic difference in attitudes and it shows by their respect for people over cars (yes they love their Porsches, BMWs, Mercedes). For example, car ownership in Freiberg is allowed, but the streets are completely “car-free” (except the main thoroughfare, where the tram runs) and are parked only two large garages at the edge of the town. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/science/earth/12suburb.html_r=1&scp=1&sq=carfree%20Germany&st=cse
    – –
    It would be nice if the carrot approached worked in the USA. But years of building bad habits (as Steve’s entry illustrates) will probably require the stick to get healthier habits in vogue. Eliminating free parking, freeways without tolls, and undervalued parking lots for tax purposes would be wise first steps along with improved zoning ordinances. The “hassle factor” (which is the fence to a pedestrian) for the auto-dependent needs to be raised dramatically as sprawl now dictates design.

  16. john says:

    I should correct my too quickly written description of Freiburg. The “car-free” zone is in Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg. Sorry…

  17. Andrew F. says:

    I think the issue has been confused. If energy is expounded it should be used to reinforce and repair the existing urban fabric rather than trying to make big box developments urban. While there are exceptional examples of big box stores melded to the urban fabric (see: http://www.flickr.com/search/show/?q=big+box&w=41813589%40N00) these are the result of extreme population densities and high demand. As many have pointed out there are extreme hurdles in suburbia in terms of market demographics, concept, and location in the way of achieving walkability. In the far reaches of the metropolitan area the best that can be done is to densify towne centers that people will inevitably drive to.

    Density is a process not an attribute and by focusing on the city rather than forcing urbanism on the suburbs we can slowly build the mass necessary to lure the retailers back. Furthermore, if naysayers like Kunstler are right, we can welcome the St. Charles residents back to the city in a half century when suburbia becomes utterly untenable.

  18. GMichaud says:

    Americans love their cars because they are not aware of other choices. I drive to other cities like Toronto, New York and to a lesser extent Chicago and ditch my car. You don’t need it.

    Maurice is correct to the extent that Sams Club is right off the highway and if you buy 100 rolls of toilet paper or something similar then the auto is probably best.

    This does not mean that a balance between the pedestrian and the auto can not or should not be struck.

    The thing about the German towns that limit cars is that cars are not needed, they are not missed. The design of the town/transit systems provide easy, fast and acceptable alternatives to the auto.

    I would also like to point out numerous European cities restrict big box stores (to varying levels). The design of the big box store can be disruptive to urban values, especially when monster parking lots are the main feature.

    If I take the bus and there is a huge walk coming off Big Bend to get to Sams Club then it is unattractive visually, socially and basically just a step above raising chickens in a cage for their whole life.

    People who drive to Sams Club are so numb to design and art that all they want to do is get in spend their money and get out. It is the formula the store follows and it has nothing to do with enhancing the stage of life.

    Americans have followed like cattle for years, it is not the worn and stale claim that American love cars, it is all they know, they have been manipulated to accept the ways of their corporate sponsors. The artistic and environmental awareness of the populace has been so degraded that poor design is no longer recognized.

    Design for human use, including walking, has been shoved aside for too long. The discussion should be on how the humanization and walkability of spaces such as the ones Steve has pictured above can be achieved, not whether it should occur at all.

    It is not so much a case the the hassle factor for the car become greater, rather a more attractive environment for walking and transit needs to be developed.

    Cars are great, but what they have begot is not worthy of a civilized society.

  19. Jimmy Z says:

    Until we figure out how to fund Metro and allow them to create a really viable and user-friendly public transit system (like those found in “Toronto, New York and to a lesser extent Chicago”), any discussion of “car-bad, walking-good” is pretty much an academic exercise. Most/more people drive here simply because they have few, if any, other options, in most parts of the region. Whether it’s a “chicken” (limited transit, horrible attitudes toward cyclists) or an “egg” (too much investment in car-supporting stuff, like highways and parking), it’s our current reality. That reality won’t change until people are given (yes, given) options that work nearly as well as their cars do now!

  20. PT says:

    Please talk apples to apples. Bigbend/44 is in no way similar to old german towns or Soulard.

    I would love to see more small grocers like the one on Morganford about 1.5 miles from me…”walkable” Though I have to walk thru some pretty sketchy parts to get there and back.

    Please don’t say that the general store has been on the forefront of architecture. General stores in 1880 and the Sam’s of today survive because people buy a lot of stuff there….it has nothing to do with architecture. …and if you think it does, you probably use words like”Urban Fabric.” (puke.)

  21. GMichaud says:

    It is apples to apples PT, Bigbend/44, Soulard and old German towns are all designed for human beings (us). The difference is the automobile at Bigbend/44 takes precedent over all other human values, issues and concerns to the detriment of human life. It is the subject of Steves’ article.

    I would like to also point out that many “old” German cities were destroyed during the war and they chose a more humane model of rebuilding rather than the Bigbend/44 model.

    Cars have a place, but we have become slaves to the needs of the automobile, and as I point out above, most citizens don’t even realize or understand the design potential of the environments they live in every day.

    Terms such as urban fabric or urban planning are difficult to use with meaning because the interactions of just the Bigbend/44 site
    are complex and are interrelated to overall governing and economic policies, some obscure, some obvious. A book could be written about this one site and its relationship and meaning to the overall urban environment.

    And JZ, you are of course correct, funding is an issue, I feel that if the right proposals are in place the funding will come. Certainly the discussion Steve presents stimulates thought on possible alternatives differing from what is now the norm. It is a place to start.

  22. john says:

    The StL region is designed for car dependency PERIOD. The urban fabric has been defined, neighborhoods are linked by highways, and pedestrians are given little consideration as they have become an endangered species.
    – –
    Certainly small pockets of urban-pedestrian friendliness exist but they are separated-divided by design. MetroLink has been managed to serve an insignificant minority and faces larger and more daunting financial issues in the years to come. MoDOT is against Complete Streets but is teaming up with McKee to bring the ‘burb mentality and dependencies on motorized transportation to the city. “SPRAWL RULES in the Lou” region and only the “perfect storm” can change this – -the hole has become too deep-expensive to fix.
    – –
    Chicago began to change dramatically after Mayor Daley visited European cities in the early ’90s and declared “I finally get it”. In a few short years, pedestrian islands filled with greenery were added to major arteries in the city, bike paths-parking were added, suburban families wanted back into the city, and the housing stock in the city exploded in volume and value.

  23. Jimmy Z says:

    GM, I’ve been here 5 years, and all I’ve seen with Metro has been continuing funding problems, culminating in this year’s significant service cutbacks. And outside of this blog, I also have yet to hear very many people embracing public transit as a viable alternative to their single-occupant vehicles, except to ocassionally use Metrolink to get to special events. Given this mindset, both at the individual and the governmental level, it’s really no surprise (to me, at least) that developers continue to focus on making their projects most accomodating to those who drive. With no real future plans to expand Metrolink, and significant resistance to using the bus, why would any developer invest in higher density next to a truly “future” rail corridor, one that is at least 10 years out, and, more likely, not in most of our lifetimes?!

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand and support the benefits of both higher densities and a great public transit system. The fundamental hurdle is that we’re getting neither, and it drives the development community to deliver “suburban” solutions. We can push our government to require more-urban solutions, but they, many times, just end up looking like cartoons (the Boulevard, across from the Galleria, and New Town, to name two). I’ve said it before, our dirt is simply too cheap to financially justify higher densities – why build denser when it’s cheaper and easier to just buy more land, especially if it makes the end users “happy” and/or not choosing other options?!

  24. Jennifer says:

    I seemed to have missed most of the conversation here, but I want to chime in on the “hassle” factor. I lived for several years in that mecca of walkability – Portland, OR – and can attest that the hassle and cost of parking downtown was what led me to take transit more often than not. I sold my car before moving out there, but even when I was traveling with friends who had cars we opted for transit almost always because it was frequent, reliable, and cheap. Cars sat in congestion, cost a fortune to park, and on weekend evenings parking was difficult to find close to where we wanted to go, whereas transit was everywhere. Downtown Portland was purposely designed that way; zoning codes make a huge difference and people’s behaviors are definitely influenced by the built environment.

  25. GMichaud says:

    JZ, I don’t think metro funding is the problem, rather its the execution. I would use the word vision, but it is so overused to make it worthless.
    Instead find a way to create an exciting, important transit system that captures the spirit of the citizens.
    From my perspective, much of what Metro does is wrong: planning, routes, fares, you name it, even within the current funding framework it is a poorly designed and run system.

    As Jennifer in Portland points out, a well done system makes the automobile extraneous. That is what people in St. Louis don’t understand because they never have been able to experience it. (At least for sixty years)

    I personally don’t think funding is an issue because the whole system needs to be redone. If there are excellent design concepts and approaches, the necessary funding will follow.

    Nor would I worry about cheap land, if design didn’t matter then we could also forget about architects and build steel buildings and prefab structures because they are cheaper.

    Ultimately the only reason land is cheap is a failure in the leadership to take corrective actions in solving problems such as is the topic of this article.
    Actually it isn’t that they don’t solve walkability and other problems, they don’t even consider them or offer them as topics of public discussion.

    It is yesterdays leadership. With yesterdays leadership you end with situations like a developer needing to wait ten years for density creation to meet transit development.
    With yesterdays leadership you end up with the St. Louis of today; run for the Paul McKees and their personal profits rather than for the welfare of the citizens.

  26. Jimmy Z says:

    Unlike many other, “better” transit systems, Metro has many masters and not much control over its own destiny. Its funding comes from discretionary sources, on both sides of the river, and it gets told where it should build its light rail lines, mostly for political reasons. And yes, funding IS the problem, especially when it comes to buses. Every trip for every passenger is subsidized by the taxpayers, and for too many routes, that means service only every 30 or 60 minutes. If you want to use transit, but know that if you “just miss” the bus and you’ll be waiting an hour for the next one, guess what, your own car looks pretty attarctive. IF funding were increased to the levels found in Portland and other, “better”, areas, and frequencies were reduced to every 10 or 15 minutes, then transit becomes a much more viable option for many more people.

    The one big reason you see density, higher land values and a good transit system in Portland (and Boulder and Vancouver) is the urban growth boundary. Limited supply equals greater demand and higher prices. We have the complete opposite here, with places like Warrenton and Mascoutah now growing as bedroom communities, just because they can! It all gets back to “local control”, which equates to no overall vision, and MoDOT building highways to support suburban sprawl. Add in losing more than half our population in the city, and it’s pretty obvious why both land values and transit are struggling here – it takes more than a lot more than vision, “excellent design concepts and approaches” to create and sustain density . . .

  27. john says:

    BRT remains the better alternative in our region but it requires MoDOT to provide dedicated lanes. Light rail is a good-efficient alternative along major routes like 70 as it connects downtown destinations with Lambert and the in between neighborhoods-businesses. Metro dedicated its largest expenditure and operating budget to the Extension and BRT remains only a dream, not reality. We are divided by design and MoDOT-McKee will take full advantage of the political-economic divisions.

  28. john says:

    Throw all the money you want at Metro but it will remain a poorly managed entity that doesn’t get it… the Extension proves it in so many ways. The original design was to have a jogging-cycling path next to the Extension routes but it was eliminated. The other destroyer of sustainable, connected neighborhoods, pedestrian-cycling friendly infrastructure is MoDOT which has been aggressively lobbying against Complete Streets.
    – –
    Want to understand how and why? Start here: http://mobikefed.org/2009/06/lawmakers-lambast-modot-lobbying.php
    – –
    Rahn apparently became concerned that the bill requiring Complete Streets would force MoDOT to pay more attention to the needs and safety of bicyclists and pedestrians than it wishes to. The agency could face real consequences for failure to safely accommodate for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people with disabilities, where now it faces none:
    – –
    Behind the scenes, McKee has been negotiating with MoDOT so he can get the two keys to initiate his “grand vision”, the 22nd interchange and the property next to the I70 bridge extension. Wake up people! Your built environment is being designed by McKee-MoDOT!!!

  29. john says:

    How far behind is St Louis? Even Fort Worth has bicycling advocates who get it and they are planning with city leadership to have hundreds of miles of bike paths, improved sidewalks with Complete Streets and to be designated a Bicycle Friendly Community by the LAB, ALL by 2015!
    – –
    How TERRIFIC, exactly what StL needs: “Some of the challenges identified in ‘Bike Fort Worth’ are our high-speed arterials with no bike provisions, unsafe behavior by both motorists and bicyclists, street design features that are unfriendly to bicycles, missing connections between bike facilities and neighborhoods, and a lack of convenient and safe bike parking & storage at destinations. ‘Bike Fort Worth’ aims to address all of these issues – and let’s start by taking a look at the subject most near and dear to our hearts here at Fort Worthology: bike lanes, routes, and trails.”


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