The word “intersection” doesn’t quite capture the busy St. Louis, Missouri, junction that is Skinker Boulevard, Clayton Road and Oakland Avenue. With two of its eight multi-laned limbs outlining the city’s popular Forest Park, another pair straddling a small movie theater and still others branching off to I-64, surrounding neighborhoods and a university, the crossroads has long proved an obstacle course for those navigating it on foot or bike.
“There was only one signalized crossing for peds, people were climbing over Jersey barriers — it was just crazy,” says Jamie Wilson, a longtime St. Louisan and traffic engineer who worked on improvements completed at the location earlier this year. “It stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Now sporting protected pedestrian crossings at each corner, fresh crosswalks, better signage and some bike lanes, the former trouble spot is “a heck of a lot better than it was,” he says. It’s also a case study as Wilson seeks to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists citywide.
“While we have a grid in some areas, we have a lot of skewed intersections, a lot of multi-legged intersections,” says Wilson, who left a higher-paying job as president of local transportation engineering firm CBB to become the city’s first-ever bike and pedestrian coordinator this fall. “When you enter an intersection as a motorist or bicyclist or pedestrian, you’re used to looking this way and that way, but then what about diagonal and wider intersections. There’s a lot to take in at one point.”
Positive changes like those at Clayton and Skinker require building consensus about problems, conducting studies on overall safety and determining ways to pay for improvements — all focuses for Wilson going forward. As one member of a lean, three-person traffic-engineering unit at the city, his new position strikes him as “a very deliberate effort” by St. Louis to prioritize bicycle and pedestrian safety throughout its 28 wards.
“Every year we’d like to meet with [each alderman] and identify from past studies, and our own experience over the past year, different safety concerns in each ward,” he says, “and say, ‘Hey, I think, here’s your top three, here’s your top five locations that present the most safety concerns in your ward,’ and try to identify these and see if there’s funds available — whether it’s a federal grant we apply for or whatever it is.”
Based on recent stats, there is work left to do.
According to Wilson, an average of about 11 pedestrians have been fatally struck in the city each year over the last decade. That’s enough to put St. Louis among the 35 Pedestrian-Bicyclist Focus Cities currently singled out at the federal level for a high number of such deaths. And in 2015 alone, at least 18 pedestrian deaths have occurred in the municipality, a steep jump from a total of five in 2014 and 11 in 2013.
Mindy Stueckel, who frequently accesses Forest Park on foot, thinks it’s great that the city “took the initiative to actually do something at the intersection” in her neighborhood. She urges continued vigilance, however, citing inattentive drivers ¬— including one who struck her last winter in a crosswalk nearby — as perhaps the biggest challenge facing the region’s pedestrians.
“I think it’s more about public awareness,” says Karl Becker, owner of A & M Bicycle in south St. Louis. “I see close calls all the time.” For 16 years, he’s had an up close view of the interactions between different road users — and of the evolving infrastructure — at the corner where his bike shop sits near the popular Tower Grove Park. He says drivers frequently fail to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk, despite existing visual reminders. Still, he adds, it’s better overall than it used to be.
“We really are making progress,” Becker says. “St. Louis is becoming a more bike-friendly city.”
In a way, that’s job feedback for Wilson, who hit the ground running on his first day on the job in October. “I’ve been all over … interacting with people and learning about all the different neighborhoods, all the different concerns,” he says. “I couldn’t be having more fun doing this. I definitely know I made the right decision.”
From traffic-calming measures to road diets, finding real solutions to identified problems is key.
“That’s my whole thing,” Wilson says. “I’m not putting stuff out there just to put stuff out there. We want to make sure it’s actually making a positive impact.”
Evie Hemphill is a writer and car-free commuter in St. Louis.