Cortex Transit Oriented Development Study: SafeTGA

The Cortex life sciences district in the heart of St. Louis aims to attract world-class scientists and entrepreneurs by building a vibrant, connected, transit-oriented neighborhood. The recently released Cortex Transit Oriented Development Study (TOD) analyzes the impact of a proposed new Metrolink station on pedestrian and bicycle connectivity, with a particular emphasis on the Tower Grove Avenue (TGA) corridor. There is much to like about this study as it pertains cyclist safety along TGA (which is our focus here), but a few specific recommendations are inappropriate and should be reconsidered.

Overview

Cortex is a life sciences research district immediately east of the Washington University/BJC Medical Campus which is currently undergoing rapid redevelopment. Its centerpiece will be the Cortex Commons, a plaza-like central square along Boyle avenue between Clayton and Forest Park Avenue, and current plans call for a new Metrolink station near Boyle. As part of the planning process, the Transit Oriented Development Study seeks to establish projections of new Metrolink ridership, as well as to advocate for solutions which increase the number of transit users. The vision is to create a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-oriented district able to attract and retain “the best and the brightest” “21st century knowledge based workers”. To maximize connectivity with the Missouri Botanical Gardens (a Cortex founding sponsor) the study places special emphasis on the Tower Grove Avenue corridor.

The TOD identifies several problems as well as opportunities regarding cyclist safety and connectivity along TGA. According to the study (which was prepared in early 2012), Tower Grove Avenue is considered unattractive and unsafe for cycling because of the pedestrian and cyclist-unfriendly Vandeventer intersection and heavy automobile traffic, together with narrow lanes and parked cars in The Grove neighborhood. The I-64 interchange at TGA will be incompatible with pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and the Boyle overpass there will carry more car traffic due to interstate on/off ramps. Still, Chouteau Avenue presents opportunities for east/west connectivity, and a major bike and pedestrian corridor is planned for Duncan Ave within the Cortex district.

The TOD provies several specific plans of varying cost and effectiveness to address these issues. In all cases, the document envisions Boyle as the principal bicycle crossing of I-64 to access the new Metrolink station. South of Vandeventer, the study calls for dedicated bike lanes or cycle tracks all the way to Magnolia. Two scenarios for crossing Vandeventer are considered: the first maintains the status quo, with cyclists following Tower Grove Ave while crossing Vandeventer. An alternative proposal has northbound cyclists turn right on Vandeventer and ride one block east along a protected lane to Boyle, where they activate a pedestrian signal button and wait for the light before crossing Vandeventer. They then proceed on Boyle over I-64 and into Cortex. (Southbound cyclists follow the reverse route, crossing from Boyle onto TGA via Vandeventer).

Analysis

There is much to praise in this study both as a cyclist and Cortex-area worker. A livable and sustainable neighborhood with pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets, together with access to public transit and St. Louis’ cultural resources, would provide the Cortex district a competitive edge in attracting and retaining the best and brightest knowledge-based workers. Connectivity to the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the vibrant neighborhoods bordering Tower Grove Park is critical to helping Cortex relize its full potential and attract a broad diversity of talent. Importantly, dedicated bike lanes are urgently needed south of Vandeventer to preserve the bicycle-friendly character of Tower Grove Avenue as automobile traffic increases with the completion of I-64 and other projects(we’ve written about this previously).

Other proposals in the study are inconsistent with cyclist safety on TGA and should be reconsidered. The Boyle Avenue overpass at I-64, while conveniently located for the proposed Metrolink station, is inappropriate as a designated bicycle route due to interstate on and off ramps. Mixing bicycle and interstate-conditioned traffic in complex intersections should be avoided if at all possible. Fortunately, a number of safe crossings over I-64 exist for cyclists and pedestrians to choose from.

The proposal to divert cyclists along Vandeventer is likewise misguided. Here, riders are presented with two unappealing choices: either ride on Vandeventer with high speed, high volume truck traffic and make a left turn across 3 lanes; or ride in the bike lane, dismount at intersection, press signal button, and wait on the sidewalk for the light to change. Neither option is safe or attractive. While shifting bicycle traffic from TGA to a side street is worthy of consideration, doing so on Vandeventer threatens the viability of the entire project.

Proposals

We’ve written before about Tower Grove Avenue’s physical layout, cycling safety issues, and possible improvements. In the interest of constructive engagement, we offer three specific proposals which are consistent with the TOD goals and responsive to the issues identified in the document.

Maintain Tower Grove Avenue as the designated bicycle corridor through The Grove. Cyclists should be directed to ride on TGA from Vandeventer to Chouteau, at which point northbound cyclists can cross I-64 at Sarah, Newstead, Taylor, or the westmost Chouteau pedestrian bridge, depending on their destination. Diverting cyclists to a side street in The Grove (e.g., from TGA to Boyle or Newstead), should be done only if necessary and not at Manchester or Vandenter. These are busy, complicated intersections, and requiring cyclists to turn left across traffic significantly increases the potential for conflict with automobiles.

Eliminate parking along Tower Grove Ave between Chouteau and Vandeventer. Unfortunately the narrow roadway makes it impossible to have safe and attractive cycling, smooth traffic flow, and street parking all at once – one of these must go. Removing on-street parking in The Grove would provide room for dedicated bike lanes, improve cyclist safety, maintain smooth traffic flow, and be consistent with the priorities and vision of the TOD. Objections to parking removal are understandable but manageable, and the increased pedestrian traffic will improve neighborhood safety and provide retail opportunities.

Implement bicycle-friendly streetscape design along Tower Grove Ave from Vandeventer to Magnolia. As envisioned by the TOD, encouraging cycling along this stretch will require dedicated bicycle infrastructure such as dedicated bike lanes or cycle tracks. In addition, installing curb bulb-outs at key intersections would help pedestrians and discourage driving in bike lanes, a dangerous but common occurrence today. Finally, 45-degree parking near the Botanical Gardens should be eliminated.   Such parking poses significant hazards to cyclists and makes installing effective bike lanes difficult or impossible.

The Cortex Transit Oriented Development study gets many things right and a few details wrong. Developing Cortex as a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-oriented district is key to attracting and retaining a highly skilled and sought-after workforce, and a functional and attractive Tower Grove Avenue is an important component of this strategy. Improving cyclist safety while maintaining traffic flow will require commitment and thoughtful planning, but is essential to helping Cortex fulfill its potential.

Matthew Wyczalkowski, PhD, is a research scientist at the Washington University School of Medicine. He commutes by bike along Tower Grove Avenue daily and maintains SafeTGA.org to advocate for cyclist safety there.

Posted in Advocacy and Opinion, Tower Grove Ave

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