In the Fall of 2014 a section of Kingshighway Boulevard – a major St. Louis arterial – will close for a year and a half to rebuild a bridge, and a lot of cars will need to find alternative routes. What will happen to cyclists on Tower Grove Avenue, a principal north/south cycling corridor a half mile to the east? The City has in its hands plans to build bike lanes which would preserve bicycle safety on this route, but those plans are being scrapped to maximize traffic flow – no matter the cost to the road’s cyclists, pedestrians, and neighborhoods.
Tower Grove Avenue next to the Botanical Gardens is a jewel of a road, with wide right lanes and no intersections. Cars usually drive in the left lane and cyclists on the right, with plenty of clearance from parked cars, making the right lane feel like a bike lane. With no viable alternative routes for cyclists, Tower Grove Avenue serves as a critical north/south bicycle corridor. Its relative safety and convenience are a big reason Tower Grove Avenue is the busiest cycling route in St. Louis.
Still, there are a number of hazards cyclists face daily. During heavy traffic cars will sometimes drive in the right lane, and this “bike lane” arrangement breaks down (see photo below). Such driving is often aggressive, and is very alarming and intimidating to cyclists. Cars driving in the right lane are especially dangerous when both the driver and cyclist approach parked cars.
Another problem occurs on certain summer weekends, when cars park at 45-degrees on the southbound lane of Tower Grove Avenue for events at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (see photo below). This increases the parking along Tower Grove Avenue but causes major problems for riders. Cyclists must ride in the left lane with car traffic, which is intimidating to many riders. Worse, drivers pulling out cannot see cyclists until they’ve completely blocked their path, a real hazard for all cyclists.
Heavy traffic, right-lane driving, and angled parking pose a constant danger to cyclists on this generally safe and popular cycling route. Unfortunately, things are about to get worse.
The aging South Kingshighway Viaduct was built in 1936 and is crumbling. The city has plans to replace it, with construction scheduled to start in the Fall of 2014. Kingshighway will close for a year and a half as a new bridge is built, and during this time traffic will divert to alternative routes. The heaviest traffic will flow to nearby arterials, but car volume will increase significantly along Tower Grove Avenue along its entire stretch. What impact this will have on cyclists will depend on what bicycle infrastructure is in place.
The good news is that Tower Grove Avenue is slated to get buffered bike lanes as part of the Bike St. Louis Phase 3 project. Buffered bike lanes are an improvement over the standard bike lane, with a three-foot-wide buffer between the bike lane and parked cars, as well as a single driving lane (see photo below). They are safer for cyclists than regular lanes, and the new buffered lanes on Arsenal have been getting rave reviews. If the installation goes according to schedule, Tower Grove Avenue will be striped for such lanes this fall.
Buffered bike lanes aren’t great just for cyclists, but are also a real benefit to the residents of the neighborhoods around Tower Grove Avenue. Because they limit car traffic to only one lane, they calm traffic and reduce noise and pollution. A single driving lane on Tower Grove Avenue would encourage drivers from distant neighborhoods to stay on the designated detours, which are arterial roads like Grand and Hampton that are designed to handle such traffic.
Yet this scenario is in doubt. We’ve recently learned that traffic engineers are insisting on opening up two lanes for cars in each direction along Tower Grove Avenue to maximize the volume of traffic which can flow through it. They are looking to get rid of on-street parking and to delay any bike infrastructure projects until after the Kingshighway bridge is complete in Fall 2016 or later. We have heard from people closely involved in the project that Phase 3 buffered bike lanes are on hold indefinitely on Tower Grove Avenue. (Update The City announces its delay of Phase 3 infrastructure on Tower Grove Avenue here.)
If the buffered bike lanes are scuttled and two driving lanes go in, Tower Grove Avenue will become unrecognizable, an entirely different place to ride, walk, and live near. The wide open lanes will encourage fast driving and invite more cars to detour through this route. Rather than ease traffic, two lanes will encourage more of it – this is induced demand, which guarantees that if you build it, they will come. As a result, Tower Grove Avenue between Magnolia and Shaw will look a lot more like Kingshighway, a loud river of cars which is scary to ride and a real burden to cross. Worse still, since Tower Grove Avenue narrows to one lane heading north to the I-64 interchange, at peak traffic both lanes will become parking lots as two lanes try to funnel into one. Creating two lanes for just a short stretch of a road will create congestion but won’t improve the flow of traffic.
The evolving plans for Tower Grove Avenue illustrate in a nutshell how driver convenience is reflexively prioritized over cyclist safety. Yet it is not just cyclists harmed by this approach: the entire neighborhood will suffer from the noise and exhaust of traffic, and pedestrians will have a much harder time crossing. Up the road, the developing Cortex District has committed itself to the idea that being more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians is critical to being competitive on the national and international stage. Delaying bike lanes to speed traffic subverts all of this.
Buffered bike lanes are the only way to keep Tower Grove Avenue the jewel of a road that it is today. They will keep things essentially the way they are now: a single lane used mostly by drivers from nearby neighborhoods at reasonable speeds, on-street parallel parking on both sides for residents as well as Garden visitors, and a safe and convenient corridor for cyclists of all ages and abilities.
If this is something you care about, please share your thoughts with Alderman Conway (314-622-3287), Mayor Slay (314-622-3201), the Streets Department (314-647-3111), and your alderman (more details here). The next few months will be a real test of this City’s commitment to cycling, and your voice is critical.
Update This piece has been republished on NextSTL.com.
Update 2 The City has posted an official response in the comments section below. Read the response as well as our reply here.
Update 3 Read here for an additional response from the City.