By Shay Schindler, Transportation Planner, East-West Gateway Council of Governments
Where We Stand Preview blog posts represent the opinion of the author and do not represent the view of East-West Gateway of Governments. This post is part of the Where We Stand 7th Edition Preview Blog Series. View other posts in the series here.
The tragic story of LaTonya Williams does not typify commuting reality for most residents of St. Louis, but for those without a car and dependent on public transit or other ways to get to work, her story is painfully familiar.
On November 7th last year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch first told the story of 18-year-old Williams’ treacherous commute to work. Her story illuminated the real challenges for many working residents who do not own a car.
Living far from public transit, and not near any sidewalk, Williams had to dodge three lanes of oncoming traffic and cross the center median of Highway 141 to reach her two part-time jobs in Valley Park. In order to financially support her family, Williams out of necessity faced daily close calls with cars, trucks and big rigs. One passing motorist once threw a turkey leg at her.
Shortly after the article was published, Williams’ family left their isolated Valley Park apartment complex and moved to Hillsdale to be closer to family and safer transportation options. Sadly, even after her move, on the night of January 27, 2015 Williams and her boyfriend were struck and killed by a vehicle as they walked home on a sidewalk.
Although anecdotal, Williams’ tragic story encapsulates the strengths and shortcomings of the St. Louis transportation system.
On the upside, compared to other large metropolitan regions, St. Louis has a relatively short commute time. The average commute time of 25.2 minutes puts St. Louis 32nd among the 50 largest regions in the country, which means for 31 other metro areas, the average commute time is longer.
St. Louis ranks 8th highest for the percentage of commuters who drive to work alone, with 83.2 percent of workers traveling to work in a single-occupancy vehicle. These numbers reflect that over the last half century, St. Louis has built a road and highway network that allows automobile users to reach their destinations quickly and easily.
Some say that the high proportion of people who drive to work reflects individual preferences. Others suggest the region has not developed land and the transportation network in a way that makes other modes of transportation viable options. There is likely some truth to both interpretations.
However, if you are one of the 91,235 St. Louis households that do not have access to a personal automobile – whether it is because you cannot afford a vehicle, you are not able to drive, you prefer not to drive, or you seek ways to lower your carbon footprint – your access to resources and opportunities around the region are significantly limited.
About a fourth of jobs in the region are within a 90-minute transit ride for a typical working-age resident. St. Louis ranks 33rd among the peer regions on Job Access by Transit. Furthermore, traveling in St. Louis without an automobile can be challenging and time consuming. Often transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians are forced to jeopardize their own safety when they try to navigate the automobile-dominated streets of the St. Louis region.
The St. Louis transportation system didn’t always function this way.
In 1910, the Greater St. Louis Magazine published an illustration of how it envisioned Olive Street in downtown St. Louis in 100 years. Along with grand public monuments and towering skyscrapers, the magazine assumed streets would continue to be lively and accommodating to all people who used them.
At the time, St. Louisans were accustomed to interacting with bustling city streets that carried multiple modes of transportation like street cars, horse-drawn carriages, automobiles and pedestrians.
Looking up Olive Street in 2015 illustrates the fact that St. Louis’ approach to transportation has changed dramatically since the turn of the 20th century. The multi-modal streets of St. Louis started to look and function differently in the mid-twentieth century after President Dwight Eisenhower signed a Federal Highway Act, which initiated the construction of a nation-wide interstate highway network.
That legislation, along with an increase in access to personal automobiles, rapidly changed the transportation landscape in St. Louis. For those who could afford it, the convenience of traveling by car was far more appealing than walking or public transportation. As commuting became easier, more St. Louisans moved away from the city’s center and roadway engineers started to give priority to the needs of automobiles. This focus continued for the next half century.
Based on current social and demographic trends, there is a growing need to refocus our approach to transportation again.
Poverty levels are on the rise. About 57 percent more St. Louis residents live in poverty in 2012 than in 2000, which means there are a growing number of citizens who are unable to afford a car due to the high cost of ownership (estimated to be $7,804 per year).
An increasing portion of the region’s population is either elderly or disabled, or both, and may not be able to operate a car on their own. From 2009 to 2012 the number of senior citizens with a disability grew 6.5 percent and it’s estimated that by 2045, one in four St. Louis residents will be 65 years or older.
Additionally, younger generations are driving less and looking to live in places with access to multi-modal transportation options. The 2009 National Household Travel Survey found that compared to young adults in 2001, millennials (those born in the early 1980s to early 2000s) drove 23 percent fewer miles, traveled 40 percent more transit miles, took 24 percent more bike trips and 16 percent more walking trips. Investing in alternative transportation options will not only increase access to opportunities for low-income and elderly St. Louisans, it will also make the region more attractive for younger residents.
Over the last century St. Louis’ streets have gone from accommodating multiple modes of transportation to mostly giving priority to the needs of automobile users. Every St. Louis citizen needs travel options that will safely and efficiently allow them to access jobs, schools, and grocery stores.
As the region embarks on the next 30 years of transportation investments, regional decision makers not only face the challenge of maintaining the existing road system, they must also address, with significantly reduced resources, the region’s severe deficiency in safe and efficient alternative transportation options.