Illustration by Ryan Greis
It’s a sunny spring weekend in St. Louis, and you’re thinking of taking a little spin on your bike. Starting at the Gateway Arch, you ride a paved trail with the Mississippi on your right and, on your left, fast-changing close-up views of industry—barge-loading ports, factories, dumps, flood walls. Gradually the urban scene recedes and you mount the Chain of Rocks Bridge, the word’s longest bicycle bridge. On the Illinois side, you steer into your dedicated bike lane on the Great River Road. Water, woods and bluffs slide by. Feeling hungry or tired? You can pedal right up to Pere Marquette Lodge for dinner and a room. You’ve covered about 40 miles—and been exposed to less car traffic than you would be on a ride around your block.
This is only a taste of what’s to come if the folks at Great Rivers Greenway District and Trailnet have their way. Their grand design is the River Ring, an interconnected system of greenways, parks and bike lanes that will allow bikers and walkers to travel all over the St. Louis area. Loosely tracking the area’s rivers—the Missouri and Mississippi, the Des Peres to the southeast, the Meramec to the southwest and the Cuivre to the northwest—the ring’s trails will enclose and traverse the whole metropolitan area: three counties in two states, an area of 1,216 square miles.
Some large pieces are in place. Grant’s Trail, which opened last year, is used by Ann Mack of Trailnet for most of her commute from Webster Groves to the Trailnet office in South County. The Grant, like the Katy Trail, is a former railroad line, but that’s only one type of “greenway,” a term Mack defines as “a place to recreate that you don’t have to drive to. Ideally, greenways are both destinations and links.” The River Des Peres Trail, slated to be linked to the Grant, opened in September and is an example of a different kind of greenway: a bridge over the river, a path through a green area shared by walkers and cyclists, bike lanes along streets leading to Carondelet and Leisure parks.
“When people get out of their cars, magical things happen,” says Mack, noting that once the ring is complete, St. Louis will be a different place. “Our sense of community will be enhanced. We’ll know neighborhoods and neighbors. Our sense of place will increase. This city was founded and grew because of the rivers; then we walled them off. Riding the trails, we’ll rediscover why we’re here.”
If you listen long enough to Mack and other enthusiasts as they talk about the stress-reducing, health-enhancing qualities of cycling, the words conjure up a vision of a transformed way of life. No longer will St. Louisans be stuck in traffic, breathing fumes, with a cell phone in one hand and a donut in the other. Instead we’ll be cycling through sunlit glades, lungs filling with pure air and muscles rippling as we wave to the neighbors.
Maybe the River Ring will make this vision a reality—but we’ll have to wait a long time to find out. Trail designer Todd Antoine of Trailnet says that it’s too early to set a completion date. At the moment, just 45 miles of the River Ring have been built—and that includes the 20 miles of the Bike St. Louis routes, which use city streets, not greenways.
So is the River Ring more vision than plan? It wouldn’t be fair to say that, either. The project has a steady funding source, the one-tenth-percent parks-district tax that passed in the fall of 2000. “That produces $10 million to $11 million a year,” says Antoine, “and it can be used for matching federal grants and local funds.” But putting together a greenway requires the cooperation of local government and business and the negotiation of easements, and that is slow work.
Local attitudes toward greenway development follow a predictable pattern, Antoine and Mack say: bitter opposition when the trail is announced followed by glowing pride once it’s completed. People living along Grant’s Trail protested and litigated, fearing an invasion of strangers and a soaring crime rate. Now they boast about their rising property values.
In the city, bike routes have also proved popular. Julie Padberg-White of Bike St. Louis notes that the organization’s first printing of its route map—15,000 copies—was quickly snapped up and says the map has continued to move briskly. Money has been allocated to extend the trail system by 47 miles—into North and South St. Louis and as far west as Clayton. Still, by Padberg-White’s assessment, St. Louis is “behind the curve.” Indianapolis, Boston and Seattle already have trail networks comparable to the proposed River Ring. Chicago, with its spectacular 18-mile lakefront trail and 125 miles of urban bike lanes, was rated America’s number-one bike city by Bicycling magazine in 2001.
Becoming known as bike-friendly has dollars-and-cents advantages for a city or state, because bicycle tourism is big business. You might not think that Colorado would be an ideal biking destination—too many uphill climbs—but resort owners have figured out that bikers can make lucrative off-season users of all those ski lifts. The state’s Bureau of Tourism estimated in 1999 that almost half of the 700,000 tourists who come to the mountains in warm weather come to cycle and that they generate revenue as high as $193 million each year for local businesses.
If that figure isn’t enough to set St. Louisans’ pulses pounding, the thought of catching up with Chicago ought to do it. We could become a destination city for bike tourists. We already have attractions to boast about. The Katy Trail is the country’s longest rail-to-trail conversion, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources estimates that it’s used by about 300,000 people per year, 80 percent of them cyclists. The busiest stretch is in St. Charles County. We also have the world’s largest nighttime bike ride, the Moonlight Ramble—and that’s only the best-known of the varied rides organized by the local branch of Hostelling International year-round. The organization’s Nick Lyter says, “Missouri is a top state for options of bike events.”
Trailnet, Bike St. Louis and the St. Louis Bicycle Federation all report receiving many phone calls from out-of-staters planning to bring their bikes and inquiring about routes and trails. Mack remembers taking a call from a man who wanted to know whether there was a bike trail from the airport to downtown and whether Lambert had facilities for arriving passengers to uncrate and assemble their bikes. (She had to disappoint him, but stop laughing—Seattle actually has these amenities.) If travelers don’t bring their bikes along, Mack can tell them about City Cycling, which rents bikes and gives guided tours of Forest Park.
Michael Cunningham of Ferguson, who commutes to his job at the University of Missouri–St. Louis by bicycle and rides for fun on weekends, logs more than 1,000 miles a year. The attraction of bike tourism is simple, he says: “It’s the perfect way to sightsee. You can go farther than on foot, see more, but you’re still riding slowly enough to get a close-up look.”
It seems likely that as the River Ring is developed, it will be a boon to tourism. But will it lead to more riding for errands and commuting? Both Mack and Padberg-White think that as more people discover the greenways and bike lanes for recreation, they will begin to use their bikes more just to get around. “The last two years, there’s been a doubling in transportation riders. That’s my impression,” says Mack. But St. Louis has a long way to go before cycling is a real transportation alternative, as it is in European cities. In Amsterdam and Copenhagen, 25 to 50 percent of total trips are by bike. In St. Louis, Mack says, “we’re at 1 percent.”
We’re fairly typical of the country as a whole. According to the U.S. Census, in 2000, just one-tenth of 1 percent of commuters biked to work (and 76 percent drove alone). In St. Louis, the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council reported fewer than 1,000 bicycle commuters in the city and county combined. What holds people back? Padberg-White and Mack both say that although weather, distance, convenience and other factors may each play a part, the main reason that people don’t bike on the streets is fear of getting hit by a car.
It isn’t easy to change their minds. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Transportation set out on a 10-year project with two goals: encouraging people to bike and walk more and making these two modes of transit safer. Federal spending on bike and pedestrian improvements increased steadily, from approximately $25 million in 1992 to $422 million in 2003 (Missouri received $19 million). The Department of Transportation reported mixed success. Bicycling got safer, with fatalities dropping by 23 percent in the period, to 626 in 2003, but bike trips, as a percentage of total trips, actually decreased slightly.
Infrastructure improvements have a big impact on perception. A simple paint stripe on the road makes people feel a lot safer. The Department of Transportation conducted a poll and found that cyclists feel twice as safe when they’re riding in a designated bike lane. Lanes “give people comfort,” says Elisa Crouch, co-writer of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s “Along for the Ride” column. But she’s not sure the perception matches the reality, noting that the side of the road, where bikes are relegated, is often poorly maintained, and she’s not confident that those paint stripes mean much to motorists.
Cunningham says, “Motorists who complain about potholes have no appreciation of how much tougher it is for us. The lumpy, dumpy, crappy pavement, where all the debris gets swept, is for us cyclists.”
Ensuring that cyclists not only feel safe but are safe is a key concern at Bike St. Louis. As part of the planning process, Padberg-White bikes around the city, checking street conditions and traffic. “We watch average daily traffic and avoid putting people on busy roads or fast traffic roads,” she says, “and we go by real speed, not by speed-limit signs.” On streets that will not accommodate a safe bike lane, the trail uses arrows to alert motorists to the possible presence of bikes—without giving cyclists the false sense of security that comes with a paint stripe.
The folks at the St. Louis Bicycle Federation, whose main priority is representing the transit cyclist, have mixed feelings about bike lanes. Bob Foster, the group’s president, says, “Bike lanes give a feeling of safety—I probably wouldn’t have started commuting without them—but if not properly designed, they cause problems.” He points to bike lanes such as the one at Kingshighway and West Pine, which ends abruptly, dumping bikers into the path of right-turning cars. Russ Willis, the Bike Federation’s secretary, says that the paint stripe sends the message that bikes are limited to one side of it when, according to the law, they’re as much entitled to the entire road as cars are.
Both men are seasoned bike commuters. Willis uses his bike and MetroLink to travel between the Central West End and Bridgeton. Foster bikes from Webster Groves to Creve Coeur. They claim that they are able to ride in traffic, asserting their rights and making drivers respect them. Joseph Black, a valiant cyclist who commutes from the Near North Side to University City, has a differing view: “There are occasional scary situations. People don’t consider you a vehicle. Even making eye contact doesn’t help.”
Foster applauds Trailnet’s efforts but adds, “No bike trail is ever going to go from my house to my workplace. Cyclists must have access to the road system.” What will make biking safer, he says, is not changes in infra-structure but safer motorists and cyclists.
St. Louis bike advocates concur that drivers’ attitudes toward cyclists are improving. But the road cyclist must learn to brush off occasional hostility. If you’re having a fit of road rage, says Padberg-White with a shrug, “it’s more gratifying to shout at cyclists than other cars, because cyclists can hear you.”
More dangerous, perhaps, is complete inattention. “I enjoy riding in traffic,” says Willis. “It keeps me on my toes. But I’m depending on drivers to pay attention. Considering cell phones and so on, I should check my mirror more often. That car coming up to pass—does the driver know I’m here?” He and Foster would like to see more information about the equal rights of cyclists included in driver education.
Crouch notes: “I get a lot of mail from cyclists complaining about drivers—and a lot of mail from drivers complaining about cyclists.” Drivers’ main beef, she says, is that although cyclists want equal rights with motorists, they act as if traffic regulations don’t apply to them: “They blow through red lights and don’t signal. These people are not making it easy for cyclists to gain acceptance.”
Surprisingly, Foster agrees. “I have been pulled over by cops for running stop signs,” he says. “I welcome that. Law-flouting cyclists are the biggest obstacle to progress. Motorists always bring that up when I go to public meetings. They appreciate when you behave like an adult, a responsible road user.”
Willis, emphasizing that he’s speaking for himself and not for the Bike Federation, pokes fun at the motorists’ holier-than-thou attitude. “It’s a myth that cyclists breach rules more than cars,” he scoffs. “The rolling stop is the rule for both. Anyway, cars are large and dangerous. Rules made for them are not for us.” Although he concedes that abiding by the law is “good PR,” he speaks for many cyclists who find it hard to do so when actually out pedaling.
Longtime cyclist James Duffy, a resident of the Central West End, takes a harder line: “We should hold our friends to the same standard we do opponents. Grown men on bikes wheeling down sidewalks need to realize they’re the equivalent of cars in a bike lane.”
At the moment, a look at cycling in St. Louis shows grand visions on the greenways and gritty realities on the street. In the future, multitudes will bike the River Ring on weekends. But what will it take to keep the overwhelming majority of them from getting back in their cars on Monday? Cycling advocates believe that changes in infrastructure or mindset will do the trick, but Crouch, for one, is skeptical. “It has to be so inconvenient to drive that people consider an alternative,” she says.
Until we have Chicago’s terrible traffic and expensive parking, we won’t have its bike-friendliness.
By Cory Schneider
"St. Louisans hate bikes. I have been run off the road, honked at, yelled at, spat at, all because I'm riding on the road, which is perfectly legal. I was riding on Douglas Road last year and a bunch of guys drove by and threw a soda bottle at me. It felt like getting hit in the leg with a bat."
"If I see one, they're going down. They make me paranoid about my driving. I always think I'm going to hit one."
"Bikers should be on the sidewalk or not anywhere. I don't want to kill anyone. I'm not malicious, but move it to the side. There's a reason cars and bikes don't share the highway—safety—so they shouldn't share roads, either."
"Bicyclists want access to the roadways, and motorists think bicyclists should stay on the sidewalk. There's no easy solution."
"I get annoyed with bicyclists, especially the idiots who don't wear helmets. They weave in and out of traffic and don't stop at stop signs. I don't know why they feel so much safer when they're on a bike."