This Week in Urbanism: Anchor Institutions w/Dr. Todd Swanstrom | Now Available to Stream

This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis.

This episode features an interview with Dr. Todd Swanstrom, a Des Lee Professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis as we discuss anchor institutions in the St. Louis area.

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This Week in Urbanism: Road Diets | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

Missouri Metro’s weekly podcast, This Week in Urbanism, just released its second episode titled “The Problem with the Suburbs”. You can listen to the podcast on Spotify Fridays at 7AM and supporters on Patreon have exclusive access to the content one day early. If you would like to support the channel, head over to patreon.com/brianadler.

For those who cannot listen to the podcast, below is a text readout of this episode’s contents:

You’re listening to This Week in Urbanism from Missouri-Metro.

I’m your host, Brian Adler. This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis. So, stick around and subscribe so you don’t miss the Friday morning shows as we take you on a journey showing how St. Louis is moving forward. If you want to listen a little early, check out our Patreon supporter page at patreon.com/brianadler to support this podcast.

Today is February 18th, 2022, and today, we’re going on a diet. Or should I say, a Road Diet?

Here’s a question for all my listeners – How many of you regularly drive on these massive city roads with, say, 6-8 lanes total? I can think of several here in St. Louis where we have just massive roads with several lanes going in each direction, and boy, it’s utterly insane.

But that’s just the price to pay for reducing traffic, right? Surely adding lanes reduces congestion, right? Common sense, it seems, may just be a common trap for bad policy.

*Insert Traffic Noise*

Traffic is cringeworthy. It gives us anxiety, makes us late for work, and probably makes us all pull our hair out. It also leads to some pretty darn bad behavior. A 2019 study from the National Institute of Health showcased a U-Shaped curve indicating that increased traffic congestion also leads to increased traffic accidents. It’s not too hard to see how that might be the case when mere inches separate cars amidst stop and go traffic while tensions and anxiety run high. I probably don’t need to work all that hard to convince you that traffic congestion is bad when we all hate long commutes, but I also definitely want to point out the impact of traffic congestion on the environment too. There’s a standard emissions curve that showcases vehicle speed in relation to carbon emissions, and the picture it paints isn’t very pretty. What ends up happening is that cars stay on the road for longer idling or moving slowly, which exacerbates the impact on the environment because it is at very low speeds that vehicles release a significantly higher amount of carbon dioxide. So inefficient speeds combined with longer times on the road leads to worse air quality and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

We all probably want to tackle this, and it’s absolutely frustrating to do nothing. Generally, we think about traffic as an issue directly connected to the number of lanes and considering the number of lanes really becomes the only variable that cities and neighborhoods consider changing. It makes sense, but, as I’ll discuss in a moment, only furthers auto dependency, and digs the community deeper and deeper into a worsening traffic congestion problem.

You may not yet believe me, and you may have previously advocated for more lanes. Don’t stop playing this just yet! I’m not coming after you, but here to shed light on this solution not giving us the solutions that we all want. In fact, before diving deeper into academic studies and progressing in my graduate program, I clearly remember advocating for more lanes to reduce traffic. So, there’s no judgement here.

Let’s start with the recognition that this science and research is not new. Researchers have been looking into traffic for decades simply because it has been a continually worsening problem that we all hate. In 1989, The Southern California Association of Governments concluded that adding lanes or creating double decker freeways would have no impact on traffic save for a cosmetic appearance of solving a problem that isn’t being affected. Crazy, right? How could we build so much more capacity only to not have a large impact on the problem?

Well, a study from UC Berkeley studied traffic in 30 California counties between 1973 and 1990 which showed that each 10% increase in traffic capacity, so essentially increasing lanes, traffic congestion increased by 9% within just four years. An analysis of dozens of studies suggested a very similar result finding that within just a few years, a 10% increase in capacity leads to a 10% increase in usage and vehicle miles traveled. In the few studies that showed reduced congestion, it was a very small benefit compared to the amount of space that simply was absorbed by increased usage. This is problematic for so many reasons. We spend so much time and money trying to relieve congestion, only to end up with stagnant or increased traffic and emissions. That sucks!

What occurs is something called “Induced Demand”. There are some great resources to understand how this process works, and I’m going to do my best to summarize the core elements of induced demand. We’re going to dive into some simple economics for a moment.

Let’s start here. In introductory economics, one of the first things you learn about is the supply and demand curve. For those unfamiliar, imagine a graph with price on the y-axis (that’s the vertical one) and quantity demanded on the x-axis (that’s the horizontal one). There’s a curve, called the Demand Curve, that showcases for most normal goods that quantity demanded of a particular item is low when price is high and high when prices are low. In other words, demand is elastic in that it is responsive to price.

The same is true for driving. The cost of road travel decreases in the initial months after a road expansion is completed. That’s because congestion initially decreases, so you spend less time commuting and thus spend less on gas commuting. There is also a lower opportunity cost for your time as the total time spent commuting is lower. So, there is less of value you could do in that shorter commute than, say, if you spent 2 hours on the road instead of working for a certain wage or spending time with family, which is probably worth some value to most people. This reduced cost makes driving more attractive and INDUCES more demand, pushing more drivers onto the new roads that they hear are reducing commute times. There is also a body of research that showcases how driving demand really is elastic! So, we’re not just making this up.

In effect, traffic ends up being diverted toward the new lanes. In addition, it induces traffic that did not occur in the first place because driving is initially more competitive than other options, or at least more so than just before the road expansion occurred. As such, new vehicle trips are generated in addition to diverted trips.

Once we understand how induced demand ultimately can increase road usage and traffic, we can use the same framework to perhaps work toward the real and perhaps less ideologically comfortable solutions.

It may seem like ages in this podcast episode since I seemed to arbitrarily say something about roads and diets, but we’re finally getting back to that point. An emerging strategy that cities have been using to calm streets is really the exact opposite of what we’ve been talking about. Cities have been employing “Road Diets”, essentially purposefully reducing capacity usually in the form of lane reductions. Say you have 2 lanes in each direction, in some of the better road diets you may see this reduced to one lane in each direction for cars, one lane for a bus-rapid-transit route, and protected bike lanes. You still have the same amount of space, but you’re adjusting it to serve more uses and reduce room for individual cars. Ultimately, you will often find that road diets move more people. By making transit and biking more convenient, they become more attractive and induce demand for those services. On the other hand, you can dissuade demand for driving by making the cost of road travel increase. Demand decreases and traffic ultimately decreases as well. This is related to behavioral economics and is well rooted in empirical research. People will switch their behaviors to public transit, biking, carpooling, biking, or even moving closer to their jobs.

I’m not making this stuff up. A 1998 study combined 150 sources of evidence and 60 case studies from the US and other similar countries and found that traffic was significantly reduced when road capacity had been reduced, of which less than half could be detected simply being diverted to other roads, indicating that behavior had really changed. The study concluded that reallocating bloated roads for other purposes like pedestrians, bikes, and more can improve the experience for all uses without significantly increasing congestion. This doesn’t mean that everyone will change their behavior, but that many people will and may even find better solutions along the way.

Of course, this has a bunch of real-world positive externalities. Businesses will find calmer streets to place their tables against. Room for protected bike lanes saves lives, induces healthy and environmentally friendly demand for biking, and fewer pedestrians will be hit. Less traffic means fewer greenhouse gas emissions and fender benders along the way. Dedicated transit lanes mean reduced costs, better access, opportunity for transit-oriented development, and of course, fewer emissions.

This isn’t a pipe dream, folks. This is the future and the present. It’s happening now, and despite lots of pushback when these plans are proposes, communities where road diets take place will often be the first to tell you after the fact how much of a positive difference it makes.

Here in St. Louis, we just saw a major road diet completed on Hampton from Gravois to Chippewa – a big stretch of road! The road diet entered the public consciousness several years ago after jay drivers were smashing into businesses and harming pedestrians. As the owner of Abigail’s Gift Boutique mentioned in a St. Louis Public Radio feature, a car smashed into her business at 45 miles per hour alongside Hampton a few years ago and ended up destroying most of the store. Thankfully none were injured. Of course, she mentioned that nearly every day she heard the screeching sound of accidents outside. Just a couple years ago, a cyclist was hit and killed along this stretch as well. This was not a safe place to drive.

The Road Diet took the formerly four-lane road and limited traffic to one lane in each direction with a center lane and wider parking lanes. Honestly, in my view, they could have done a whole lot more to provide incentives to other forms of transportation, but this is still a step in the right direction. The owner of Abigail’s Gift Shop already sees more pedestrians outside and feels her commute is probably affected by less than a minute. She mentions that her customers feel significantly more comfortable crossing the street too.

This is just a start, and a whole bunch of St. Louis arterial roadways are congested and frankly dangerous for drivers, pedestrians, and bikers alike. Kingshighway, for example, would be an absolute nightmare to bike on. I do not bike on this street, and I bike around the city a lot. I avoid it, and my wife does too because we don’t want to die. But it’s not just biking, the sidewalks feel plainly unsafe as cars recklessly speed by or perform gymnastics around one another to see who can hit the next red light the fastest. Taking the #95 bus along this route is also an exercise in frustration, as you must cross a horrible street to reach your destination half the time with far too few crosswalks, your bus gets cut in front of or not let out of its lane, or otherwise finds itself in the same gridlocked traffic as everyone else.

To make our cities better and more livable, we must be able to think outside the box and work toward solutions that don’t fit the mold of common sense. We have empirical research, and a lot of it, that showcases the standard strategies of reducing congestion simply do not work. Our streets should not be endless lanes of car-traffic. Our cities should be flexible and meet the needs of all types of commuters, and they should do so safely. While it may surprise some listeners, not everyone wants to drive a car, and already many people commute by other means. We can cater to them and make traffic better.

Remember, solutions aren’t always comfortable or expected. But that’s life. Life is full of nuance, and we’re lucky that life is full of researchers who choose to investigate these practical topics. So, here’s what I want you to do – next time you see plans to address congestion, go to those meetings. Be bold enough to stand up to bullshit anecdotes because our cities don’t need more of those. We have evidence backed solutions that have been formed for decades, and we simply don’t have the time to be held back by traditionalists whose vision for cities will trash our planet, kill pedestrians and bikers, and harm businesses. If this sounds harsh, well it is. People don’t realize the importance of this topic until you do your research and see how many people have died and will continue to die until we get our stuff together.

People, this stuff is serious. If we want to combat climate change, address equity, provide for opportunity, and save lives, then we must be committed and stop messing around. I’m not talking about this to simply make our cities look prettier or to make a silly suggestion to reduce traffic, but to address real problems on top of them. So, show up to these meetings and be the voice of reason that we need to change hearts and minds. We have direct, local democracy in cities so let’s use it – because we need a seat at the table.

This Week in Urbanism, I want you to help me create a better world. Let’s get on this, together. This was our mission last week as well, but we have a lot on our plate.

Stay tuned for an exciting interview with a Dr. Todd Swanstrom, a leading academic who studies St. Louis, gentrification, neighborhoods, anchor institutions, and more next week.

Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.

Ronald McDonald House on Chouteau Poised to Revitalize Whole Block, Help More People

The Ronald McDonald House, an organization dedicated to providing affordable housing for families visiting St. Louis for children’s medical care, has long been planning to upgrade its facilities in the region. The organization currently has a capacity limited to 59 families due to their facility limitations, leading to a wait list that they hope the additional room will alleviate.

While St. Louisans may not be the direct beneficiaries of the Ronald McDonald House, sick children and their families across Missouri often must come to St. Louis to access needed medical care. Often that means staying for a long time at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Children’s Hospital, or Siteman Cancer Center. With that in mine, it is very important that the Ronald McDonald House should be as close as possible to relieve the burden on families.

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The proposed development will be located on the 4300 block of Chouteau in Forest Park Southeast. It will sit adjacent to the highway (64/40), just across from the Central West End where all of the healthcare facilities are located. According to RMHC, “The House will be equidistant from St. Louis Children’s Hospital and SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital adjacent to Shiners Hospitals for Children – St. Louis. “

Location pin pointed on Google Maps

Despite the quickly accelerating property values in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood and dwindling land availability, the North side of 4300 block of Chouteau (much like the Drury-held properties on Kingshighway) is vacant and blighted. A former church, Emmanus Baptist, sits at the corner of Tower Grove Ave and Chouteau, abandoned for years and slowly seeing its fortunes and structural integrity decline. The more industrial looking building is a former warehouse, though it may look more like a prison than anything else with large, barbed wire fencing on the Eastern half of the property.

Image from Google Street View

The proposal itself will significantly improve the block, consolidating the three parcels into one for their construction. As the organization will be also consolidating the units from two other locations into this development, it will also be quite large. According to minutes from the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association from a 2018 meeting, the proposal calls for 60 units at this location, over 10000 square feet of public space, and 11000 square feet of office for RMHC. Although we are now well past the anticipated start and completion dates indicated in that meeting, it appears now that the Ronald McDonald House is gearing up for construction.

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Just this weekend, the group finally put up large signs with renderings and information in front of the site. Moreover, there have been large teams of people inspecting the property over the past few weeks. Missouri Metro has reached out to RMHC for more information regarding a new timeline. Regardless, the design seems to be just about finalized and residents can expect the finished result to look like the rendering below:

Rendering of the Ronald McDonald House – RMHC

If the rendering is a good indication of the final product, then RMHC will be using high quality materials across most, if not all of the façade. The streetscape will also be improved significantly with repaired sidewalks, trees, and more pedestrian activity. The organization is also suggesting that the building will be significantly more energy efficient than their current setup, while also indicating that the staff-on-site will substantially improve the patient and family experience.

This development will go a long way toward revitalizing one of the few vacant stretches in Forest Park Southeast and provide a truly beneficial service for families and children across the state of Missouri.

St. Joseph Housing Initiative Showcases a Model for Regional Collaboration in Dutchtown

The mere mention of the St. Louis’ Dutchtown neighborhood to your average St. Louisan invokes a wild arrangement of responses from ardent passion to a cratering negativity. The neighborhood, one of the most dense in population in St. Louis City, has Germanic roots and became a popular working class community. That is, until the mid 20th century when St. Louis began seeing its decades-long population decline led primarily by “white flight” – a demographic transition that contributed to vacancy and abandonment across the city and region.

Dutchtown saw its population halve, but that’s hardly the full story. Much like other parts of St. Louis, the decline has slowed, or in many cases, been replaced by increases in population. This particular community also diversified significantly and is currently experiencing a modest population increase – a rather historic milestone that may not have yet been noticed by most in the region.

Graph provided by Downtown Dutchtown

It’s not terribly surprising then that those outside of Dutchtown often speak of the decay. There’s some truth to that perception too. Driving throughout Dutchtown, there are plenty of boarded up buildings. This is particularly tragic in many ways as we have plenty of unhoused people in the region and extensive housing stock simply not being used. The architecture in Dutchtown is also stunning. With gorgeous brickwork as far as the eye can see, corner shops, and mixed-housing from dense multifamily interspersed with single-family homes, the neighborhood has the same architectural quality and urban design as Shaw or Forest Park Southeast.

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Their perception is really only half the story. Dutchtown’s many challenges aside, it appears to be in the midst of a steady, community-driven revitalization thanks to the incredibly hard work of its residents. While that work is evident in the higher home values, the many rehabs taking place through its streets, and the shops opening up within its boundaries, the real evidence is within the people. Their hard work has been channeled into multiple mission-driven organizations that collaboratively work together for the betterment of Dutchtown. When Annie Purcell, the St. Joseph Housing Initiative Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator reached out to me about their May 1st cleanup, she emphasized the collaboration of the many community organizations. I agreed to cover the Spring Block Cleanup, already familiar with SJHI and Dutchtown organizations more broadly, but had never attended one of Purcell’s events before.

The May 1st Block Cleanup hosted by St. Joseph Housing Initiative is but one of their many volunteer events. For those unfamiliar with the housing initiative, it is an organization that works to revitalize housing in Dutchtown to resolve vacancy and then offer their renovated units below market-rate. They hope to tackle vacancy and increase home ownership opportunities and subsequently equity for low-income residents as a tool for financial security. They frequently tap into their volunteer network to put in the long work of painting, landscaping, cleanup, and more to make the process as affordable as possible. Unlike some housing and renovation programs, SJHI genuinely puts forth a good product with above average finishes, solid appliances, and with respect for the historic architecture in the city.

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It turns out that many of the SJHI volunteers also are active in other neighborhood and community organizations. This particular event was sponsored by a whole cohort, including Cure Violence, Downtown Dutchtown, Dutchtown South Community Corporation, Employment Connection, St. Mary’s High School, and Operation Brightside. Newly elected Alderwoman Schweitzer attended the event as well and contributed to the cleanup efforts. The event was packed, with dozens of volunteers ranging from local families to leadership at the many organizations described above. Most volunteers lived within the neighborhood, but there was also strong attendance from people in the County who may have grown up in the neighborhood – some truly shocked to see the neighborhood clean and picking up steam. There were also some members of big STL area institutions, bullish on Dutchtown. One such member who wished to remain anonymous clarified the importance of bolstering not just South City, put all parts of North City as an essential mission for St. Louis.

That mission and striving for equity across St. Louis reverberated throughout the many conversations I had with volunteers, and there was a palpable aching for more regional collaboration. This event featured a host of organizations, a strong Dutchtown presence with some additional members of the broader STL community, and the success of the event appeared to contribute to a longing for more like this in the region. There were at times members of different organizations connecting, discussing how similar efforts could be recreated across the city – and this very reporter was invited by multiple organizations and institutions to not only report on their progress, but to be a part of it and a connector for such efforts.

SJHI Block Cleanup Volunteers – Brian Adler

Regional collaboration is a sore spot for the St. Louis region. With a sharply divided City and County and a deep history of racial segregation, working together and finding common ground is far from easy. That said, if any community is finding that link, it is Dutchtown. With a growing, diverse population and tough, decades-long challenges, Dutchtown has found a sense of identity and purpose. It is that identity that leads to a single organization like St. Joseph Housing Initiative being able to pull the kind of volunteer crowd it does and simultaneously pull focus on the regional collaboration it has helped cultivate.

It’s also far more than one event. The regional network of organizations fuels and promotes events for all of its partners underneath a core brand. With its ‘Dutchtown Proud’ campaign, it’s common to find yard signs, T-Shirts, and branding everywhere across the community. There is significant buy-in among residents and local business owners. New businesses are often introduced to the network prior to ever opening their doors, or even finding a location, instead seeking guidance from the CID and DT2 first.

Dutchtown Shop: https://www.dutchtownstl.org/shop/product/dutchtown-proud-yard-sign/
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Combined with the nearby efforts along Meramec St. from the owners of Urban Eats to create a food hub in what is technically a food desert, the Neighborhood Innovation Center and its efforts to boost community engagement and innovation, the Thomas Dunn Learning Center, and more, the neighborhood is booming with activity and it is all connected. As St. Louis’ neighborhoods each individually find their footing in this century, perhaps the next challenge will be to expand the collaboration for a more unified city and region. St. Joseph Housing Initiative and Dutchtown more broadly have the foundation, the volunteers, and the potential to serve as a model for the region.

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Note: If you or your organization are working in St. Louis’ North or South neighborhoods on projects geared toward equity, inclusion, and revitalization, please reach out to Missouri Metro at missourimetro@gmail.com

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