April 1, 2015

Biking St. Louis

My exploration of bicycling culture in the St. Louis region

            Yes, that is a tattoo of a bicycle chain ring on my leg and yes I love bicycling! As most did, I learned how to ride a bike as a child, initiating my journey on two wheels by pedaling out of the guiding arms of my grandfather and straight into a bush. I picked bicycling up again in high school and, growing up in Tucson, Arizona, found that a bicycle could be both a recreational tool and a viable transportation option. Bicycling quickly became a form of empowerment and independence, allowing me to challenge myself with ambitious rides as well as becoming my main form of transportation throughout college and a lifelong obsession.

            When I moved to St. Louis for graduate school one of my first goals was to figure out what the cycling culture was like. A chance conversation with a bartender at a conference I was attending shortly after I arrived pointed me towards SafeTGA, an organization seeking to improve cycling conditions along Tower Grove Avenue, a major north-south bike-commuting route.

When I learned about this group and that Tower Grove Avenue runs alongside the Missouri Botanical Gardens, originates from Tower Grove Park, and is nearby a number of great restaurants, I was eager to try out this bike route but was quickly disappointed by the faded, patchy bike lanes and constant dodging of car doors riding there required. However, SafeTGA successfully fought for buffered bike lanes that were recently painted onto Tower Grove Avenue and on a recent ride I felt safer biking within those bright white lines.

            I have also seen other improvements to bicycling infrastructure popping up all over the city. Just a few weeks ago I was delighted to discover on my commute home that new, buffered bike lanes had been painted on Union Blvd, a busy, high-speed road. In a buffered bike lane, there is an additional small lane painted on either side of the actual bike lane, providing a “buffer” between the cyclist and cars.

After their installation I was biking on Union one evening and was almost run over by a car occupying the entire bike lane (and yes, I had lights on my bike!). As the car approached me from behind with no signs of slowing or moving around me, I was forced to swerve in front of traffic into the center lane and narrowly avoided being run over and crashing into the parked cars lining the road. This near miss made me cynical and disappointed in these new bike lanes—mostly I realized that without motorists expecting and respecting bicycles on the road, no amount of paint is going to make bicycling safer.

            My exploration of bicycling culture in St. Louis also led me to discover Trailnet, an organization dedicated to improving bicycling and walking in the St. Louis region. In order to help these efforts, I volunteered at Trailnet’s bicycle valet parking at Fair St. Louis, an annual three-day Fourth of July festival held this past year in Forest Park, the largest urban park in the country. As the bicycle valet, we maintained a secure area where fair-goers could drop of their bikes as they enjoyed the fair then pick them up as soon as they were ready to head home. The enthusiasm for this service was evident in the relief and joy riders expressed upon discovering our corral and showed me that simple amenities can make a big difference in how people view biking.

            I also help with the yearly Bike and Pedestrian Documentation Project where the number of bikes and pedestrians at various intersections is measured in order to direct future transit projects, including where amenities like bicycle parking should be placed.

            Bicycling has also been a great way for me to make friends in St. Louis and check out the local trails. A fellow grad student and I became friends over a shared love of biking, so we initially biked together around Forest Park, which boasts a few miles of paved, scenic bike paths. After a few spins around the park we began looking for other trails in the area and decided to tackle the Mississippi Riverfront Trail.

            The St. Louis portion of the Mississippi Riverfront Trail begins close to the Arch and heads north, skirting scrapyards, former electrical plants, and other industrial facilities. It then travels through some light forest and a park before ending at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, an exclusively bicycle and pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River that is part of historical Route 66.

A mischievous GPS instead directed us further south to Grant’s Trail and a shorter ride along a forested trail, culminating in a visit to a nearby museum neither of us knew about before. With a new trail discovered, we did a little more research and have since biked along trails both in St. Louis, such as the Mississippi Riverfront and Katy Trails, and trails in neighboring Madison County.

            My quest to discover the cycling culture of St. Louis has been encouraging and fun and a quest for new sights leaves me with routes to try and infrastructure to test. Given the enthusiasm of the city for bicycling and the many groups creating a supportive community, I anticipate many more trails and bike lanes to test—better get started on that list!

 Links for more on bicycling in and around St. Louis