Experiencing the Fatal Flaw of Cycling Infrastructure On the Centennial Greenway

A few weeks ago my four year old son wanted to go on a bike ride. He’s been driving around in the parking lot of a vacant school near our house without training wheels for the past two years. He’s pretty good on his bike for a man who’s four.

But he’s kind of outgrown the parking lot and sidewalks that worked well for his balance bike. A trip to Hilton Head Island this year and several miles of cycling a day really spoiled him (and the rest of our family).

When I returned to St. Louis, I was a little more determined to make cycling a more common activity. The closest bike path to our home is the Centennial Greenway, which starts in Claytons Shaw Park. Due to the poor road junctions and the lack of protected road infrastructure, we cannot simply drive there from our house.

Riding to ride, perhaps, best underscores the essential problem of cycling infrastructure in St. Louis. Places are not connected. Investing in removing these barriers would have a greater impact on mobility and security than the long linear (and cheaper and simpler) projects we see.

Anyway, we drove to Shaw Park, unloaded our bikes, and headed out to explore the Centennial Greenway. A quick look at the map showed that we could head two miles north to Olive Boulevard and then likely turn around for our return trip.

The first mile of the greenway is pretty easy. You’ll see mulch piles and the back of buildings, but it’s a good, one-way drive. Crossing Ladue Road isn’t bad. It’s nothing more than an easy crossing, but the surface treatment and a little landscaping give the drivers a clue that people might be around. The surface treatment in the mall’s driveway appears to be fine too. People on bikes know where to go, and it gives riders an indication that something is different that they should be aware of.

The next section is nice, bypassing the Ladue Crossing mall and crossing a light road that only serves as a long driveway from Delmar Boulevard to the mall (it’s an odd, lavish street that becomes necessary due to the lack of road links to the surrounding suburban development). Then you come to Delmar Boulevard.

Crossing Delmar Boulevard is intimidating, dangerous, and ruins the greenway experience. The intersection is tangled, unclear, and apparently not designed by anyone who would actually use it. The mantra of bicycle pedestrian infrastructure fits here: If it doesn’t work for children or the elderly, then it doesn’t work, fits perfectly.

Here is the setup: 1) Cross the wide radius. Interstate turn right off the ramp. 2) Cross Delmar Boulevard. 3) Cross McKnight Road north. You do this on your bike, with a four-year-old on his bike.

{the view from Delmar at McKnight to the southeast}

{the view to the north over Delmar to McKnight}

So that’s five crossings. For us it was seven … seven intersections at one intersection. We crossed the first lane and drove straight ahead. The tiny island isn’t big enough for two of us to be there comfortably. It doesn’t feel safe. We reached the southwest corner only to find that you cannot cross Delmar from there. We turned, then crossed Delmar, squeezed into the tiny piece of space on the northeast corner, and so on.

The intersection can and should only require two intersections, one in Delmar and one in McKnight. The short picture below showing how this should work doesn’t show the cost, complications with the state DOT (Delmar is a state route) etc. But infrastructure like the greenway is only as good as the worst part, and that’s it . The big investment only works if this works.

We will not cross this intersection in the future. On this occasion we have. The next mile of the greenway is awful. You’re driving under power lines and along a deafening interstate. The video below is probably the worst route. The endpoint in Olive makes it clear it’s time to turn around while you stare at I-170 at Olive Interchange.

The Centennial Greenway Experience along I-170:

If I understand the idea correctly, greenways are generally meant to provide recreational space and a less disrupted path between our neighborhoods and cities. This will not work if the points of conflict do not work. When you put all of our resources into safe and easy-to-understand intersections, you can connect more places than concrete strips that fail where they are most needed.

Although the Centennial Greenway is billed as a link between Clayton, Ladue, Olivette, and University City, and as an option to exercise, commute, and connect with nature, it doesn’t work for my family. Will we be back Maybe someday (and turn around at Delmar) as there are so few alternatives. What choice do we have? We’ll also ride a lot less bikes than with better, safer crossings and usable cycling infrastructure nearby.

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