Rapid Transit as a St. Louis Regional Priority – 1965

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Fifty years ago St. Louis was discussing the need for rapid transit. Political leadership supported the idea, and there was at least consensus that something needed to change. In 1965 St. Louis congestion was a real challenge.

The combination of exploding car ownership, new highways through the urban core, and residents moving to the suburbs and jobs not yet having followed, jammed any new road that was built. As we have observed, the problem had been identified more than half a century ago.

While surely many in 1965 didn’t believe that St. Louis was embarking on “what promises to be its greatest period of expansion”, suburban flight had changed the equation for the region. Soon, residents and jobs would be moving at an unprecedented pace.

One answer proposed was rapid transit. Although St. Louis would wait until 1993 and the opening of the first MetroLink segment between North Hanley and 5th & Missouri in East St. Louis. Still, at least the conversation 50 years ago understood clearly the definition of rapid transit. Today we talk about Bus Rapid Transit on highways without dedicated lanes or prioritized signals.

Yet the challenges are different today. The promoted purpose of transit is different today. Economic development of blighted areas is presented as on par with moving people. Expanding MetroLink would represent rapid transit expansion, but change in bus service, a city streetcar, and the Loop Trolley are something else.

Should St. Louis prioritize true rapid transit today? Should we instead focus on walkable and transit dense neighborhoods (a concept not recognized in the documentary from which the clip below is excerpted). What is the region’s challenge today, and how do we address it?

Good evening, our subject is rapid transit for St. Louis. Or maybe we ought to phrase it like this: “Rapid transit for St. Louis?”

The City of St. Louis now has a Metropolitan Area Transit system consisting of busses with one remaining streetcar line to be phased out. The City of St. Louis, however, notably lacks a rapid transit system, and the distinction needs to be made clear right at the very start.

Urban transit, generally speaking, is a system of passenger-carrying vehicles like street cars or buses operated for the use of the public along regularly scheduled routes in the Metropolitan Area. Rapid Transit, on the other hand, has come to mean that part of an urban transit system that operates along an exclusive right of way.

A Bi-State bus on a public highway is not, strictly speaking, rapid transit even when it is
being driven at fifty miles an hour in light traffic. The reason it is not rapid transit is because it shares the right of way with automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, and any and every other kind of gasoline or diesel powered rolling equipment licensed to use the public roads.

Here, however, is an example of rapid transit. The electric cars are not streamlined or excessively powerful and they operate over this route and an average speed of not more than 45 miles an hour, but the point is that they operate on a private right of way without the hindrance of street-born traffic, even in the rush hours.

Rapid transit can operate overhead, or at grade level, or underground. It can operate on conventional steel rails or a monorail. Perhaps someday in the future it’ll be able to operate without rails or even any wheels at all.

Nowadays there’s an almost desperately revived interested rapid transit. All around the world engineers are re-evaluating old rapid transit ideas like suspended monorail systems, and are
experimenting with new concepts like trains of automated rubber-tired electric-powered coaches to run along special concrete tracks.

This television program will be about the possibility of developing a rapid transit system for
St. Louis and it will take up such related questions as whether we can afford one or whether
we even need one in the first place.

[Woman on the street]
“Oh I think rapid transit would be a wonderful thing. I think it would revitalize the downtown section, would be a way for people to go downtown easily and without having to worry about parking their cars.”

[Man speaking from his car window]
“Mass transit system would be of no particular advantage to me because when I get to work I need my car several times.”

Some say yes. Some say no. Some say maybe. But assuming St. Louis should decide to go ahead with plans for a rapid transit system, there would then rise up a whole host of secondary problems like where would you put the rapid transit lines? Could you make use of the railroad tunnel that runs under downtown St. Louis and across Eads Bridge? And what kind of a rapid transit system should St. Louis consider? Something futuristic and little radical? Something conventional, but tried and true?

Well, these are some of the questions and considerations we should try to put in logical order as this program proceeds. The subject of a rapid transit system for St. Louis is surprisingly important and surprisingly urgent.

[Raymond Tucker, City of St. Louis Mayor]
“It is the development of a rapid mass transit system that I feel should have first priority among matters to be pushed on a regional basis. It would not be practical or even possible for this part or that part of the earth to go it alone in providing rapid mass transit. Without widespread informed and determined citizen support rapid mass transit cannot become a reality.”

We repeat: the difference between ordinary urban transit and rapid transit is the ability of the rapid transit vehicles to go over traffic or alongside traffic or under traffic instead of everlastingly plowing through traffic as in this city of St. Louis, Gateway to the West, at the beginning of its third century, and what promises to be its greatest period of expansion.

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  • John R

    Pure shame a rapid system wasn’t begun in the 60’s/70’s; surely our population and jobs loss in the city would have been mitigated to some degree and our region as a whole much more competitive. It also was a time when society was able to get big civic projects done; it’s much harder to accomplish such tasks these days.

    Anyway, my 2c is that moving forward we should prioritize a N/S route that connects through downtown to existing Metrolink. Light rail would be preferable, but if cost is too prohibitive to move forward soon a solid BRT line would suffice. I’d also make the 70 line down Grand more BRT-like by adding enhanced shelters at selected stops (and perhaps trimmed down number of stops) with wait time notifications and pre-board payments. Getting comfortable and efficient transit down Grand and Jefferson/W. Florissant that speeds up travel times a bit and provides a decent development boost would be huge for our core.

    I see this as somewhat separate, but I’d also like to see the Saint Louis Streetcar proposal move forward as well but with a significant funding mechanism generated by property owners along the line like what KC Streetcar is doing (and perhaps sponsors like what Detroit is doing for M-1 line stops.)

  • Chicagoan

    Attracting investment/jobs/street life downtown is something St. Louis needs to improve on. All it takes is one company to move downtown and start scooping up the region’s best talent to get the ball rolling on that trend. A trend that has been ongoing in other cities, but hasn’t yet taken off in St. Louis.

    There are too many dead blocks downtown, with blacked-out windows and empty storefronts. Getting more jobs downtown could have a great effect on the area.

    More downtown jobs could help fill those storefronts and spur investment in downtown residential projects.

    Urbanizing the Gateway Mall would also be great to see. There are way too many parking considerations along there. It should be walkable, all the way from 20th Street to the Arch. There’s already way too much parking (lots and street) downtown, allowing people so much of it along the Mall just encourages automobile use.

    It’d be cool to see a couple of streetcar lines moving east/west downtown, Market or Pine, something like that.

    I’m sure that (or something similar) has been discussed quite a bit, though.

    • matimal

      Have you ever though about WHY St. Louis or anywhere else is the way it is?

      • Chicagoan

        Yes, the suburban industrial complex overwhelmed all other forces in postwar American society 🙂

        • matimal

          So, until this changes, describing anything else is like wishing on a star.

          • Alex Ihnen

            Well, it is, and has, changed in very significant ways. The national economy is still too tied to housing starts, new roads, etc. But, banks are willing and able to loan money for new homes and rehabs in the city (that’s been happening for a while, but didn’t for decades, and we’re still suffering from that redlining and other anti-city lending biases). The investment in MetroLink is big as well, and more/less stable funding for transit. City parks (many) are as nice as they’ve ever been, medical centers and schools aren’t fleeing the city as they once did. There are still massive challenges, but I think the city/urban areas are competing with the suburbs on a more even ground than they have in decades.

          • matimal

            I agree. Attracting investment to downtown St. Louis will be the effect of this change, not the cause. Describing WHAT should happen won’t make it happen. Explaining WHY it hasn’t happened is the first step in making it happen. The collapse of Chicago’s south and southwest sides and the growing investment in the loop and north side are caused by the SAME forces. They aren’t separate things. You can’t explain one without the other.

          • Chicagoan

            Alex asked “What is the region’s challenge today, and how do we address it?”

            I responded by saying what I think are some of the region’s challenges.

            Also, what does Chicago have to do with the St. Louis region? Unless you’re looking to discuss the Midwest?

          • matimal

            Yes, I know. I disagreed with you by saying that the things you describe aren’t the cause of St. Louis’ regional challenges, but are instead the effect of St. Louis’ regional challenge. St. Louis’ regional challenge is the power of the suburban industrial complex to direct resources, public and private, to the exurban fringe where they benefit particular private interests and not shared public interests. The same forces are at work in both St. Louis and Chicago. They aren’t parallel universes. You don’t somehow escape these forces by moving from St. Louis to Chicago.

          • Chicagoan

            I don’t think Chicago faces quite the same issues as St. Louis when it comes to this urban vs. suburban rivalry, which is more complicated in StL due to the city/county issue (Hence the existence of Better Together). Though the “suburban industrial complex” surely exists here, yes. We’ve lost plenty of companies to job centers in Oak Brook and Schaumburg (among other suburbs). It exists in every major metropolitan area in the United States and I definitely agree that suburbs benefit from private interests.

          • matimal

            Chicago’s south side is every bit as bad as St. Louis’ north side. The Loop’s gains have to be measured against the losses of hundreds of thousands of middle and working class tax payers to the west and south of the Loop. The finances of Chicago are at least as bad as St. Louis city. This is all caused by the disinvestment driven by the suburban complex. Metro Chicago’s population has grown only slightly more than St. Louis’ as a percentage in the last decade.

          • Chicagoan

            Honestly, I think Chicago’s Southside is better than St. Louis’ Northside, though both have their rough spots. If you go a couple of blocks north of downtown StL, it’s pretty hollowed out, whereas Chicago has the South Loop. There’s been a lot of new development and there are proposals for skyscrapers by Helmut Jahn and Rafael Vinoly, so it’s become a thriving area.

            Chicago also benefits from having McCormick Place and the Museum Campus there, both of which have large proposals on the way. There’s also the Museum of Science & Industry, the University of Chicago, and U.S. Cellular Field and I don’t think StL’s Northside has comparable institutions.

            There are also some great neighborhoods like Bridgeport, Chinatown, Hyde Park, and Kenwood, places that are as nice as some neighborhoods on the Northside. You also have the boulevards/parks system, which includes two Frederick Law Olmsted commissions.

            President Obama’s presidential center will help whatever neighborhood the foundation chooses (it’s set to attract a world-class architect as well), and we just had a whole neighborhood (Pullman) named a national monument. So, it’ll be managed by the National Park Service like the Arch grounds.

            There are definitely parts of the Southside that are rough. Empty blocks of homes, lots of gang violence, but the Southside has a treasure trove of good to it, too.

          • matimal

            Do you work for the Chicago Chamber of Commerce?
            I mean Chicago’s southern half stretching to its municipal boundaries, not the former parking lots and weedy fields that have been built on because they are immediately adjacent to and visible from the expressways leading into and out of the Loop. Southern Chicago is every bit as bad as the northern half of St. Louis in crime, property values, and depopulation in the last 15 years. Chicago city finances are worse than those of St. Louis city if only because Chicago’s depopulation began later and proceeded more slowly than that in St. Louis.

          • Chicagoan

            I mentioned Bridgeport, Chinatown, Hyde Park, Kenwood, the Museum of Science & Industry, the University of Chicago, and U.S. Cellular Field, the boulevards/parks system, Pullman National Monument, as well as significant approved/proposed rail investments.

            Also, none of the things I mentioned are that visible from the expressways leading into and out of The Loop. There’s only one expressway leading into The Loop and it moves through the West Side, not the South Side.

            I can see this discussion is going nowhere, though, so I’ll just let it be.

          • matimal

            Yes, just ask yourself why things are as they are and you’ll be able to do much more than create lists of attractions. Alex has shown that he wants this to be much more than a travel/civic booster site.

          • Chicagoan

            What makes a neighborhood? Or, neighborhoods? Its institutions. Architecture, housing stock, infrastructure, museums, parks, stadiums, universities, things like that. These kinds of things are what make Lafayette Square one of my favorite neighborhoods.

            I was simply listing off some reasons that I love the Southside.

            Now, let’s get back to St. Louis…

          • matimal

            Good neighborhoods maximize the value of their space. They pay for themselves in the truest and fullest sense. Good Neighborhoods are about function. The form follows the function in good neighborhoods. You can’t know whether a neighborhood is good by listing what’s there. There are great neighborhoods with no museums, stadiums, universities, or things like that.

          • Chicagoan

            Why Chicago, though?

            I don’t see very many similarities. I think Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are good possible comparisons.

          • matimal

            Things don’t have to be similar to be usefully compared. A comparison of Honolulu and Providence, Rhode Island might reveal something worth seeing. Seeing St. Louis as somehow disconnected from, and incomparable to, the rest of the world is one of St. Louis’ biggest problems in my view.

  • matimal

    It’s heartbreaking to think what might have been without the suburban industrial complex overwhelming all other forces in postwar American society.