We Need to Re-Think Closing Streets

By Richard Bose, an Electrical Engineer by profession. He earned a BA in Physics and Economics and an MSEE from Washington University in St. Louis.


St. Louis needs a more formalized process for opening and closing streets. Closed streets should be reviewed periodically or at least by request, and closing them in the first place should take more than asking the alderman and passing a bill via aldermanic courtesy. Closing a street could work like a liquor license requiring a certain number of signatures from residents and property owners within some distance of the blockage. Perhaps they should reopen by default after a set time unless reauthorized.

The streets belong to the whole city; we all pay for them. They don’t belong just to the block they front. There are much better ways to calm traffic. The blockages make traffic worse overall; they don’t just move it elsewhere because they force people to drive further. They also make it harder for emergency responders to reach their destination. In the case of large fire trucks it would be best if they could reach a site from two directions.

One closed street, the Thurman underpass, where Thurman Avenue passes under Interstate 44, has spawned a design competition. Despite some creative talent and time put into the project, it remains closed. Hopefully its days are numbered as the closure now divides two relatively prosperous neighborhoods, and the old prejudices may fail to keep barricades in place. As with many street closures in the city, this one can be easily undone.

Too Many of our streets have been cut off and the street grid interrupted.

  • Some for highways

  • Some for parking

  • Some for roads

  • Some for failed housing projects

  • Some for new developments

  • Some for pedestrian areas

  • Some for universities

  • Some for parks

  • Some for stadiums

  • Some for a national monument

The most frustrating are the ones that block otherwise passable streets.

  • Some are pretty

  • Some are bollards

  • Some are Jersey barriers

  • Some are Schoemehl pots, named after the mayor in the 80s.

Most of them are in neighborhoods. They came to be out of fear and desperation. Fear of thru traffic. Fear of scarce parking. Fear of crime. Fear of outsiders, fear of the next block over. The street grid best absorbs and distributes traffic. It best supports multimodal transportation. It creates the best platform for wealth creation. It provides the most eyes on the street. It permits the most flexibility in adjacent land use. It evolved over the centuries all over the world for these reasons.

The hierarchical street structure developed in order to make car-oriented places. The cul-de-sacking of St. Louis hasn’t solved our problems. It’s given us the worst of both worlds- streets that don’t go thru and roads that can’t handle peak traffic volumes all at a high cost. Removing most of them just takes courage and choosing to have an open city. Let’s heal the grid.

A grid doesn’t necessarily mean an all right angle Cartesian sort of street network, rather a highly connected street network. So while a city like Boston has a messy street system it is still stronger than a hierarchical network of cul-de-sacs, collectors, and arterials. The hierarchical network reinforces single-use land use, while the flexibility and accessibility of the grid offers higher utility per unit of infrastructure. In other words a community gets more for its money if it has a street grid. Our ancestors innately knew this. As we continue to degrade our highly interconnected street network though blockages and vacations, we diminish these strengths.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri- St. Louis