From the Bike Corral - Presidents Monthly Message: Transforming Communities - Getting Back to Basics

Transforming Communities: Getting Back to Basics

This month I am going to go through some personal experiences that I hope will provide you with ideas and witnesses about how you can transform communities to great places by getting back to basics.

I am a planner, engineer, project manager, marketer, advocate, elected official and regional citizen.  In other words I care about the world and want to make a difference.  I take two philosophies to heart from a mentor of mine, Freeman McCullah (District Engineer in St. Louis during my time as planning director). It is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission (he did not care about how I got things done, just that I got them done), and second to always make an impact in what I do.  These have echoed in my mind for most of my professional life.  To go with these philosophies, I have another quote that serves as a foundation for these philosophies, from Mark Twain: “Always do right.  This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest”. 

MoBikeFed President Paul Wojciechowski
MoBikeFed President Paul Wojciechowski

There is one other person that has been of great impact on me.  When I joined Alta Planning + Design, I was immediately impressed by the staff but none more than Mia Birk, President of our company.  She wrote a book called “Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet”, which has been an inspiration to me in recent years because we shared the similar struggles of change from the inside in public sector jobs.   The basics I am speaking on today involves four of the 50 keys to success you can find in her book that I feel apply to Livable communities. 

1.    Creating communities require the understanding that biking and walking are more than a sport, recreation, or a mode of commuting.

2.    To create Great Places you must engage the community and develop visionary plans that encapsulate community values and then immediately begin implementation.

3.    Create a robust network of streets and low-stress facilities that attracts those that are not current walking or biking

4.    Successful communities need strong local political leaders, effective community advocates, well trained and supported city staff, and outside experts.

Growing Up Blue Collar

Many articles or speeches today start with “I grew up in a car addicted way of life and transformation occurred”.  I am going to start a little different.  I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and I was not a part of a car addicted family, quite on the contrary, I grew up in a one car household.  My mom drove and my dad did not.  In fact he did not drive until he was 58 years old, in 1986. That is when he finally had to learn to drive in order to get to work, because transit and carpools to East St. Louis became too difficult as he neared retirement.  As a kid, my father biked, walked, carpooled, or took transit everywhere.  One of the requirement my parents had in choosing the place to live, and where my mom still lives, is that it was on a transit line and near shopping so we could walk there, being that we only were a one car household.  I still have fond memories of walking to Northland Shopping Center with my dad.  I also took the Red Bird Express with a friend to Cardinal ball games.  I will never forget walking to get new shoes from Red Goose shoes and the golden egg that came with the pair of new shoes. Unfortunately, Northland finally gave way to big boxes, and car oriented transportation to those big boxes.

As a teen I walked three miles to Jennings High School, in the snow I might add.  The school district had eliminated bus service and my parents were certainly not going to drive me, so walking or biking was the only option.  It was a daily adventure with my friends.  Travel speeds on local streets were low, and so were traffic volumes.  Some places had sidewalks, most did not, but we still felt safe to walk or bike.  This is something we focus on in the Neighborhood Greenway/Bike Boulevard concept at Alta.  Keeping travel speeds and volumes down on these types of routes, usually connecting to schools along the way; is absolutely critical.  I will never forget a friend of mine who was a crossing guard, when they still had kids helping with these duties, and was struck by a car at a major intersection.  The low speeds of the early seventies, and the low speed of the vehicle that hit him, allowed him to survive.  The attached graphic depicts the relationship of speed and surviving crashes.

Embracing Change and Changing Attitudes

 In my personal and professional experience, the bicycling and walking elements of the transportation network are low cost, but offer the highest payback to communities in the mobility toolbox. Strangely, or perhaps as a result, these are the elements that that attracts the lion’s share of controversy and backlash, especially bicycles. Every dollar spent is scrutinized and criticized as wasteful spending. Transportation officials even have a term for this - “bike-lash” – to describe the seemingly inevitable nastiness that ensues when a new shared-use path, bike lane, or funding source is proposed or implemented.

Change is difficult, but for some reason, it was relatively easy and quick to go from bike and pedestrian friendly street car and transit focused environments to the infrastructure of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s that fueled suburban growth and deeply ingrained bad habits that are really hard to overcome, even though we know the problems it causes. Unfortunately the result of being focused on automobiles has cemented our addiction to drive through land-use practices, prioritizing movement of cars over people, lack of  public spaces, limiting funding mechanisms in many places, and building design that does not endure the test of time. The prospect of overcoming car-oriented social engineering seems like a mountain and an uphill battle, but it is mountain worth climbing.   

Hundreds of communities are working toward sustainable (even this is a dirty word in some places) transportation reform. In those making the most progress, officials grow to understand that the bicycle is more than sport or child’s play, more even than a mode of transportation. It is a tool for empowerment and advancing urban sustainability. It is a vehicle for social change, and it creates choice. This is positive, no matter what political party you align yourself with.

The first of these keys to deepen one’s understanding of the bicycle, and walking as much more than a sport, toy, or mode of commute. Rather, it represents a powerful vision of social change and a positive future that can be enjoyed by not just a small, ultra-fit minority, but a wide swath of society. Not just in sophisticated, densely packed urban areas. Not just for those with lots of money (a common misperception: the bicycle is only for elite adrenaline junkies in spandex shorts on fancy road bikes). Nor just for those without money (an equally common misconception: the bicycle is only for the poor or disenfranchised.) Bicycling and walking also addresses the first and last mile connection needed to transit stops and stations.  Biking and walking is for all of us.   

But how does one get to this level of understanding?

For me it took a couple of guys; Mike Murray and Jim Pona.  These two came into my office while I was District Traffic Engineer at MoDOT in St. Louis asking what my plan was for integrating bicyclists and pedestrians into our roadway designs at MoDOT since we were transitioning from MHTD to MoDOT.  I did not have the answer right then, but it made me really think about what I was doing and how to make the transition from highway guy, to transportation professional. From there on, the opportunities kept coming to enlighten others and through projects. For others, it may take a major event or tragedy.

Basics key number 2: engage the community and develop visionary plans that encapsulate community values and then immediately begin implementation. This approach has been used to great impact in Portland, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and in dozens of medium and small towns with whom we are working at Alta Planning + Design.

In 1996, I was given the chance to manage the first major Major Transportation Impact Analysis (MTIA) or some called them MIS’s in the Midwest, the Cross County MTIA.  This was a planning study that looked at highway improvements, and light rail expansion and a system approach.  The result may be to build light rail and not a highway.  The result was just that.

It was this study that provided additional insight into the world of transportation, and transportation planning.  Before ISTEA it was engineers preparing improvement plans, now it is a whole new ball game and approach to integrating land use and transportation.  Trips to Portland and looking at Growth Boundaries further enlightened me as to the impact of land use on our transportation network.  This actually led to further enlightenment into the advocacy, planning and world of public service.

If you want progress you need a plan, and to have a plan you need to have a vision.  There are two examples of this that I would like to share on creating the plan and the need to implement immediately keep momentum of the plan.

While at MoDOT, Freeman gave me the task of mending the fences between MoDOT and the newly formed City of Wildwood.  Now at this point I was just moving toward planning and understanding the subject, since I was trained as a highway guy.  MoDOT had tried to engineer a replacement of a 2 lane road to a 4 lanes in far west St. Louis County.  It met with significant opposition and the formation of a “Save the Greenbelt” group.  In addition, suburban development had begun chewing up land and creating street after street of cul-de-sacs and clearing of trees.  The land use pattern was impacting creeks and streams and created the need for bigger roads.  The City of Wildwood was formed on September 1, 1995, as a result of these two main issues.

The Rte. 109 Commission had representatives of five different cities in the group since all of these cities were impacted by the Rte. 109 Corridor (Picture of the Corridor).  The effort was to match the City vision with a plan that worked for neighboring cities and MoDOT.  By 1999, we had a plan that included a series of roundabouts along the corridor with only widening Rte. 109 in the Town Center of Wildwood that would support their Master Plan, yet provides for moving people; in cars, on bikes and as runners and pedestrians in a mix of rural and new urban development.  Immediately following the completion of the plan trails began to line the corridor and that pretty much solidified the fact that the plan was in the implementation stage and that the vision was being executed to the T.  One other result of this was that the Mayor of Wildwood appointed me to the Planning Commission, and subsequently I was elected to the City Council.  I am now in another term as councilman and love the chance to serve the city.  Currently the core widening is in the implementation stage.  This just goes to show the need to plan and begin implementation as soon as possible, because securing funds and design takes time.

Another key implementation example involves the Gateway Bike Plan of 2011 in St. Louis City and County. Working with Great Rivers Greenway  we created a plan that included over 1000 mile of interconnected on-street bikeways and trails to connect into the 600 mile River Ring Plan.  While most people want great bike facilities, in a City-County of near 100 municipalities, an entity need to continue taking the lead in the implementation.  Before the plan was even approved the plan, we put projects on the ground to show what the plan meant, and that implementation was in progress.  During the first year following the approval of the plan, we began making presentations to cities and asking they pass a resolution adopting or endorsing the plan.  The  ongoing contract between Great Rivers Greenway and Alta Planning and Design provides the resources that maintains the focus on implementation of the plan in all facets of the 5 E’s, and provides the technical resources for project partners.  Currently Alta is designing the upgrade and expansion of Bike St. Louis of 108 miles of bikeways in the City of St. Louis.  The bottom line is the focus of any plan is to implement the plan and if you have a plan that encompasses community values and vision, people want to implement the plan.  Funding the plan is just the start.  A commitment to a plan must mean commitment to implementation. 

Are you for real? Streets for Everyone.

Basic key number 3: develop a robust network of streets and low-stress bikeways that attracts those that are not current walking or biking. With this, we are beginning to reach our target audience.

For walking our target audience is between the ages of 8-80, and of all abilities, but who is the audience for bicycling?

In most cities, less than 1% of the population, those that are already cycling to work are “strong and fearless.” Don’t need bike lanes. Will ride anywhere.

Then you’ve got 6-8% of the population who respond quickly to new bike lanes. But that leaves some 50-60% of the population who want to bike but are concerned about safety. For them, we need a higher level of separation from cars and a very low level of stress.  My wife Sharon is one of these people.

Only 20% of trips are the journey to work and it is the hardest one to change. The greatest impact can be had through the 80% of trips that are for other activities.

More than a Novelty

One final basic key I want to discuss: the right combination of people. To be successful, communities need strong local political leaders, effective community advocates well trained and supported City staff, and outside experts. With one or two of these categories covered, you can make some progress, but it is the combination of all four that is the recipe for success.

I am in my second term as a City Councilman in Wildwood.  Being an elected official is not easy.  You must take a stand on what is right, yet support residents, and explain your actions.  Balancing this sometimes leads to perception that you are not listening, but that is NOT the case.  Commitment to a mission is the one thing that resounds in my mind as an elected official.  For example, our town center plan includes bike lanes as part of the design guidelines.  The bike lanes, as well as the green markings support our master plan, as well as our design guidelines.  We plan to stay on track with our plan.  In my opinion, if you can weather initial storming that takes place when change is made, people usually get a better picture of the solution and if it was effective at solving a problem. 

The cities where complete street concepts are most successful overall tend to be places where people are already used to not driving for some trips. It’s often expensive or challenging to park. People take transit, car pool, bike, or walk. They don’t panic if they don’t have their cars. They are car-light in their daily transportation choices, relative to places where people drive for every trip. That’s rarely by coincidence. You will find, in all these places, strong political leaders who have championed non-drive-alone transportation modes and overcome terrible opposition and criticism in the process. You will find transportation departments with numerous staff dedicated to these tasks and traffic engineers whose understanding has evolved past merely moving people and goods as fast as possible by car.

The cities that have gone this route - like Alta clients in Washington DC, Chicago, NYC, Boston, and yes even in Wildwood – in working to fundamentally integrate all modes into their transportation systems following the basics.


Change is not easy, creating complete streets is not easy, but it is required to evolve, and create livable communities.  In my mind, it is about getting back to the basics. 

1.    Creating Communities require the understanding that biking and walking are more than a sport, recreation, or a mode of commuting.

2.    To create Great Places you must engage the community and develop visionary plans that encapsulate community values and then immediately begin implementation.

3.    Create a robust network of streets and low-stress facilities that attracts those that are not current walking or biking

4.    Successful communities need strong local political leaders, effective community advocates, well trained and supported city staff, and outside experts.