St. Louis Struggles With an Old Question: “Why Go Downtown at All?”

Alex Ihnen at NextSTL uncovered this video from a 1965 television program about traffic and commuting in the St. Louis region. Noting the growing number of businesses in the suburbs with “free parking,” the narrator asks, “Who needs to go downtown at all?” This leads to a vision of the future that turned out to be eerily accurate:

On the surface at least, this question seems to suggest a realistic and sensible solution to the problem of all-day parking and rush hour traffic in the central business district of any big city. Why go downtown at all? Why, indeed.

Just the same, many of us will have the uneasy feeling that this solution is almost too easy, that there’s a hint of danger in it, the threat perhaps of some kind of social disorganization on an enormous scale.

The suburbs surround what we have long thought of as the central city, the core area, but what will happen to the surrounding belt of suburbs if this core simply disintegrates and then vanishes? Could the suburban belt just go on expanding forever leaving a bigger and bigger circle of nothing much in the middle, a bigger and bigger hole in the doughnut?

Ihnen says the video presages the hollowing out of St. Louis, which lost about 60 percent of its residents since the time this video was shot. And to an unfortunate extent, the question at the center of the video is still relevant today, he writes:

We continue to talk about rapid transit expansion (a new MetroLink line), and urban transit in the form of streetcars and buses. We continue to preach the necessity of a strong urban core. We continue to complain about traffic and parking. What’s been learned, what’s changed in half a century?

Why are we still asking “Why go downtown at all”?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Seattle Transit Blog reports that the city might cancel the transit portion of the deep-bore underground highway project that was sold as a “tunnel plus transit” plan. Naked City considers whether Charlotte can become more walkable and bikeable. And Streets.mn presents a four-part proposal for growing the Nice Ride bike share system.

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