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How 10-year stroke survivor Steven L. Patterson gets around St. Louis

Buses, light rail, an electric wheelchair, and a newly modified car

Sidewalks curve through Citygarden, a sculpture park in downtown St. Louis.
Ian G Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

How do Americans move through their cities? Here at Curbed, we’re super curious about the transportation habits of regular folks. So, using a diary format, we’re asking real people to track their multimodal journeys for a week and report back with the highs and lows of what it takes to get around town.

Steven L. Patterson is a longtime resident of St. Louis, Missouri, where he’s the author of Urban Review Saint Louis, covering public policy, urban planning, and local politics. He’s also a stroke survivor. In 2008, Patterson was found by a friend about 15 hours after he’d had a hemorrhagic stroke. When he returned home almost three months later, he was barely able to walk.

In addition to his urban design musings, Patterson tracks how he gets around the city at @UrbanReviewSTL, where he points out accessibility issues, including subpar curb ramps. Here’s how Patterson navigates St. Louis in his multimodal Transit Diary.

Monday, March 19

My husband David and I set our alarm for 5:20 a.m. rather than 6 a.m since we both need to leave by 7 a.m. for a 16-mile drive from downtown into the suburbs. We’re headed to United Access, which sells wheelchair vehicles and adaptive mods such as hand controls, to add upgrades to our new car.

I’ve been comfortable driving since I first got back behind the wheel in 2008. At that time I bought a Toyota Corolla. After I got comfortable using transit, I sold the car. A year later, David moved in with me so he’d drive us places in his car. A year after that we bought a Honda Civic so both of us could drive. Both Corolla and Civic are compacts. The 2015 Hyundai Sonata we just bought is technically a full-size car. It’s very high-tech, too.

A spinner knob installed on the Sonata’s steering wheel.
Steven L. Patterson

We’d made an appointment to have a spinner knob and turn signal crossover bar installed a week earlier, days before we went to look at the car we were interested in buying. The spinner knob placed at two o’clock on the steering wheel and turn signal crossover bar allow me to operate a car with only my right hand. Though I know how to drive a manual transmission vehicle, my left leg can’t operate a clutch, so it’s only automatics for me. I drive our Civic while David follows in the newly purchased Sonata, then he takes the Civic to work and I stay with the Sonata. Parts and labor is $350.

Leaving United Access is my first time driving our new car in traffic. Map apps want me to hop on an interstate to visit a Missouri license office to register the car, but I avoid highway routes. For the last decade I’d had a disabled placard to hang from the rearview mirror—this time I get disabled plates.

I’m feeling more relaxed after visiting the the license office so I get on the interstate knowing I’d exit in a couple of miles for a parkway that would take me back downtown. Got up to 60 mph on the interstate and 40 mph on the parkway. Took a selfie while stopped at a light.

My back has been hurting all day. By bedtime I’m barely able to move.

Tuesday, March 20

I stay home all day, barely able to move due to back pain. David helped me put on a T-shirt, but I didn’t get dressed otherwise. David also had to get breakfast on the table, something I usually do while he showers for work. He had a doctor’s appointment so we had more time.

A St. Louis light rail train arriving at the platform in the Central West End station.
Metro’s light rail station in the Central West End is a convenient transportation hub.
Steven L. Patterson

We live in a loft in Downtown West, a neighborhood of multi-story buildings just west of St. Louis’s central business district. There are numerous bus lines very close, and light rail not that far away. Our building has underground parking in the basement. All of this makes it possible for me to daily errands using my electric Jazzy wheelchair, which I plan to do tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 21

I slept better and am able to get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. I am also able to shower, get dressed, and make breakfast, which is good because I want to go to a ribbon cutting this morning. The Bloom Cafe is a new cafe with a training kitchen for disabled workers in hospitality. The workers then intern in the cafe, giving them experience.

I head out to a cold bus stop a block from our loft and take the 10 MetroBus to the Central West End transit center on a reduced-fare two-hour pass. I get a transfer upon boarding the bus and at the transit center wait for the 59 bus to Paraquad, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities lead more independent lives.

I’d long been critical of Paraquad for not having an ADA-compliant accessible route from the public sidewalk to accessible entrance, so I am very happy to see they changed their parking from straight-in to angled to make room for an accessible entrance. There’s also a brand-new ramp up to reach The Bloom Cafe.

The author takes a selfie with Paraquad’s chair Kerri Morgan at the opening of The Bloom Cafe.
Selfie with Paraquad’s chair Kerri Morgan at the opening of BloomCafe.
Steven L. Patterson

I’ve known Paraquad’s current board chair, Kerri Morgan for a long time—in fact, before my stroke, I’d joined a group of architecture students at Paraquad to experience an hour or so in wheelchairs. A few years later I bought a condo two doors down the hall from her, just months before my stroke.

After the ribbon cutting, I take the 59 bus back to the Central West End transit center then switch to MetroLink, which is St. Louis’ light rail, to head to 8th and Pine Station. I’m still using my transfer as the original driver gave me additional time on it. The Central West End’s light rail station is the the busiest station in the system due to a huge medical complex including Washington University’s School of Medicine. The 8th and Pine station is interesting because it’s underground—the 1993 line utilized an old freight tunnel under the central business district.

Metro is just now introducing a fare card, so I stop at the Metro store across 8th Street to buy a full-fare Gateway Card for David to use when we take transit together. David and I both have Ventra fare cards for Chicago transit since we visit a few times every year using Amtrak, and my Ventra card is a photo-ID reduced-fare card.

I take a photo of the Gateway Card and post it to social media, noting that I’m still waiting on a reduced-fare Gateway Card. An hour later, I get an email from Metro saying I’ll get the very first one soon.

I pass by the grocery store on way home but don’t need to stop, so I keep going along the west side of our main library. Utility work had the curb ramp crossing 13th and Locust blocked.

A wide sidewalk on a downtown street but nearly all of the sidewalk is closed with signs and caution tape.
A closed sidewalk with no room for a wheelchair to pass means going back to the crosswalk and crossing the street.
Steven L. Patterson

The library reopened in 2012 after being closed for more than a year for a $70 million renovation project, which included moving the primary, accessible entrance to the north side. The project also included all new public sidewalks around the 1912 building. Unfortunately, most of the new curb ramps in the new sidewalks were built way too high—I pointed out the curb ramps to them days after the concrete was poured, but I was ignored. They tried to fix it by mounding asphalt up against the ramp. I’ve also asked the city to stripe a crosswalk at this signalized intersection, but they can’t do so with non-compliant curb ramps and they can’t afford to redo them.

David had the afternoon off so we drove the Sonata to lunch at Broadway Oyster Bar where we used a Groupon that was about to expire. The accessible door is locked so I have to stand using a cane while David goes in the main entry to come open the door for me. Visiting places alone in a wheelchair can be difficult because places rarely have a way of notifying them you’re outside trying to get in. I had the excellent garlic cream linguine with shrimp.

We then head to St. Louis’s south suburbs—what we call South County—stopping at Costco to fill the tank with gas before going to a Hyundai dealership to have them set up a free trial of Blue Link telematics that adds functionality via a phone app. Initially we wanted it so we could download an update to add Apple CarPlay to the infotainment system, but being able to lock and unlock the car from our phones might also come in handy.

Thursday, March 22

Still in pain today. I visit an ATM to deposit a check and pass by the library and Soldiers Memorial, which is undergoing a major renovation. I’ve been serving on an accessibility review panel for the project. Now 14th Street has been narrowed and curb ramps improved, shortening crossing distances. A second ramp has been added up to the memorial and a second elevator has been added inside.

At the ATM, the way it’s designed means I can’t wheel my chair directly toward the machine, I must come along the side and twist my body to the right. An ATM at another credit union is easier to access, but it requires an envelope for deposits—this one scans checks as you feed them into the slot.

Afterwards I want to stop at the grocery store but I can’t enter it directly at 10th and Olive due to construction utility work. I take Pine to 10th Street where the sidewalk is closed on the west side. I put a canvas bag on the footrest between my legs while shopping.

I head west along Locust toward home, but at 11th the “ramp” is full of water between the crosswalk and stop line. Here, the sidewalk is basically flush with the street, so I don’t use the puddle ramp, I have to go around.

I pass by the Jefferson Arms, which has been vacant over a decade—renovations are supposed to start soon. I notice that the crosswalk and ramp at 13th is open today.

A striped crosswalk that dead-ends into a curb with no ramp in sight.
A striped crosswalk that dead-ends into a curb with no ramp in sight.
Steven L. Patterson

Looking to my right there is a very visible crosswalk—leading right to a curb!

We have lots of these areas where a curb ramp’s vertical height exceeds the ADA requirements, as well as my chair’s ability to get over it. About five years ago, St. Louis’s streets director said I could just email the city’s asphalt employee directly for requests. I knew his name and email because the streets director copied him on replies to me. Asphalt is cheap and quick. These areas remain non-ADA compliant— but at least I can get by now. Able-bodied persons might not trip now, too.

I cross over 13th to get a shot of another library curb ramp. Not as bad as the others, but the access panel location must be a challenge for those in manual chairs.

Finally home, where I unload my groceries and relax.

Friday, March 23

My original plan was to drive 10 hours to Oklahoma for an uncle’s funeral that’s scheduled for Saturday morning, but I’m too tired since I hadn’t slept well all week.

Saturday, March 24

David drives the Sonata to work so I drive the Civic to Target for our monthly shopping trip. I often use the word “househusband” to describe myself. I do the cooking, grocery shopping, and laundry.

When I go to places like Target, the newer, underground parking is designed better than surface lots. Wheelchair vehicles need an access aisle adjacent to a disabled parking space—don’t call it handicapped parking—to extend their ramp. I need a second access aisle to open the driver’s door all the way for entry and exit. Putting on a seatbelt is fairly easy from the driver’s side of a vehicle, but can be a challenge on the passenger side. When David and I drive to places together, I always drive.

Today I also begin the process of listing the Civic for sale, and I will be relieved when it’s sold. It’s a hassle selling a car yourself but you get so much more value than you could just trading it in.

Sunday, March 25

After a busy week, it’s great just to stay home. The weather cooperated during the week, but the days I went out in the wheelchair wouldn’t have happened if it had been raining, or snow and ice had covered the sidewalks. After 27-plus years here, I’m pessimistic about St. Louis. I’ve given up thinking St. Louis will become pedestrian-friendly.