Lesser of Three Evils for my Saint Paul Bike Commute

mississippi-barge

The tantalizing promise of barges.

I recently moved from Hamline-Midway in Saint Paul to the West Seventh neighborhood near Mississippi Market and, at about the same time, changed employers. Rather than biking from near Snelling and University Avenues to Cedar and 10th Streets, I am now biking from near West Seventh and Otto to Jackson Street and Second Street – a rather odd location, but my employer provides indoor bicycle parking on the loading dock. The new commute had so much promise. I was planning on taking Shepard Road – lovely river views, tugboats, and an off road path!

Then, two weeks into this new commute, I was hit while crossing Sibley Avenue at Shepard Road. Ironically, a few weeks before I was hit, I posted a map to Facebook asking for suggestions about crossing this intersection. I knew I was going to get hit. And, I did (again).

I do not think I am a particularly risk-prone bicyclist. I do think I tend to bicycle in places that are set up to be dangerous, not by choice, but because these are the places I live and work.

Convalescing in bed after the crash, I studied routes to try to figure out the safest route. I found three routes, but also discovered that each is more dangerous than my previous commute down Charles Avenue. Here’s my review of each route with (hopefully) simple suggestions for improvments.

Option #1: Shepard Road

This route was my first choice. I knew the intersection at Shepard Road and Sibley Street would be a problem, but it was the obvious choice. So often, however, the challenge with bicycle infrastructure is how it interacts with existing auto-centric infrastructure. Once I was on the trail, things were great. It was getting to and from the trail that was the problem.

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Here is the entrance at Otto Avenue. Coming from the trail to Otto Avenue is okay. There is a beg button and a crosswalk to westbound Otto Avenue. Getting from Otto Avenue to Shepard Road is a bit trickier. There are two pork chop islands. The one with the red circle has a beg button and the one with the red x does not. The stop light cannot sense bicyclists and does not automatically change. Turning left from the turn lane and treating it like a stop sign would be an option if not for the speed of traffic on Shepard Road which is essentially a freeway. Currently, to access the red circled beg button an eastbound cyclist has to go the wrong way into the right turn lane on the north side of the pork chop for a curb cut.

Solution? Add curb cuts, a crosswalk, and a beg button to the pork chop on the south side as well as a curb cut to the trail. Some additional green paint indicating that bicyclists are crossing or maybe some flashing lights would be a nice touch.

Unsatisfied with crossing at Otto Avenue, I tried the entrance at Randolph Avenue/James Avenue. Here is an aerial view of the intersection.

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The red line is a route from James Avenue, which is a quiet mostly residential street and a nice alternative to Randolph Avenue. Duke Street, which is the north/south street at James Avenue is the signed bicycle route to Jefferson Avenue, a bike boulevard (sort of). The challenge is intersection placement. As a bicyclist in the crosswalk with traffic turning left onto northbound Shepard, I am nearly invisible. Numerous times car drivers did not see me until they almost hit me, particularly during morning rush hour.

The other option is the blue route. It requires two crossings (Shepard and Randolph) and two beg buttons, as well as biking on Randolph. The speed limit on Randolph is 40 miles per hour and it feels like traffic is moving much faster. The road is not in good condition so requires a bicyclist to pay attention to breaks in the concrete and crossing rutted rail road tracks.

Solution? A beg button would activate a pedestrian/bicycle only crossing phase. All traffic stops except for the pedestrians and bicycles. Also, the beg button on the northwest corner is several feet from the sidewalk. Extend the concrete to the beg button and make sure to clear snow blocking access.

After a pleasant ride on the trail to downtown, I have to exit the trail to get to my loading dock on Second Street and Sibley Street. This is where I was hit. I am not going into specifics of that crash because arm chair quarterbacking helps no one. The driver was doing exactly what this intersection told her to do and I was following signed bicycle routes. It is the intersection that is dangerous.

The major challenge about fixing this intersection is that everyone uses it. It is the only entrance from Shepard Road to downtown except for Eagle Street and it is the truck route. It needs to accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians, big trucks, and rush hour traffic. A train bridge runs through the intersection and bridge supports block sight lines. Soon the Custom House condominiums will offer luxury living with river views. I imagine lots of people buying condos will want pedestrian and bicycle access to the river, which will only increase traffic at this intersection.

The pavement varies from asphalt to concrete to cobblestones. Water drips from the bridge above. The curbs are tall and curb cuts are often makeshift asphalt wedges. Both Jackson and Sibley are short steep hills to Kellogg. Traffic moves fast coming down Jackson and the bridge forces a lane division. Coming downhill on Jackson drivers must chose a turn lane and often unpredictably shift lanes because they do not want to end up in the wrong turn lane. Turning radii are wide to accommodate the big truck traffic. There is a bike lane on Sibley Street that starts at Shepard Road and continues to Kellogg Boulevard, but then stops. Left turning vehicles often make wide turns into the bike lane.

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This aerial view shows possible routes to and from Shepard Road to the red star, which is my loading dock. From Shepard Road, the green route uses the crosswalk, continues to the bike lane on Sibley Street, and then goes the wrong way on Second Street (there is almost no traffic on this part of Second Street).

Other than going the wrong way on Second Street, the main problem with the green route is crossing Sibley Street at Second Street. There is no curb cut, so the bicyclist has to wait in the bike lane to cross. It is difficult to see approaching auto traffic because of the high speeds and the rail road bridge blocking sight lines. The bike lane is pretty sketchy – big trucks regularly drive in it. Coming from Second Street to Shepard the green route is okay.

The biggest challenges of the blue route are the crosswalks at Sibley and Jackson Streets. I have not driven this route, but on a bicycle I feel invisible. The yellow route is a route from downtown to Shepard Road. The biggest challenges are the steep hill on Jackson, the condition of the pavement, and turn left onto Shepard Road itself until the curb cut at Sibley. It is no fun biking in a 45 mph zone! There is no curb cut at Jackson Street and Shepard Road.

Solutions? I am not a traffic engineer. I feel little lost on this one. There is so much happening at this intersection and so many different types of users. Repaving the entire area rather than the current mishmash of paving materials would allow users to concentrate more on traffic rather than the road surface. Improving and putting in curb cuts seems obvious. How about a curb cut and crossing at Jackson Street to Shepard? Big trucks do need to get through here, but the wide turn radius encourages high speed turns. Maybe mountable curbs would allow the necessary clearance for trucks, but slow down smaller vehicles? The sidewalks are very wide under the railroad bridge at Sibley. Maybe there is room for a separated bike path? Like my recommendation for Otto Avenue, maybe a button activated pedestrian/bicycle only light cycle would do the trick.

Option #2: 35E Sneaky Trail

After Shepard Road proved not to be the dream I imagined, I have mostly been taking what my family calls “The Sneaky Trail.” The Sneaky Trail is actually called the 35E Trail. It runs adjacent to the east side of the 35E sound wall from Saint Clair Avenue to Grand Avenue. My son calls it the Sneaky Trail because it is on the berm next to the sound wall and takes users above the backyards and alleys below. If feels like spying silently from above on these private spaces. It is also sneaky because hardly anyone, bicyclist or otherwise, knows it exists.

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Here is the trail head on Grand Avenue. It is easy to see why no one knows it is there. Can you find it?

Like Shepard Road, the challenge is how bicycle infrastructure interacts with existing auto-centric infrastructure. The red circle is the trail head. The green and orange lines are two ways of getting there. Coming from Thompson Street from the north, the lane markings and stop lights only offer right and left turns. There is no indication that traffic might go straight, seemingly into the 35E off ramp. Drivers have no idea that a bicyclist might be headed straight through the intersection. I currently handle this by making eye contact with right turning traffic exiting the freeway and pointing to the trail head.

Another option is to take Grand Avenue, turn into the Burger King parking lot, and then get onto the sidewalk. That option requires being comfortable making a left turn with oncoming traffic from the freeway and down Ramsey Hill.

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Coming from the trail, heading north to Thompson Street, is tricky. The stop light does allow traffic to go straight, but bicyclists are on the sidewalk to the right of right turning traffic. Right turning cars coming off the freeway do not look right for traffic on the sidewalk. It is difficult as a bicyclist to position oneself to clearly indicate that you exist and are heading north. Additionally, cars going straight to Thompson Street are not expecting to suddenly have a cyclist next to them.

Solution? A big green stripe that connects the trail head to Thompson Street would be a solid start. Signage indicating the trail exists would be nice. Some real love would be a bicycle light phase similar to the ones on 5th Street NE and Broadway Avenue or Stinson Boulevard NE and New Brighton Boulevard in Minneapolis. I love those little bicycles on the street lights.

On the south end at Saint Clair Avenue the trail ends (temporarily), crosses Saint Clair to Osceola Avenue, and from then becomes a mix of on street signed routes and off road path, loosely following 35E. Heading north the crossing at Saint Clair is not that bad. Traffic comes down the hill fast and anywhere near a freeway entrance ramp is challenging, but it is okay. The trouble is heading south. The red star shows where the trail ends. Continuing on the signed bike route requires crossing diagonally across the intersection (red line). This is difficult enough with cars coming down the hill fast and right turning traffic onto the 35E entrance ramp, but inevitably whenever there is a break in east/west traffic, a car pulls up to Saint Clair at Osceola Avenue. Either the bicyclist crosses in front of those cars or waits. And waits. And waits as the break in east/west traffic ends.

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Heading south I have been exiting the trail at Michigan Street (green line) and heading to Webster Street to make my turn. However, the trail does continue off Osceola Street and anyone wanting to continue on the trail will be making an unnecessary jog east.

Solution? I have no idea. How do bicyclists get diagonally across a busy intersection safely? Make this a Dutch-style roundabout with separation for bicyclists? Traffic needs to be slowed on Saint Clair Avenue, but that still does not solve the problem of getting diagonally across the intersection.

Option #3: West 7th Street

The final option is just to rock it down West Seventh Street. West Seventh Street has one lane in either direction and a center turn lane from Otto Avenue to Goodhue Street. The wide parking lanes offer bicyclists a sort of de facto bike lane, as long as one is aware of people exiting parked cars. Traffic is generally light enough that I feel sort of safe. Bike lanes would be great, but that would involve removing parking and we know how that goes.

At Goodhue Street, however, West Seventh becomes a four lane Death Road™ into downtown. As Bill Lindeke describes, “It’s a four-lane street where cars are weaving unpredictably at high speeds, turning left at low speeds. You’ll see cars speeding around other cars stopped waiting to make a turn, or cars weaving around other cars racing to make a stoplight. Death Roads™ often have narrow sidewalks and usually lack an on-street parking buffer. The mix of speeds and multiple lanes means that biking on, driving on, or trying to cross one of these streets can be deadly.”

West Seventh Street from Kellogg Boulevard to Goodhue Street has all these characteristics, made only worse when there is an event at the Excel Energy Center. For myself, biking down these roads brings out the worst in bicyclist behavior. Out of a sense of equal parts self-preservation and rebelliousness, I tend to jump stop lights, take the entire lane, ride in the “suicide lane” between parked cars and through traffic to get ahead of cars at the light, and take an overall aggressive stance. This is clearly not “my space,” but these designs make me feel like demanding space.

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Solution? It came to me in a dream, but West Seventh would make a great 4-3 conversion with bike lanes. Of course, there is parking shortage, shown by the red circles, so that is unlikely to happen.

A Full Menu of Options

lets-make-a-deal-doors 2

It’s like the Monty Hall problem. Let’s Make a Deal!

Each day I vary my route between these three. Feeling rebellious? Take West Seventh. Feeling sneaky? 35E trail. Feel like mixing relaxation with stress? Shepard Road. Have the children with me? Generally 35E trail, but sometimes Shepard Road. Need to shop or run errands? West Seventh.

I tried to think of solutions that would not only solve the problems with these routes, but that are also reasonable to implement and not too expensive. Can some paint and a few changes in light phasing make big differences? Maybe.

In the meantime, a girl can dream about puppies, kittens, rainbows, and safe bicycle crossings.


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9 Responses to Lesser of Three Evils for my Saint Paul Bike Commute

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke December 17, 2015 at 10:18 am #

    Safe bike connections to Shepard Road and the river trail is long overdue and embarassing it hasn’t happend already. The city is spending a lot of time thinking about things like the downtown bike loop or the river balcony, but making these tiny little choke points safe should be step #1 for any improvements to downtown biking and/or the riverfront access.

    • Doug Trumm
      Doug T December 20, 2015 at 7:48 pm #

      I hope the addition of Rebecca Noecker to the council helps them enact some real changes rather than just talking about bike improvements that never materialize. My old CM Russ Stark always seemed pretty good on bike stuff but I imagine the four wheeled majority tends to dilute or vote down good policy.

      I hope you’ve had a speedy recuperation, Dana! Thanks for highlighting this dangerous intersection and offering so many ideas for fixes.

  2. Walker Angell
    walker December 17, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    I don’t have time this morning to read your entire post but plan to later. It looks excellent and does a great job pointing out just how badly many of St Paul’s roads have been designed.

    I think what you’ve experienced is what Chuck Marohn has well described as a statistically inevitable outcome.

    http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/12/7/best-of-2015-a-statistically-inevitable-outcome

  3. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman December 18, 2015 at 7:26 am #

    At Otto and Shepard: A bicyclist on the road not being detected by a traffic light is a problem that should be fixed. Having said that it’s dumb the sidewalk on the south side of Otto doesn’t go all the way to the Shepard MUP, which would require the second pedestrian push-button.

    Shepard-Randolph: Even if you don’t care about how much X-ped reduces intersection efficiency for both motorists and pedestrians, with the other problems X-ped can cause and due to the free rights (probably necessary because of the skew of the intersection) I don’t think this is the place for one. A better option would be a implementing a protected only phase for turning traffic off Randolph, or even just a flashing yellow arrow which at this point makes motorists more cautious than a “yield on green” (which could also provide a protected only phase during peak periods).

    Sneaky Trail: I’d suggest a flashing yellow arrow and leading pedestrian interval, as well as painting the crosswalk if it’s as bad as it looks on Street View.

    St Clair: For starters there could be a marked crosswalk across St. Clair, then a beaon, HAWK or RRFB.

    7th: Thinking big, it’s been discussed several times but I’d like to see the trunk highway designation switched to Shepard/Warner (which is already the designated principle arterial) and 7th take on a characteristic more of a neighborhood street. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be political will to do what is needed at 7th/Shepard and the bridge, and it would be difficult from an engineering point of view at Shepard and I-35E.

    I also wonder if ideologically transportation planners tend to lump bicyclists into those that ride only ride on the streets and those that only ride on protected infrastructure, so not a lot of thought it given to transitions.

  4. John Babcock December 18, 2015 at 1:10 pm #

    Hope you are feeling better and recuperating. I do hope the condominium development will spur the city of St Paul to improve the crossing where you were hit sooner rather than later. As I bike throughout the metro area with my kid in a Yepp seat, I would be interested to hear your opinion if walking the bike across that intersection of Sibley and Shepard would be a safer bet than biking, or if the design of the intersection is so poor that any crossing is basically unsafe.

    • Dana DeMaster
      DanaD December 18, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

      I haven’t been downtown with my children lately, but the few times I’ve used Shepard with the kids I have walked the bike. I don’t know if it is safer. Another option that I don’t use daily because it is a PITA is the elevator in the Science Museum parking ramp. I use Eagle Street from Shepard and then go to the ramp. The ramp exits on Kellogg.

  5. brad December 18, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    Connecting to the “sneaky trail” from downtown is also not easy or clear. The first time I did it, I went down Thompson behind Regions Hospital, and needed to go on faith there was actually a bike path diagonally across the street. The only signage was a big Do Not Enter sign for cars not to enter the highway offramp.

    • John Babcock December 18, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

      Thanks for your insight, esp the elevator in the Science Museum parking ramp. That can be really useful for that part of the city.