Life on Foot in our Ninth Largest City

population sign

St. Cloud

I spent much of this spring exploring the system of bike lanes and trails that South Minneapolis has to offer, as well as the state and county lands here in Sherburne County. Both are relatively new to me despite being a lifelong Minnesota resident. I spent my childhood in Becker, which meant our family made many trips to central Minnesota’s largest population center, St. Cloud. I lived in St. Cloud for about six months last year, marking the beginning of my pursuit of a carfree lifestyle; I’m still a frequent visitor to the city and whether I walk or bike, I still notice areas I think deserve some attention like the ones I’ll show you below.

Let me start off by saying, St. Cloud is relatively compact and well-served by public transportation. Nine months out of the year, the town swells with university students who receive free bus fare throughout the city. Metro Bus, who have trademarked what is arguably one of the best slogans in existence for a transit agency-The People Picker-Uppers-operate 15 fixed routes in the greater St. Cloud Metropolitan Area, which includes neighboring Sartell, Sauk Rapids, and Waite Park. This is in addition to the several Clipper routes that operate on the St. Cloud State University (SCSU) campus, although these are being replaced this fall by increased fixed route services. I can’t think of a single grocery store in the entire metropolitan area that isn’t served directly by Metro Bus, and many apartment complexes have their own shelter.

If you visit the convention center downtown, you’ll find pictures of the old streetcar service that, like many other cities in the early 20th century, served as the artery of this small town. For a brief period between 1917 and 1920, St. Cloud appeared poised to become a hub of automobile manufacturing for Samuel Pandolfo’s Pan Motorcar Company. Unfortunately for Pandolfo, the government accused him of fraud for sending promotional material in the mail for the purposes of selling stock before production began. Only 737 units of the Pan Model 250 were produced before Pan Motorcar Company dissolved like so many other small auto manufacturers of the time. The Pantown neighborhood still exists on the north side of St. Cloud, a city which today finds itself defined more by the presence of new car dealerships than Pandolfo’s failed effort that is now a century in the past.

North Side

I started this journey heading north from downtown, which by itself is relatively walkable with plenty of wide sidewalks and store front businesses. As I made my way up 9th Avenue, I reached a bridge which caused me a small amount of confusion when I first moved here. Here there are four lanes of road, separated by a median. Overhead are two bridges with rail tracks on them, along with a pedestrian bridge.

aerial photo of Saint Cloud 9th Avenue bridge

Aerial view of 9th Avenue bridge

Heading north, I had two options; I could either walk on the east side of the street or the west side of the street. If I chose the east side, I would lose the sidewalk immediately after the intersection with 2nd Street, but there are a couple of options, the first being to follow this dirt path down to the narrow sidewalk.

9e1

Which brought me here:

9e2

Or, I could walk up the hill onto this dirt path, which brings me to the pedestrian bridge and the stairs that lead to the tunnel, under the railroad bridges and up to the street on the other side.

9e3

9e4

Instead of doing all that, I recommend walking on the west side of the street. After the 2nd Street intersection, the sidewalk follows and crosses 10th Avenue, where it connects with the pedestrian bridge and a set of stairs that will safely take you down 9th Avenue. There’s also an asphalt ramp here, but I’m not sure what it’s for. I don’t know a whole lot about wheelchair requirements for ramps, but I don’t think this thing is making the cut.

9w1

9w3

central map

Aerial view of central St. Cloud

To understand why this is such an important spot, you need to understand the geography of St. Cloud. The railroad effectively splits the neighborhoods on the north side in half, with a large and active rail yard right in the middle. This means that, for 15 blocks, you cannot travel north or south without illegally crossing the tracks.

Veteran’s Drive

Veteran’s Drive, or 8th Street North, begins about half a block west of the Mississippi River in St. Cloud in a humble neighborhood before turning into the four lane thoroughfare seen in the map above. It then travels west into Waite Park and eventually turns into Highway 4.

The road is mostly flanked by homes and apartments. The exception would be Centennial Plaza, a strip mall which features Coburn’s Grocery and Pharmacy, the Good Earth Food Co-Op, Ace Hardware and a variety of other small businesses that serve the surrounding neighborhood. Also next to the plaza is the National Guard Armory. This is all great…if you can get there. The sidewalk on Veteran’s is intermittent, with plenty of stops and starts for no apparent reason. The only marked crosswalks are at 33rd, 25th, and 9th Avenues. The map shows the sidewalk situation on Veteran’s between 9th and 33rd Avenues.

veteran's map

Red=no sidewalks, Yellow=sidewalk on one side of street, Green=sidewalks on both sides of street

I have never had a problem biking on the street itself, but I hardly ever share it with anybody but automobile drivers. I certainly don’t see families walking through the grass together or runners on the pavement. But with traffic levels so low on this street, I’m unsure why it is this wide to begin with. I think the outer lanes would better serve bikes and pedestrians. The speed limit here is only 30 MPH, and I don’t think removing a lane would affect travel times. At the very least, I would like to see more walked crosswalks since the bus only stops on one side of the street.

cyclist veterans

Cyclist on Veteran’s Drive

As I continue west past 33rd Avenue, the sidewalk is briefly lost again while approaching Highway 15. As I crossed the highway I noticed a pedestrian bridge down the street that connects Apollo High School with the north side neighborhood at 10th Street.

Aerial view Saint Cloud, MN

Highway 15 and Veteran’s Drive, St. Cloud

While not actually leaving the city, there is a definite difference in scale between the residential neighborhood you were just in and the sprawling educational, industrial and medical campuses on this side of the highway. Maybe it’s the longer distances, but I seem to be noticing more people walking out here than I did in the neighborhood, but the sidewalk situation still hasn’t gotten any better. The northern portion ends again shortly after crossing the highway, while the southern portion is non-existent.

Photo of McCleland Road & Veteran's Drive intersection

Veteran’s Drive and McLeland Road, St. Cloud, MN

A bike lane takes its place, but I can see a paved path off to the side of the road ahead. I cut through the grass, I think I’m on the Apollo campus now but there’s no way to be sure. I reach 44th Avenue and the path finally ends unless I want to head south, but I continue west until Highway 134. All of the people outside are either biking or walking through the grass, and they look like they are on their way to or from work in the factories and shipping hubs in the industrial park. I pass Joe Faber field, an athletic complex with an appropriately sized parking lot. The first time I ever walked this route, I was actually coming from the opposite direction from an even further and less connected neighborhood. While there a few different bus routes in the area, I’m again surprised at how intermittent the sidewalk is. In the neighborhood, I had to duck under trees and stop for cars leaving the alley; out here, there is a ton of empty space, and as of right now most of it is still receiving lawnmower traffic on a regular basis.

If, for some reason, you’re like me and have walked here all the way from downtown on a hot sunny day, you should probably stop at the Knights of Columbus Park down the street and relax on the Sauk River for a while.

Photo of Canada geese in river

Splash party on Sauk River, St. Cloud

Other Places on the North Side

Midtown

aerial view of 33rd and Division Street, Saint Cloud, MN

33rd and Division, St. Cloud

This is the intersection of Division Street (State Highway 23) and 33rd Avenue North. As you can see, the Midtown Mall is a mixture of formal office space, government services, retail establishments, restaurants, and there’s even a gym and a call center inside as well. I’m sure I’m still missing a few things, but overall it receives a pretty steady flow of traffic throughout the day. On the other side of the street is a restaurant sharing a large lot with two auto shops. Three bus stops service this location, and people frequently make the mid-block crossing on 33rd instead of using the crosswalk at Division. I used to work at Pepperjax Grill, and during my off time I would watch the intersection from the north-facing window which apparently is now a drive-thru. It’s been over a year since I’ve visited this location, but it didn’t take long to capture what this intersection is notorious for.

midtown cyclist

Stuck.

Take the cyclist above, for example. The cyclist was heading straight across the street to the Midtown entrance. Unfortunately, he became stranded on the median waiting for south bound traffic to clear. It didn’t take long for the turn lane to fill up behind him, clogging up traffic even further until things cleared up.

A few minutes later, the northbound bus came. I’ve noticed most of the pedestrian traffic trying to cross here is coming directly off the bus to go to Midtown. When I worked here, I crossed the opposite direction, getting off at the stop just north of 1st Street. I’ve gotten stuck on the same median, sandwiched between four lanes of traffic, unwilling to cross at the intersection just up the street.

midtown truck

Midtown: truck blocking intersection

And it isn’t just pedestrians in danger here, there were plenty of near crashes from cars pulling out from all directions. I only spent about 25 minutes at the intersection this time, but I saw plenty of people stuck on the median and at least one car narrowly avoid being T-boned by oncoming traffic. As much thought as I’ve put into it, I truly have no idea where to begin to make this intersection safer for everybody. I used to think that if the entrances on the east side of 33rd avenue were closed off, it would solve a lot of headaches since there is still access on 32nd Avenue. But with the new drive-thru, I don’t know if Pepperjax would support that. I doubt they chose the location for aesthetics or walkability.

This Place

aerial view of Mill Pond subdividision

Mill Pond, St. Cloud

I almost forgot about this experience, but I think it’s relevant here. When living in St. Cloud, I rented a small economy apartment on the north side next to the community college. It was pretty quiet on the weekends when school wasn’t in session and the surrounding offices were all closed. So one spring day, I decided to put in some headphones and explore. Across Whitney Park and only a mile north of my apartment, I found this unfinished neighborhood. I thought the discontinuous sidewalks were pretty novel, so I purposefully walked down them. But it almost cost me as I noticed an SUV rapidly reversing out of a garage towards the street. I’m not going to identify which house it was coming from, although it wouldn’t be hard to guess.

I stood on the sidewalk on the driver’s side, just inches away from the vehicle as it turned onto the street. It was only after they had completely backed out that the driver noticed me. They rolled down their window, and I was immediately put on the defensive. Where are you coming from, why are you in my neighborhood, and where do you live were all questions that were asked. They finally left after warning me that a call to the police would be in order if I was to be spotted walking through here again. It was a pretty minor incident, and nothing happened as a result of it. But it left me with a bad taste for the area, especially when I could hear a young child in the back seat talking. Incomplete sidewalks, empty streets and distracted drivers do not make a place appealing in my opinion, and I hope the children here get the chance to safely explore the rest of the city. But on a positive note, they do have a community pool, gazebo and tennis court on the corner lot.

East Side

Aerial photo of Saint Cloud, MN east side

East side, St. Cloud, MN

This is probably the worst problem I can identify when it comes to pedestrian infrastructure in the city. It all depends on which side of Highway 10 you live on. West of the highway, you’re part of a relatively connected and well served grid. But east of Highway 10, you’re pretty much cut off if you don’t have a car. This is because you don’t want to walk down Highway 23, as there is heavy traffic, no sidewalk, and no crosswalk or stop signs on the on/off ramps. If you want to get to the east side Target, you either have to go up to East St. Germain, or down to 15th Avenue and walk back up Lincoln. I chose East St. Germain, and I had to turn around once when I couldn’t find a way to cross Highway 23.

Photo of street with person in motorized scooter and no sidewalk

Borderline food desert

Much closer than Target are the fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. There are probably as many, if not more apartment complexes here as there are on the SCSU campus. Also on this side of the highway is the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter and a motel. Over on campus, a recent pedestrian safety campaign resulted in 15 citations and the distribution of informative lanyards, while much of this neighborhood lacks sidewalks. Which leads us to this:

Photo showing desire lines leading to hwy 10 crossing

Highway 10 crossing at Sherwood Manor manufactured home community

The neighborhood pictured above is the Sherwood Manor manufactured home community as seen on the previous map. This well-worn trail runs directly across the four lanes of Highway 10 to the SuperAmerica on the other side. People walk (or run) to get to the median, wait for traffic to clear, then proceed to the other side where they have to cross a small frontage road. The speed limit on this section of highway is 50 MPH, and heavy traffic is a daily occurrence. As far as I can tell, this is the most direct link serving the far east side community, and the highway 23 interchange begins almost as soon as you pass this path. I never got the chance to come here during winter and check for foot prints, so I don’t know if it’s used year round.

I decided not to make the crossing myself, and fortunately I was quickly able to catch the #7 Eastside bus back to downtown. As I got on, it only seemed fitting that the bus was packed with people, with plenty more being picked up as we backtracked through the neighborhoods I just walked through. A bus this crowded isn’t unheard of in St. Cloud, but not all that common either. I wondered how many people would be riding if it didn’t take an extra mile just to cross the street in some places. I know I wouldn’t be.

Photo of Saint Cloud MN highway 23

Highway 23 interchange with downtown St. Cloud buildings on the horizon


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24 Responses to Life on Foot in our Ninth Largest City

  1. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman May 31, 2016 at 9:18 am #

    A few notable things about St. Cloud:

    AFAIK the long term is still a freeway type facility on US 10 from a new connection to I-94 to somewhere north of St. Cloud. If we ever adequately fund highway expansion again, the top priority is the new connection; other than that we’ve been seeing isolated rural interchanges built here and there as popup projects that are more easily funded than redoing the stretch through St. Cloud and generally have some local funding and support. A St. Cloud bypass was rejected early on, and none of the designs I’ve seen call for maintaining the cloverleaf; you might see a split diamond with St. Germain.

    MN 15 was originally supposed to be a freeway; you can see the excess ROW that’s been sold off in the aerial photo. As near as I can tell the project had already dragged on decades, and St. Cloud asked them to sell off the land for interchanges for development and use the money for an expressway to at least get something built. Now the goal is a freeway again but will now require expensive retaining walls since the land is gone. No chance of this happening anytime soon either.

    Finally, the first HAWK in the state was in St. Cloud.

    • Alex Rowland June 1, 2016 at 8:48 am #

      I’m glad I know what a HAWK is now, considering how much I’ve used it.

  2. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino May 31, 2016 at 10:07 am #

    St. Cloud is, I think, my favorite Minnesota place name

  3. Matthew Steele May 31, 2016 at 10:51 am #

    Division Street in St. Cloud is definitely the best/worst stroad in the entire state.

    • Alex Rowland June 1, 2016 at 8:43 am #

      Well I guess I learned a new word, yes Division Street can be a mess. Much of it now has a concrete divider to separate the lanes, restricting some of the turning to specific stoplights. Still, there is almost no hope in biking down it, and pedestrians need to be constantly aware of drivers leaving business parking lots.

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 31, 2016 at 11:19 am #

    Downtown Saint Cloud is decent. I think the Northstar rail extending to St. Cloud somehow and maybe getting better service hours would be a big step forward for boosting walkability, or at least the conversation about it…

  5. David Markle
    David Markle May 31, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

    Anyone have good information on why St. Cloud lacks a significant downtown area, even though it’s a regional center? I know nothing about St. Cloud’s history.

    • Justin May 31, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

      I have no actual knowledge myself but I think it has a pretty typical downtown for a Midwest city in the 50-100K population range. Some of it might have been demolished at some point. It’s roughly the size of Coon Rapids or Brooklyn Park, so it’s a regional center but still not that big of a city. And it’s in a flat area so it never really needed to grow upward like Duluth.

    • Alex Rowland June 1, 2016 at 8:36 am #

      I think the downtown area is significant for it’s size, especially when you compare it to other cities in central MN like Brainerd and Little Falls.

  6. John Charles Wilson June 1, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    More buses in the Twin Cities should go direct to apartment buildings and grocery stores. I understand that may not be practical for major urban routes, but some of the suburban routes, especially the ones run with tiny Metro Mobility-like buses, could really become more useful.

    Dreaming of the 219 and the 717 going into Hy-Vee….

  7. Keith Morris June 2, 2016 at 8:14 am #

    St Cloud is yet another example of just over the top car dependency where it’s not needed. Waite Park on the far west side to St Cloud University on the river next to Downtown is just a 20 min. bike ride. That’s about the longest ride for the vast majority of the city where many are within a an easy 5-10 minute ride. Yet there are hardly any bikes to be seen, virtually no bike infrastructure, and what few racks I found where front wheel locking ones. I’m guessing that most people here would fly to MSP if they could afford it since it’s too far to drive.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman June 2, 2016 at 8:24 am #

      Why would people fly to Minneapolis from St Cloud? It’s only an hour or so to drive and then you’ve arrived at the airport without a car, and this precludes going shopping unless you’re just buying some clothes at the mall or something that you can stick in a carry-on bag.

  8. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman June 2, 2016 at 8:32 am #

    Another interesting thing is that I-94 was originally planned to be built much closer to the built-up area, but the plan was changed in the 1970s to where it is now. I’m assuming they wanted to reserve it for long distance through traffic rather than people driving a couple of exits in St Cloud.

    Also, St. Cloud has wanted a new east-west bridge near 33rd. They tried to get Mn/DOT to build it as part of the new I-94 to US 10 river crossing, the highway would have started at Roosevelt Road and I-94, gone north, then across the bridge, and met US 10 somewhere near the prison. Mn/DOT said no because of how awkward it would have been for through traffic shuttling between the highways, it’s intended purpose. So the current plan is to build it at Clearwater where most of the traffic goes across today. At one time Mn/DOT tried to promote MN 15 for this to relieve MN 24, but it’s too long and with way too many stoplights to make it attractive to through traffic.

  9. DC June 2, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    It’s even colder in St. Cloud than it is in MSP. Walking/biking is only cool for around half the year. The rest, you’re definitely gonna want a car. It gets so cold you could pull out a strand of your hair and use it to string your electric guitar.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 3, 2016 at 9:30 am #

      Our entire society is built around cars, so, yeah you’re going to want a car.

      But your estimate of the number of bikable days is way off. Last fall I decided I wanted to bike commute as much as possible. I found I was able to bike in relatively “normal” clothes (hiking boots, wool socks, jeans or other normal pants, fleece or light jacket) down to around 40 degrees. Colder than that I’d put on warmer biking pants and jacket, but still was fairly comfortable down to 30 degrees, at which point I took the bus (in Minneapolis). Hardier souls than me could definitely bike at even colder temps.

      So how many days do we really have where commute-time temps are colder than 30 degrees? I don’t know, but I think I commuted on my bike something like 10 days in November, 9 in December, 1 each in January and February, and then pretty much every day in March.

      • DC June 3, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

        Ok. So I guess it’s more like 1/4th of the days can’t be spent without a car. I just remember those cold to the bone days in St. Cloud. I’m not ragging on the town though. It was very bicycle and walking friendly. Saved a lot on gas. Division was a pain like you wouldn’t believe. I avoided it like the plague, even during good traffic. But I think by focusing on one street being car-centric and the rest of the town being less car-clogged, it helped to make the place better for walkers and bikers.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman June 4, 2016 at 9:56 am #

        Well, since it’s technically possible to bicycle when it’s 20 degrees below zero, the question is “what in people’s opinions is suitable for bicycling”. Judging by how few bicyclists you see when it’s under 60 degrees it seems the general opinion of what’s suitable weather for bicycling is a lot narrower then the opinions on this blog. St. Cloud has fewer of those days then the Twin Cities.

        • DC June 6, 2016 at 6:39 am #

          Excellent point, MC, on how most peoples’ opinions of good bike-riding weather differs greatly from hardcore cyclists’ opinion. I remember decade and a half ago, being a teen, riding thru some residential area in Burnsville, when it was around 40 degrees. I passed by two soccer moms who looked at me uneasily. After I passed, they said to each other, “Bike riding in October? Really?” “Yeah, what’s up with that?” Most people give up on bike riding in October and only think about starting it again in April.

          Around 40 degrees is the minimum for me. You’ll see those hardcore cyclists out there in cold weather with their faces covered that you can only see their eyes, like ninjas. To me, and most people, when it gets so cold you have to cover your face like that, bike riding season is done.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller June 6, 2016 at 9:26 am #

          I didn’t used to bike in the winter either. My point is that I found that if I actually dress for it, which really isn’t much different than dressing for a walk on a colder day, I could bike at a lot lower temps than I used to think.

  10. David Markle
    David Markle June 3, 2016 at 5:12 pm #

    Re Justin’s response to my question: St. Cloud is one of Minnesota’s major regional centers, population 67,109. Yet it has barely a vestige of a downtown. Did it once have a downtown? Mankato, another major regional center, population 41,044, used to have quite a bustling downtown, and now has a considerable vestige of once was. Even Owatonna, not exactly a regional center, population 26,599, still has a nice downtown, anchored by several prairie school architectural gems (one of them very significant in that way), a county courthouse, and a town square. All three of these cities has seen the effects of intense automobilization, but they differ greatly. Any thoughts or good historical references?

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman June 3, 2016 at 6:48 pm #

      I don’t understand why people keep saying St. Cloud “doesn’t have a downtown”. Isn’t that what the 7 blocks along St Germain west of the river, and several blocks on either side of it are? What does it take to “have a downtown” anyway? A bunch of skyscrapers like Rochester (which is double the size?). A bunch of old cute buildings like Stillwater?

      • DC June 6, 2016 at 6:42 am #

        Another excellent point, MC. Our modern idea of downtown probably didn’t come into existence until the 1950s. Most peoples’ idea of downtown is a bunch of skyscrapers. Most cities got that idea from NYC and Chicago. Rather than forming their own idea of city planning and urban life, most cities seem to ape NYC and Chicago in their pursuit to be important to the rest of the world, rather than to the residents living there.

    • DC June 3, 2016 at 7:48 pm #

      Been reading bout St. Cloud’s history, like this website:
      http://stclouddowntown.com/pages/HistoricDowntown/

      St. Cloud doesn’t seem to have had much of a downtown, or at least not a downtown in the modern sense. Towns developed differently for various reasons. Just because Town A was founded earlier or had a bigger population than Town B, that’s doesn’t mean Town A will develop more impressively than town B. For instance, Seattle was founded almost 2 centuries after Philly, and Seattle has always had a smaller population than Philly. Yet Seattle is far more impressive in virtually every regard compared to Philly.

  11. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig June 9, 2016 at 7:51 am #

    A couple (belated) comments:

    – One thing I recall from childhood trips up to the lake many years ago was a decent sandwich shop at the southeast corner of Hwy 10 and St. Germain, roughly where the Subway exists today. Long-gone now. There wasn’t much outside the immediate East End back in those days. Sauk Rapids hadn’t leaped across Hwy 10, Hwy 15 north of Division was just a pipe dream, and the Hwy 10/St. Germain traffic signal was the only one between Big Lake and Brainerd.

    – For a few decades before her passing, my aunt lived in the “North End”, in that nook between 9th Ave, Veterans Dr, and the railroad. I recall family events at her house where basically all I saw was that expansive rail yard.