Some Visions for West Seventh Transit

How do you fit all the public amenities needed for a 21st century city into a 19th century street? Some cities benefited from great forethought, like Salt Lake City, and gave a few extra feet here and there for the public realm. Saint Paul, my hometown, wasn’t as generous.

As I have discussed before, I’m deeply involved in the process of considering transit improvements to West Seventh Street. For me, it’s more than just my ‘hood – it’s a very classic street through a neighborhood that demonstrates many of the best things that cities have to offer. Yes, it needs a little something here and there, and should include better transit.

This is a big public decision, and the public has to be involved. In order to communicate not just plans but the thinking behind them, for true citizen empowerment, it’s vital that we get into how this is going.

seventh

Funky angles and historic structures mark the streetscape.

A lot of background is necessary. West Seventh is a street which runs diagonally through the heart of the city. Nearly everything is funneled through here, at the base of the Crocus Hill / Ramsey Hill bluff line carved out by a much larger Mississippi River at the end of the last Ice Age. In a five block stretch, we have I-35E (over 100k cars per day), West Seventh (24k) and Shepard Road (10k). That is life at the major “pinch point” of Seventh, roughly from Mancini’s to the Xcel Center – about 3/4 of a mile.

The buses also funnel through this gap in topography, meaning we have excellent transit already. But connecting us, and really all of St Paul, means we need more. A rail line is at least worth considering.

West Seventh was built as a 66’ wide street. That’s 4 Rods for those of us into surveying. In the early 1950s it was widened to 80’ by tearing down or even sawing off buildings on the South side of the street, and that’s where it stands today. With the help of a fun site called streetmix.net we can make a quick cross-section of the streetscape roughly between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, between Burger Moe’s and the Downtowner.

This is where it all comes together:  (click on the picture for a larger version)

existing

The existing West Seventh cross section between Walnut and Chestnut.

 

How did we get to this street? It evolved slowly over time. Once there were trolleys in the outer driving lane , but now there are buses. Street parking is vital for buildings built close together before cars were even invented, so there is limited off-street. But we can hardly say that Seventh, as configured here, is really the perfect street for any use.

schmidt

The Schmidt Brewery, now artists’ lofts, is the symbol of the West End and sits at its heart.

So let’s look at what we can do in 80’ at the same spot from the perspective of different uses. We’ll start with cars, since they have dominated city planning for nearly a century – and were indeed why Seventh was widened. With roughly 24,000 cars per day, a street which can really handle them all needs a lot of asphalt. It would be nice to have left turn lanes, too. And those 10’ wide lanes? They’re only as wide as a big truck – 12’ is much more standard as a minimum.

If we re-made Seventh into Carvana, a motorist’s paradise, it would probably look like this:

carvana

If cars really did rule the street…

 

Note that there is essentially no sidewalk at all – it just doesn’t fit. The real problem with cars in urban planning is that they take up a tremendous amount of space – to drive as well as to park. A good reason for considering transit is that it is simply far more space efficient.

But cars aren’t the only ones who use Seventh. There are at least 100 large events two blocks down at the Xcel Center, which holds 18,000 people for hockey and 20,000 for concerts. When these events let out, the existing 13’ sidewalk overflows to the point where police stand mid-block simply to keep them from spilling into the street. It’s nuts. We could reasonably use a 20’ wide sidewalk to handle the crowds – and to provide a nice street cafe scene during the day.

It might look like this:

pedestrian

If it was all about the Xcel Crowds – and 100 or more nights a year, it is.

Note that there is no parking because Xcel patrons don’t get to park in the street anyways. They’ll be getting into their cars eventually and jamming up Seventh pretty badly, even if it is 4 lane. But they probably need about half of the total street width to be truly safe.

cycling

Cyclists would love Seventh. But it’s dangerous today!

Pedestrians aren’t the only ones who want to use Seventh hard, though. We have more bicyclists every day because Seventh is a diagonal, flat street. Today they tend to ride on the sidewalks in this stretch, an insanely dangerous thing to as they are largely invisible to cars before they cross Chestnut or Walnut. This is something more like they would need to have a cyclist friendly street:

cycling-elysium

Bikes don’t ask for much, but a safe bike route needs some space.

But if we punt on all of it and put a high capacity LRT down the street we can be more efficient with how we use it, right? If you presume the cars are always going to be there, if highly constricted, you still have the problem that LRT cars need 14’ of width each way.

While more efficient, they still take up space:

If it were all about trains … presuming the widest place for them, at a stop.

If it were all about trains … presuming the widest place for them, at a stop.

So those are four visions for West Seventh based on different uses – and they naturally result in four utterly different and incompatible layouts for the street. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile all of them in a mere 80’ of street width.

What can you do? So far, the Riverview Corridor team has identified two possible scenarios for LRT on Seventh. The first is a dedicated guideway or something like the Green Line – except this group realized that putting it along the sidewalks takes up less room and makes for a more pleasurable experience. I have to applaud that. But it still takes up a lot of room for the trains and naturally squeezes out a lot of other uses for West Seventh:

How a full-blown LRT implementation might look, as per the Riverview Pre-Project Development Study (April 2016).

How a full-blown LRT implementation might look, as per the Riverview Pre-Project Development Study (April 2016).

Note the lack of parking, left turn lanes, or even standard lane widths for cars. Note also that the sidewalk is substandard, less than 12’ wide. A typical LRT cross section squeezes everything out – and if you leave even the smallest possible room for the high volume of traffic creates a streetscape that can hardly be called “pedestrian friendly”.

Knowing in advance that this wouldn’t fit, the team has been scrambling for an alternative. It’s known as the “Hybrid”, which has narrower LRT vehicles which are only 12’ wide operating in the driving lane.

Think of it as a very large streetcar – 4’ wider and a solid 30’ longer even if there is only one LRT car in the train:

A “Hybrid” of LRT in traffic, from the Riverview Pre-Project Development Study (April 2016).

A “Hybrid” of LRT in traffic, from the Riverview Pre-Project Development Study (April 2016).

We have room for parking! But not a turn lane for those heading off to Cossetta’s and an even more substandard sidewalk that will simply not be able to handle the Xcel crowds. I know that the team that is working on this is very proud of their design, but it just doesn’t work.

portlandstreetcar5

A Skoda 10T operating in Portland. It holds 200 people max, about 50% more than an articulated bus, but fits well on a narrow street.

What do I think will work? If we punt a bit further and go with real Streetcars, like the Skoda 10T, we have a bit more room for a lot more stuff. But we have to put the street on a “road diet” that presumes a 3-lane configuration (as we have West of Mancini’s, just beyond Goodrich) will handle the cars, It’s a big assumption, based on proper 12’ wide lanes and a flexible turn / passing lane in the middle, but it has been shown to work well in other cities at this level of traffic. Also in this configuration, streetcars share the road with automobiles – or, for that matter, might just be buses at least until a certain threshold is reached that justifies a streetcar line on rails:

My best guess as to what Seventh wants. The streetcars share a lane with traffic (and may just be buses until a certain ridership threshold is hit).

My best guess as to what Seventh wants. The streetcars share a lane with traffic (and may just be buses until a certain ridership threshold is hit).

This is where I see it going. But for all of this the original charter of the Riverview Corridor was to provide transit service from Downtown St Paul, at Union Depot, to the Airport and beyond. Anything on Seventh is not going to move faster than 35 MPH no matter what you do. It’s not going to be very adequate.

The Riverview Corridor Map.

The Riverview Corridor Map.

The team is going to have to consider two systems that merge like oil and water – one fast and one local on Seventh. Such a system is going will emphasize the transfer points where they cross along with parking, pedestrian access, and so on.

It may even make sense to dig a tunnel deep down in the soft St Peter Sandstone, under the limestone cap. We will look at the cost of this “subway” and see. It’s either a brilliant idea or a crazy one – we won’t know until we look.

Until that time, the basic configuration of Seventh Street is reasonably creating a lot of interest and people are sketching out a lot of ideas. That’s all good.

herb-brooks

Street furniture, like lighting, benches, and even statues, tie everything together for solid “placemaking”.

When it comes right down to it, the key has to be reliable transportation which is integrated into the street furniture and distinct places all along the street. It really needs to operate every 10 minutes or less, with each stop bearing a number like “7” which tells you the transit arrives at 8:07, 8:17, 8:27, et cetera.

We’re not there yet – not even close. A lot of different visions of this relatively narrow street have to converge and a lot of thinking about the next century of West Seventh has to come to a consensus. And, of course, we have to price it all out and figure out where the money will come from.

But this is where we are starting from. The fast train to the airport? Not really even on the screen yet. Stay tuned and make popcorn – and try your own ideas out at streetmix.net!  There’s a lot more show to come as the competing visions boil down into one.

This post originally appeared on my blog, Barataria.


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7 Responses to Some Visions for West Seventh Transit

  1. mplsjaromir June 6, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    Only someone who has never left North America would complain about St. Paul streets not being wide enough. Plenty of ROW is ceded to automobiles currently.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 6, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

      It’s narrow compared to Salt Lake City streets…

  2. Matthew Steele June 6, 2016 at 2:42 pm #

    West 7th is the perfect street to reclaim for walk/bike/transit first and cars second. The eastern stretch is flanked by I-35E and Shepard Road, both high-volume high-speed facilities with access at multiple points along the corridor. There’s really no reason why West 7th can’t be two narrow lanes with the occasional street-parking bays popping up where needed. That’s maybe 35 feet of width at the widest, 20-22 feet at the narrowest (at intersections, where parking isn’t legal anyways. Depending on the exact spot, half to three quarters of the entire street profile can be for non-automobile users. With ten foot sidewalks and amenity zones on each side, that still leaves 25 feet to bikes and transit at the narrowest pinch points, 35 or more feet in midblock sections. That’s a LOT of room to work with to accommodate bikes and transit.

    If there are any pinch points, it would make sense to use Amsterdam-style gauntlet tracks between stations. Not ideal from an operational flexibility standpoint, but not a big deal either if it’s just between one or two station pairs where bidirectional lockouts would be necessary.

    • Adam Froehlig
      Adam Froehlig June 9, 2016 at 7:41 am #

      If certain segments of St. Paul get their way, Shepard Rd won’t be quite as much of a “high-volume, high-speed” roadway as currently exists. And narrowing West 7th west of 35E is a non-starter until you get a full interchange at 35E and Shepard.

  3. Joseph Totten
    Joseph Totten June 6, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    Two things

    1 – THANK YOU FOR FINALLY SAYING IT! Transit does not have to be only at ground level. I’ve been saying this for years that West Seventh is going to be the time when the MSP Metro decides if it wants to bet on transit, or if it wants to “call”.

    2 – Can we note how close “Current” is to “Carvana”?

    Other assorted thoughts –

    – Cossetta’s is great, but we need to encourage people to get there other ways, currently multiple cars stage on West Seventh, block the intersection, and block the street, block the sidewalk, crosswalk, and everything because they have “free parking”. I’ve thought of doing a post which just lists times I record cars getting into and out of the queue. Saying “Cossetta’s parking demand is too great to do X” is like starting with “We aren’t going to address a large symptom and cause of the problem… but let’s take everything off the table and start looking at it anyways”

    – Busy streets and vibrant places have traffic. Go XMas shopping at MOA, it’s hard to park, stressful, everyone is getting their shopping done and the place has a lotof people there, go to Uptown, despite the death tolls I hear from everyone, it’s pretty hopping. Success comes with troubles, and we can’t be afraid of those troubles, we cannot be afraid of success. West Seventh is a successful place, it now either stagnate, or continue to grow.

  4. GlowBoy June 8, 2016 at 3:08 pm #

    In your final graphic labeled “Streetcar,” how do automobiles pass a streetcar that’s stopped at a station? Does the streetcar pull off to the side into a bay – i.e.., the Parking Lane?

    Narrower rail transit vehicles sounds like a worthy idea, but as a recent ex-Portlander I’ve got to sound some caution about adopting true streetcars on a longer route like this. Portland’s Streetcars are Really Freaking Slow compared to LRT – or even buses. That’s just fine in a dense downtown area, but IMO unacceptable on a long route like West 7th. Maybe the lower speed is just due to the stations being more frequent than with Light Rail, but I wouldn’t want to see streetcars unless they can really be made to approach the speed of LRT along the same route. Streetcar is the only public transit mode that I can *easily* beat by riding a bike.

    The current #54 service isn’t as glamorous as rail, but at least it is both frequent and fast. I wouldn’t want to lose either of those #54 attributes.

    As for tunneling, not long ago I would have dismissed the idea out of hand, especially as a former Seattle resident now witnessing the debacle that is Big Bertha’s path under that city. But I’m hearing that for every Big Dig style of tunneling nightmare, there are a dozen of less-publicized successful ones. The new generation of tunneling machines has apparently reduced the cost of boring tunnels drastically, and is creating opportunities for a lot of new applications. If the ground under West 7th is solid rock, it may be worth looking at, at least for the part of West 7th near downtown.

    • Adam Froehlig
      Adam Froehlig June 9, 2016 at 7:43 am #

      The debacle of Big Bertha hasn’t stopped Sound Transit from building LRT tunnels under Seattle, namely the recent extension of the former downtown bus tunnel towards the university and another planned route I recently heard about.