St Paul Bicycle Plan: Good Enough?

Why do you think all of these children are bicycling to school? Hint: It’s the safe segregated bicycle path. Photo: Alternative Dept of Transport

I’m of two quite opposed minds on the St Paul Bicycle Plan. One of these minds is excited about it and can’t wait to see it implemented. The other, contrary to Rebecca Airmet’s Valentine, is disappointed that it falls so far short of what I’d hoped for.  (Then again, my wife gives me a valentine every year and is often disappointed in me. Perhaps this plan and I are quite similar.)

Personally, for my primary routes to various destinations in St Paul, usually via the Gateway Trail or Lexington Ave, there appear to be some very welcomed improvements.

However, will this plan provide people who live in or near St Paul with adequate facilities for riding bicycles to local amenities within a mile or two of their homes?  Will most 8-year-olds be able to safely, in reality and in the eyes of their parents, ride their bicycles to school and to local stores? Will most retired folk be able to comfortably do the same?

Sadly, I don’t think the answers to these are very encouraging. Riding to most locations, shopping along Snelling Ave or to schools for instance, will still require negotiating with a lot of traffic. I do not think that this is the 8 to 80 plan that Bill Lindeke does.

Would you send your child off to school with nothing but sharrows to protect them from cars and trucks?

Reality Bites

If I was ruler over St Paul (and didn’t care about others opinions), we’d look like The Netherlands and Sweden with a bit of Cotswold’s and Williamsburg thrown in.

Every street without a bicycle facility would be 20 mph or slower and include elements making motor traffic local only. Every street or road with through traffic would have a physically segregated bikeway, Dutch-appropriate for the speed and volume of traffic. Many intersections would have tunnels to grade separate bicycles and pedestrians from motor vehicles. Other intersections would use signals to separate them in time. And, bikeways would be kept clear of snow throughout the winter.

(And, motorways would be German, trains Swiss, and barista’s properly trained.)

Well, thankfully, this cheerful curmudgeon is not ruler of St Paul and there are indeed many people who don’t want it to be like Amsterdam, Stockholm, or Bourton-on-the-Water. Others may even want similar bicycle and pedestrian facilities, but also want other things that create conflicts for space or money.  And many simply don’t want what they fear from lack of understanding.

Yep, reality bites. Reality doesn’t make for easy planning.

So, responding to Reuben’s request for comment—short of full on Dutch infrastructure, these are the changes I believe are the most critical:

1) Eliminate Enhanced Shared Lane. There is no real difference between these streets with sharrows and Shared Lane streets that have no signs or paint. Drivers should not drive differently on these two different streets and should not be given any indication that they should. Putting sharrows on one and not the other only creates ambiguity and may endanger people riding on those without sharrows if some drivers do treat the two types differently. We also need to shed traffic planners of the notion that a sharrow painted on a street is any kind of adequate or safe bicycle facility.

2) Create a Physically Protected Lane group. There is a great difference, for about 95% of us, between a physically protected lane and stripe of paint. These should be distinguished and planned for. (My preference is to completely eliminate the creation of paint-only ‘bike lanes’, which I believe The Netherlands and others have done, but given some of our realities, there are places where these will be better than the realistic alternative of nothing, particularly if they are painted appropriately).

3) Make most or all of the current In-Street Separated Lanes and Bicycle Blvd’s in to Physically Protected Lanes.

4) Major destinations should all have Physically Separated Lanes or Off-Street Paths along their perimeter and extending out for at least one block. This should include every school, every grocery store or pharmacy, and major shopping destinations such as Snelling Ave, Grand Ave, Rice St., and others.

5) Implement a pedestrian and bicycle friendly downtown as outlined in St Paul: Ripe for Ruin. The bicycle trail outlined in the plan is awesome, but it still leaves pedestrians and people riding bicycles with having to negotiate with a significant, dangerous, and unnecessary amount of motor traffic that will increase dramatically when vacancy rates decrease and new buildings are completed.

It’s important to note that this plan is only one half of the first of the five E’s; Engineering, Education, Enforcement, Encouragement, and Evaluation. The second half of Engineering—how streets and intersections are designed—will be critical.

St Paul states that they would like to be a ‘World Class Cycling City’. This plan, in my opinion, will not accomplish that. What it will do, based on what other cities appear to be doing over the next 10 years, is get St Paul in to the bottom of the pack of 50 best U.S. cycling cities.

Including the changes above, I believe St Paul can be in the top 10 U.S. cities by 2025 and maybe in the top 100 worldwide (and downtown in the top 10 worldwide). Most importantly, I believe St Paul can do it, thrive from it, and has a once in a city-lifetime opportunity to do what many cities cannot.

World Class, however, will require a bit more that we’ll look at in a future post on pocket neighborhoods.

A very important closing note. It is quite easy to critique, magnitudes more difficult to create, and even more difficult to implement. My heartfelt thanks to the St Paul Staff for the plan that they’ve produced. Though far short of the full on Dutch infrastructure that many of us would like and short of what I believe they would have liked, it is far better than anything I could have produced under the same circumstances and deserves all of our support (and encouragement for continued improvements).


Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN