Saint Paul’s Oversized Downtown Streets

5th Street in downtown Saint Paul, noon on a Thursday.

5th Street in downtown Saint Paul, noon on a Thursday.

If you grew up in Minnesota, you may have heard the story of Saint Paul’s narrow streets—In downtown, the streets were so tight that the city eventually decided to shave off the fronts of buildings downtown, in order to make the streets wider.

Today, however, many of downtown Saint Paul’s streets are too wide, or at least they grant way more space to cars than what is actually needed. Here’s a map I made of streets in the area that appear to be wider than necessary to handle the amount of traffic they see (orange means roughly one lane too wide, red means roughly two lanes too wide):


View Oversized downtown St. Paul streets in a larger map

The new Green Line is hoped to be a new big economic driver for Saint Paul, but to maximize the benefit, we have to make sure that the areas around stations—and throughout the city—are built for people and not just the movement of cars. Sidewalks need to be widened, bike lanes need to be added, and bus lanes need to be retained and improved, including upgrading bus stops that are often put in tight spaces (especially the one on 6th Street at Cedar Street).

Personally, I like the idea of converting 5th Street to a (bus) transit/pedestrian mall with bi-directional bus traffic, since it connects directly to West 7th Street and the I-94 ramps to/from Minneapolis, links Rice Park and Mears Park, and also goes straight past the Green Line’s Central station and is just one block from Union Depot. Large chunks of 5th and 6th are about twice as wide as they need to be for the amount of car traffic they see, so they could be combined into a two-way street for cars on 6th. I’m not sure which street would be better off with bike facilities—in this concept, 5th would probably be more comfortable for many riders. Buses are big vehicles, but there are far fewer of them than cars (combined, the 5th and 6th street bus lanes now appear to carry a bit over 1,000 transit buses per day).

Minnesota Street should really become a two-way, as should the stretch of Cedar Street south of 5th. Jackson Street could become a two-way (probably in addition to Sibley Street, even though that’s relatively appropriately sized when the amount of on-street parking is considered). Jackson and Sibley each narrow down to just two lanes as they reach Shepard/Warner Road, so it doesn’t make much sense for them to be wider to the north. Jackson is ridiculously wide north of 7th Street (a segment where it is a six-lane two-way), and really needs a major overhaul to convert it to a more pleasant space rather than a river of concrete.

There’s a potential to re-make downtown Saint Paul to be a much more walkable/bikeable space. There are pockets of great spaces in the area, but the streets need work to link those places together to really revive the streets.

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23 Responses to Saint Paul’s Oversized Downtown Streets

  1. Matt Steele June 20, 2014 at 9:45 am #

    I also like the idea of converting 5th Street into a bus/ped mall, and also trying to focus investment into storefront and sidewalk-activating space on 5th between Rice Park and Mears Park. Excellent article.

    • Matt Steele June 20, 2014 at 9:59 am #

      Here’s a map of existing vehicular access needs along 5th Street between Xcel and the Saints ballpark. https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zGBEIFippUNc.krtfhhkulHoo

      • Mike Hicks June 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

        The Traveler’s, Lawson, and Galtier/Cray parking entrances are probably the biggest issues. Both Lawson and Galtier/Cray have entrances/exits on both 5th and 6th, though I think the 5th side may be a bit busier for them. The Traveler’s garage doesn’t seem to have other exits, but there might be something facing their parking area to the west.

  2. Froggie June 20, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    As with most things, “your mileage may vary”.

    The first part of your article is also unclear as to whether you consider the pavement width too wide, or simply too many lanes. Judging from the rest of your article, I’d guess the latter…

    • Mike Hicks June 20, 2014 at 10:04 am #

      It varies a lot from street to street — even going block-to-block on individual streets.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 20, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    The four bus stops at Minnesota and Cedar, 5th and 6th, are all going to be re-designed and re-built within the year. In particular, the sidewalk at the 6th and Cedar stop is going to be widened and bumped out to roughly double the size.

    So that’s good.

    Have you gone down to the extended sidewalk at 6th by Mears Park to check it out? What if we did that along all of these streets?

    • Mike Hicks June 20, 2014 at 10:22 am #

      It took them a while to start making proper use of the widened sidewalk. It’s looking very nice right now, with seating set up and planters all along the edge. It seems like the bus lane had gone away because of the sidewalk extension, though that’s not a huge loss due to the street still having a lot of capacity compared to traffic.

      I’m a bit conflicted about the idea of redoing the bus stops on 6th, since I’d rather have a two-way busway. The sidewalks should definitely be extended, but I keep thinking it would be nice to get a cycletrack in there. I think the bus stop shelters get in the way of that idea, unfortunately. We need to balance the needs of pedestrians, bikes, buses, and cars and trucks (both parked and moving). It’s not really possible to give everything to everyone everywhere with the amount of right-of-way we have, but you can get really great facilities for two or three groups at a time on individual streets.

      There are lots of ways that the streets can be redone, so I’m not married to a single concept.

  4. Jim Ivey June 20, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    Great article, and timely with the current work on the downtown bike plan. It’d be exciting to see that kind of investment in a minimum grid downtown, with dedicated bike infrastructure no more than a block away from any destination.

    One of the community proposals on the table is to convert the remaining lane of traffic on 4th Street (next to the Green Line) into a bike/pedestrian mall stretching from Prince/Broadway (next to the Farmer’s Market) all the way to Washington/4th (next to Rice Park). It has support from the buildings and businesses, and beyond the safety/accessibility improvements it also represents significant economic benefits to downtown.

    • cl June 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

      Jim, my garage entrance is on 4th between Wall and Wacouta, I think your a bit premature on local consent. All for enhancing bike infrastructure around downtown though. But no, not worth losing my parking spot (ability to sell my condo some day). There are 30+ of us whom park there. 4th around here seems pretty bike friendly already.

      • David W June 21, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

        I was under the impression that the proposed ped mall wouldn’t extend past Wacouta.

  5. David June 20, 2014 at 11:13 am #

    seems Metro transit and Mayor’s office have their BRT plans in place and it certainly doesn’t sounds like there any consideration to changing the one-way 5th & 6th Street pairs. Too bad, so you point out. yes, bike lanes w/ parked cars as the buffer — think 1st Av N in DT Mpls is in store i wish for some of these streets. i agree 100% on 4th Street as a non car pathway.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 20, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

      Apart from 5th and 6th, there are some other one-way pairs that I’d be happy to see revert back to 2-way streets. e.g. Jackson, the ones around Mears Park, etc.

      • Mike Hicks June 20, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

        Well, that’d be Sibley. Wacouta on the East side of Mears Park is two-way today, and 5th and 6th are on the north and south end, respectively.

  6. Xan June 20, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    It has always seemed to me that St Paul could have a nice ped-only core, like European cities. The blocks are small enough and there is little reason to have cars going through the middle of the place. How much of street use is simply for cars to access street parking? If you look closely you will see that many streets are nothing more than poorly designed parking lots. Find another place for the cars to park, and there is no need for many of these streets.

    • Mike Hicks June 20, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

      Yeah, I’m not quite certain of the value of on-street parking. Business owners like it, so if it’s a way of getting other street improvements done, it’s often worth adding or retaining. I get the idea of parked cars as a barrier between street and sidewalk, but figure that trees, lampposts, bollards, and bicycle parking can serve that function very well instead.

      • Xan June 22, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

        Business owners don’t know what they are talking about.

  7. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell June 21, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    Great article. Any idea how much of the traffic in the downtown core is just passing through vs actually going somewhere downtown? Does this traffic need to be here?

    What’s going to happen when all of the vacant space in downtown begins to fill? Will all of the growth (commercial and residential) come with gobs more cars (and gridlock on today’s empty streets?) or can St Paul avoid that and attract more transit/bike/ped folk?

    • Mike Hicks June 22, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

      I think most through traffic gets absorbed by the nearby freeways (I-35E, I-94, US-52), though it seems that 7th Street and Kellogg Boulevard also see some of it. I’m not sure I’d want to divert any more traffic, though — few people seem to know downtown Saint Paul at all, even city residents.

      The traffic in downtown seems very “peaky” — it’s heavily generated by office workers. There’s a lot of excess capacity outside of rush hour periods, and ideally residential and retail traffic could fill in the gaps.

      Downtown is a major hub for buses, so it can absorb some new ridership from any additional downtown workers (or shifted ridership from existing workers who don’t like dealing with traffic).

      Bike facilities are the most sorely lacking, so there’s probably a lot of latent cycling demand from people who don’t feel comfortable on downtown streets today.

  8. Alex June 22, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    I made a similar map for downtown Minneapolis a couple years ago:

    http://gettingaroundmpls.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/how-to-be-good-if-youre-the-mayor/

    Did you have a particular methodology for what makes a road too wide or did you feel it out?

    • Mike Hicks June 22, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

      I used MnDOT’s traffic mapping application for traffic counts for the most part, but went a bit by feel too. There aren’t all that many segments with AADTs over 10,000 or 15,000 — the range in which it typically makes sense to use a 3-lane configuration (one lane each way with center turn lanes). I tended to be a bit conservative since downtown traffic is very “peaky” because of the high concentration of office workers.

  9. Tcmetro June 23, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    Saint Paul is an interesting case, as a lot of the downtown streets have been rerouted throughout the years. The most egregious example is that of 7th Street, where it took over 8th Street, and 7th became a ped mall for a block, and cut off by the World Trade Center and Town Square developments. 7th Street, once the most prominent streets in the downtown area, is now one of the least friendly streets, save for perhaps the corner at St. Peter.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 23, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

      Agreed. 7th Street does not make for nice strolling, and it’s hard to envision any changes the city could make to improve it, what with the wide road and its median.

      • Jim June 23, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

        The only hope for 7th Street probably lies in some future redevelopment at the Seven Corners site and the surface parking lots at Jackson St. There’s a lot of potential storefront retail on those blocks. There is some nice activity along certain stretches of 7th. The recently opened Buttered Tin attracts big crowds on the weekend and usually overflows onto the sidewalk. It’s a shame the HPC shot down a mexican themed bar/restaurant nearby. Another apartment building turned their ground floor into car parking a few years ago too.

        I don’t know what rents are like, but there’s a lot of potential along the eastern edge of 7th. The former magic/costume shop space has been sitting empty for sometime. I also saw in the corner space of the Block 19 ramp (at Jackson) a new cafe is advertised to be opening soon. That seems like a big leap. But you never know. I didn’t give the Buttered Tin much of a shot, as the previous sandwich shop there was always dead. But I was completely wrong. Just takes the right owner with the right concept.

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