A funny thing happened on the way to the Saint Paul bike utopia. As it turns out, the key streets where we need bike lanes aren’t really controlled by the city. Try as they might, the Mayor, City Council, and the Public Works department can’t build safe bike infrastructure on its own, because almost all the most dangerous streets in Saint Paul are designed and controlled by Ramsey County or Mn-DOT.
And judging by their most recent meeting, Ramsey County doesn’t seem to have much interest in helping with the city bike plan. Last week, the County Board voted to postpone bike lanes on the two most crucial routes that were on the agenda. One of them, Cleveland Avenue, was somewhat controversial, and has been thoroughly covered here. A lot of thought was put into the decision to delay the project pending meetings a task force being put together as we speak.
But the other one, Front Avenue, which runs through the city’s underpriveleged North End neighborhood, is a bike lane no brainer. At no extra cost, the county would stripe bike lanes on a street that’s part of the recently passed city bike plan, with the only downside being the reduction of minimally used parking spaces.
Yet the County, led by Commissioner Janice Rettman, voted to table the bike lanes pending a community meeting, claiming a lack of “public process.” Instead they’re going to be having a meeting at the last minute this Thursday.
The Parking Data
The main sticking point for Commissioner Rettman was that parking would be lost along Front Street. That’s a common problem with almost any proposal to increase infrastructure for biking and walking, because pretty much anywhere you can think of to park a car, someone has tried to park a car.
That why, after passing the bike plan back in May, Saint Paul developed a new implementation process for making decisions about building its bike plan.
Here’s the key part: they actually count the parked cars.
The reason this process is so ingenious is that parking is one of those things that, along with taxes, traffic, and rooting for the Vikings, can incite wild amounts of hostility. (Here’s an extreme case.) That’s why using data to inform policy is far better than relying on emotional anecdotes.
It turns out when you actually count the cars using cardinal numbers, people rarely park on Front Avenue. Partly that’s because much of the street is along a cemetery. (As they say, “dead men park no cars.”) The majority of the actual parked cars are located in one spot in front of one popular bar. And because the project only removes parking on one side of the street, the city is basically asking people to walk an extra two dozen feet to their car.
As far as bike lanes go, this is one of the least controversial projects that is ever likely to happen in Saint Paul. Which is why the recent delay begs the question: If we can’t put in a bike lane here, on what Ramsey County roads can we do it?
The cherry on the cake here is that Commissioner Rettman is convinced that the existing city-led public process was irrelevant because, as she said at the (very confusing) County Board meeting, she went door-to-door over the weekend and talked to people who complained to her.
It’s a free country. Rettman knocking on doors is fine, but not if it replaces actual public engagement. That’s because there are better and worse ways to do community engagement, and cities and counties should be careful about how they plan meetings and get public feedback.
Some interesting questions: Where is the meeting held? What time of day? What kind of notice did you give? What services for people who speak other languages will you provide? How about daycare? Can you comment online? What kind of questions are you asking? Will the participants be given actual decision making power?
Note that this is particularly challenging for public works departments, which are staffed mostly with engineers who are almost always better at math than public speaking. That’s why in the last few years, Public Works departments around the country have been trying to do better at engaging the public.
(Here are two good ideas, or check out this conversation I had with Saint Paul’s Public Works director on MPR earlier this year.)
The last thing a responsible government should do is to announce a public meeting at the last minute, leaflet a neighborhood with disinformation, and then throw a staff person in front of an angry mob.
(To be fair, during the meeting, a few of the Commissioners expressed concerns about conducting an on-the-fly last-minute public process, and the Public Works director was on the record opposing having a meeting. But it’s happening anyway…)
What is the County Role?
Inter-jurisdictional relations are often testy. For years, Minneapolis and Saint Paul have been engaged in a slow debate with their respective counties over transportation planning. For example, Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis’ most dangerous street, is a County Road. And Saint Paul has many deadly four-lane County Roads, whose results speak for themselves. But in both cities, we’re starting to see some progress around safety and promoting bicycling and walking.
The Saint Paul Bike Plan was unanimously adopted back in May to great fanfare, and involved a large amount of community feedback. There were tons of people at the city hall meeting, and many times more comments collected through letters, emails, phone calls, and on the city’s website. The Bike Plan took years to put together, was delayed repeatedly, and is rooted long-term planning at levels all through the city, county, and region. (Note: I personally testified at the June 17th City Council hearing in support of the Front Avenue bike lanes; there were around a dozen people there sharing their opinion.)
I’m sure that Thursday’s meeting will be entirely unhelpful toward achieving any of Saint Paul’s long-standing goals about increasing walking and biking, reducing pollution, or creating healthy neighborhoods with strong local economies. It sets a bad precedent for Saint Paul’s transportation future.
Thankfully, I’ll be out of town.
PS. Needless to say, if you live, work, or bike in Ramsey County, it wouldn’t hurt to send your Commissioners an email: