Getting Around the Block: Downtown vs. Downtown

Map of city blocks in downtown Saint Paul.

Map of city blocks in downtown Saint Paul. Click here for full map.

How hard is it to get around the city block where you live, work, or shop? Does that affect the modes of transportation you choose on a daily basis? Does it impact the choices of city planners, or the areas where businesses choose to locate?

Until I started working in downtown Saint Paul, I often avoided the area due to its reputation for getting people lost. There are several one-way streets which create confusion, and the north-south streets are mostly named rather than numbered, so it becomes difficult to keep track of where you are unless you know the pattern. Take a wrong turn, and a driver can inadvertently get sent across one of the long bridges that separate downtown from other neighborhoods.

The streets aren’t just an issue for drivers, though. Cyclists are also supposed to ride on the street and take the same circuitous paths as cars (unless you cheat by riding on the sidewalk). Even walking is impacted—I often use the green traffic light as a backup for knowing when to cross, since many pedestrian signals don’t activate automatically, but car car signals aren’t visible on some corners of one-way intersections.

Recently, I started mapping downtown to try and represent these navigation difficulties, starting with how hard it is to turn where and when you want to. I used green for blocks that can be circled in a clockwise direction with right-hand turns when driving. Yellow blocks mean that one-way streets on at least one side require turning left to make it all the way around. I used dark red for blocks where at least one turn would send you into oncoming traffic—those blocks require you to include at least one other block when circling around.

However, a different pattern began to dominate as I moved away from downtown and into the nearby neighborhoods. “Big” city blocks also create an impediment to navigating the city. The most obvious boundary around downtown is the Mississippi River, but there are highways, railways, and other underdeveloped spaces that almost completely isolate downtown from other neighborhoods. I used a threshold of 15 acres to distinguish “big” blocks (shown in pink) vs. “small” blocks—a number I arrived at for little more reason than 10 acres seemed too low and 20 acres seemed too high.

A square block of 15 acres has a circumference of about 0.6 miles, taking about 12 minutes to walk around, and the time and distance increases as blocks become more rectangular or otherwise elongated. Of course, some smaller blocks can take much longer than 12 minutes to circle on foot due to strange shapes, and the presence of small blocks doesn’t automatically mean that you’re in a walker’s paradise. But in general, I think the resulting maps give a good indication of what it’s like to get around.

Compare the above map of downtown Saint Paul with another one I made of downtown Minneapolis. This shows a fantastic checkerboard pattern of blocks that can be circled clockwise, counterclockwise, and the ones that have turn conflicts requiring extra circling of adjacent blocks.

Map of city blocks in downtown Minneapolis.

Map of city blocks in downtown Minneapolis. Click here for full map.

Both downtowns have significant “moats” around them, though downtown Minneapolis retains more connections to nearby neighborhoods, especially to the south. In both cities, highways (especially interchanges) make large unwalkable zones, though the straighter mainline sections of the highways aren’t quite as bad. Saint Paul significantly tore down a large amount of housing in the West Side Flats area in the early 1960s, and the city’s Port Authority redeveloped it as a low-density industrial park. Large areas were also torn down to free up room for the capitol grounds. The park-like capitol lawn is an impressive space, but opening up the area in that way created something more similar to a suburban office park than a downtown zone.

Saint Paul is also much more heavily affected by railroads than Minneapolis is today. Both cities used to have a lot of railroad activity downtown, but only one freight rail corridor still cuts through the center of Minneapolis today, in the Warehouse District on the edge of downtown. On the other hand, Saint Paul sits at the a convergence point of six or seven different railroad lines operated by three different freight companies, including two major transcontinental rail corridors. In the heyday of passenger rail, this was good since it allowed lines to branch out in any direction, but with passenger service almost completely wiped out today, the freight lines present a significant burden on the downtown area.

This map likely helps explain how the West 7th Street neighborhood is one of the most active areas in/near downtown, since it’s one of the only continuous connections of smaller, more walkable blocks leading into downtown. The only other similar link is along Robert Street and Jackson Street on the north end of the city—an area dominated by government buildings and a hospital.

Downtown Minneapolis blends into nearby neighborhoods more readily, though there are still significant gaps. I skipped over freeways when making these maps, since it’s illegal to walk or bike along them except in limited circumstances, but also avoided routes that are only for bikes or pedestrians. That’s mostly just to keep the maps relatively simple—many bike and pedestrian connections are hard to see on maps, and they more frequently involve bridges, which lead to some trouble when mapping. Sometimes a single spot can be encircled by several different “blocks” depending on which bridges or other links you choose to use—I’ve included some of those, such as on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis, but tried to limit my use of overlapping blocks to keep the maps cleaner.

What stands out to you about these maps? Do they match the way you feel about the ease or difficulty of getting around these parts of town?

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at

13 thoughts on “Getting Around the Block: Downtown vs. Downtown

  1. Apostle

    Logically speaking, I find St Paul’s downtown street names to make more sense than Minneapolis. Not only is the downtown easier to navigate, I don’t have to worry about being at the “right” coordinates while still being at the wrong intersection, as is prone to happen over there in the unchartable territory.

  2. Joe ScottJoe

    One time I tried to drive from west to east near the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis. I don’t remember the exact route that I ended up taking, but I kept hitting detours from the grid that would then lead me into further detours. I wound up having to do a lot of weird loops to make it across. It’s annoying that you can’t just know where you’re going and what direction it is from where you are, then use that information to get there efficiently.

  3. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    You talk a lot about walking/bicycling blocks in your article, but it’s clear that the maps were geared towards vehicles. For example, the Government Center block along 5th as well as the myriad blocks along Nicollet Mall. Was this your intention?

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      Yes. I decided to have the maps represent blocks that could be circled by car AND by bike AND on foot. Ideally, I’d have maps for each different mode of transportation, since they all have different results, but that made for way too much work for the general project I’ve been putting together. In most parts of town there maps would look extremely similar, though downtowns and other densely-packed areas (such as the UMN campus) are areas where the changes would stand out more.

  4. David MarkleDavid Markle

    In Cedar-Riverside (part of this map) our neighborhood has “moats” around it, maybe to a greater degree than any other really busy neighborhood of the Twin Cities. Namely they are the Mississippi River, two freeways, and a partially disabled bridge (Washington Avenue). Despite the fact that we are (by Twin Cities standards) well served by public transit, this “moating-up” tends to make congestion problems for both residents and the very numerous visitors, whether they walk, bike or drive a car. Impending changes at the nearby intersection of Franklin/Minnehaha/Cedar seem likely to further impede automotive traffic, and one of the City’s official street mavens has admitted that a possibility of opening the former I-94 exit ramp to 5th St./11th Ave is more likely to add automotive traffic to the neighborhood than relieve it.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Implicit in your last point is that the existing moats keep cars out, which is consistent with my experiences on the West Bank. Seems quieter in terms of cars and less congested than other similarly situated parts of the city to me. Slimming Washington, in particular, seems to have helped in that regard.

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    The moats may tend to discourage casual visits (may hurt some of the business) but the big M-F attractions here are the U of M, Fairview-University Hospital, and Augsburg College. I forgot to mention the air pollution from the idling cars, not a great thing for residents.. Today at around 4:30 pm it took me about 15 minutes to get past the hospital by automobile (I usually avoid doing that, either by walking, taking transit or trying to travel according to a traffic avoidance schedule.)

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The good thing about universities and hospitals is that they aren’t strictly 9-5 (okay, here 8-4) destinations and have many arrivals and departures throughout the day.

      Even so, peak rush hour backups that can be avoided by one of multiple alternatives sounds like things are working pretty well.

  6. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    So when I drove a pedicab in downtown Saint Paul, one night I got a request from a drunk couple that were out on a date. The guy gives me a $20 and says, just take us around the park for a while, meaning Mears Park. Well, you can’t “go around the park” because of the one-way streets the wrong direction. so you end up having to take this 2-block detour around to Jackson and up and down 5th and 6th that kind of ruins the romantic atmosphere.

  7. Anonymous

    I used to avoid downtown because of the one ways, but I haven’t really had trouble finding anything there when I’ve actually had to. I think that a combination of the size (very small), and the fact that kellogg kind of circumnavigates the downtown grid (and thus intersects with every street pretty much. Then throw in knowing that 5th st and 6th st are one-ways that go in opposite directions, and it’s not too bad. That being said though, the grid is pretty nutty, due to the odd trajectory of 7th st where it intersects with 5th and 6th. Also would imagine that someone who expected the streets to be sorted by name and number like in mpls would be pretty confused. And those mears park shenanigans are definitely shenanigans. Also I’ve never had to go anywhere that wasn’t either near the capitol or more than a few blocks off 7th.

    For Minneapolis’ part, I typically don’t have trouble, but find that it’s occasionally confusing the way that the north-south streets turn into toward river streets, if that makes any sense. Also there are a fair number of super blocks along the outskirts that mess stuff up. Try getting to the Loring Park neighborhood from the 5th st freeway exit, for example. WTF is going on. Confused me, anyhow. I believe it was designed this way to isolate the Northside from the Southside. Also it seems like the freeway exit pattern is almost designed to make it difficult to get to the near-south neighborhoods from the freeway, but fairly easy to get to downtown. But I digress.


    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The Hennepin Ave exit off 94 and 12th St exit off of 394 both put you pretty much directly in the Loring Park neighborhood, so I’m not so sure about your conspiracy. 11th St. off of 35/94 doesn’t put you directly in the neighborhood, but it’s a pretty straight shot to get there.

      You just don’t want to take the 5th Ave exit if that’s where you’re going.

  8. Anonymous

    Actually, upon re-examination of the map, looks like that the majority of my problems navigating Minneapolis can be explained by the way that the Interstate construction interrupted almost all of the river-parallel streets. I’m still not convinced that shifting n-s streets toward the river is the most logical way of doing it, though, but I suppose it can be justified by the fact that the Southside is supposed to be the Southeastern quarter of mpls, and the east bank part of minneapolis (southeast and northeast minneapolis) is supposed to be the Northeastern quarter.

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