A Pennsylvania Avenue Bike Lane Connection for the East Side

pic-1Highways in St. Paul have divided our city and created major barriers for anyone not in an automobile. The “East Side” of St. Paul is informally defined as the portion east of I-35E. Many people avoid it, and Bill Lindeke has been known to refer to it as “the St. Paul of St. Paul” because nobody from Minneapolis visits St. Paul, and nobody from St. Paul visits the East Side. Could one of the reasons why be due to how difficult it is to get there?

Safe Crossings

pic-2North of downtown there are seven ways to cross I-35E, and they are not very bike friendly.

Automobile Routes Bike Friendly?


There used to be two bike/ped only crossings, but with the MnDOT construction of the Cayuga Project they are both gone and will not be replaced.


Bike/Ped Crossings
Gateway Trail Bridge

Gateway Trail Connection at Case




Pennsylvania Avenue

While Minneapolis has Penn Avenue, in St. Paul we have Pennsylvania Avenue, which stretches about 1 mile between Rice Street and I-35E. It is a four lane divided road signed for 40mph. It is approximately 26’ wide. One might call it a “death road,” except it pretty much has no crossings.


pic-4On the eastern side of I-35E Pennsylvania Avenue is called Phalen Boulevard, and bicyclists have a different experience: along its entire 3 mile length are wide shoulders for bikes and an off-street path.

Pennsylvania Avenue’s ADT is recorded right around 15,000, which is within the city of St. Paul’s range for considering a “road diet.” With the ongoing construction of the Cayuga Project, that ADT has surely gone down. In fact, I braved this stretch for my commute on Wednesday with cars going 40+mph and found the volume to be very light at both 7:30am and 4:30pm. It has no shoulders and is a very uncomfortable place to ride.


New Urban Highway (and bikeway)

The City of St. Paul has a plan to create a continuous urban highway including Phalen Boulevard, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Pierce Butler Route. However, at this point in time the funding is not available.


While a new urban highway is a scary thought, the idea of a safe bikeway along this entire stretch would be incredibly useful, especially for getting into and out of the East Side of St. Paul. You can see the design for this in the St. Paul Bike Plan.


The careful observer may note that the Pennsylvania Avenue portion of this route has the off-street path diverging from the in-street bike lane for a bit. That is because the long term plan for Pennsylvania is actually to not only rebuild it but to relocate it to the north where Empire Drive presently sits.


So while the ADT for Pennsylvania Avenue will one day be higher, it will not be until it is rebuilt with the proper capacity for both bikes and cars. In its current incarnation it has excess car capacity and zero space for safe cycling.


A Pennsylvania Avenue Road Diet

This is why I propose that we convert one lane of Pennsylvania in both directions into a buffered bike lane.



(I realize that the proposed car lanes are far too wide at 16’, but I didn’t want to be too greedy in the bike lane space. Hopefully someone with more expertise or imagination will figure out a better use for the extra space. I would suggest planters, but this is an ugly road where nobody walks, and I don’t think it deserves beautification investment)


Turn Lanes (and ramps)

What makes Pennsylvania Avenue a great candidate for a road diet is that it already has the turn lanes that it needs.


Pennsylvania and Rice Street


Pennsylvania and Empire Drive


Pennsylvania and Jackson


(This one is particularly interesting because each of the highway interchange-style ramps is wide enough for a bike lane. In addition, Jackson will soon be one of the most important bikeways in the city as an off-street bikeway downtown leads to bike lanes going north out of the city.)


Pennsylvania and the entrance to the MN Transportation Museum


(This is the one spot that does not have turn lanes, but as much as I liked my visit to the Jackson Street Roundhouse I don’t foresee its traffic slowing down Pennsylvania Avenue much.)



pic-14Pennsylvania is a County State Aid Highway (CR 33), and so is Pierce Butler Route (CR 33). Pierce Butler functions with one travel lane in each direction, a middle turn lane (or buffer), and wide shoulders for bicycles. Similarly, Phalen Boulevard functions with single car lanes in certain areas and includes bike-lane width shoulders in addition to an off-street path for its entire length.



The Cayuga Project

As part of the Cayuga Project MnDOT is rebuilding a small portion of Pennsylvania Avenue. This already includes a great 12’ multi-use path on the south that, unfortunately, has an abrupt dead-end.


pic-16On both sides of the street will be a 6’ shoulder, which could function as bike lanes, but these, too, will abruptly stop and leave bicyclists at a functional dead-end. It is at this point that the existing outside car lanes are proposed to be reprogrammed as extensions of the 6’ shoulders with an additional 4’ buffer.

The completion of the Pierce Butler / Pennsylvania / Phalen Blvd urban highway will wait years (if not decades) due to lack of funds, but the extra road capacity sitting and waiting on Pennsylvania Avenue could be put to use right now with just a little bit of paint. Let’s make St. Paul more “livable” by allowing all road users space to get from one side of the city to another.

Eric Saathoff

About Eric Saathoff

Eric Saathoff is a public school teacher living in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. He is a regular walker, cyclist, transit user, and driver with his wife and three young children. Eric serves on the Payne-Phalen Community Council and the St Paul Transportation Committee.

6 thoughts on “A Pennsylvania Avenue Bike Lane Connection for the East Side

  1. Ben

    Casual observation: It’s revealing that from the images you have it’s obvious the road is in poor condition.

  2. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma


    First off it’s great to see you writing here again! Your response piece to Joe “Wish I was Stephen Colbert but sadly people actually take me seriously” Soucheray was spot on.

    I have always been a big fan of the idea for a Pennsylvania Phalen Blvd connection. As you know, I used to live right by y’all on the east side and would commute daily to Minneapolis, so I literally rode this path everyday.

    The Cayuga connection lacks a great deal and the compromise connection created to make up for the removal of the Gateway Trail requires people to really go out of their way to use it. Crossing 35e *can* be done, but it adds about 15-25 minutes to the journey. For most people, this makes the detour untenable.

    The Penn Phalen idea is fantastic namely because of all the new medical buildings that are going in along Phalen. I remember talking to the head designer on that project and them telling me they are “really excited to put in bike lanes to increase access, but we haven’t heard boo from the city representatives after multiple attempts.” This creates an interesting problem IMHO as we could very well make Penn a great bike access route, but then lose the bike path along Phalen because the city and the design team for the surgery center never got a hold of each other.

    The other thing that I wanted to ask about was the CIB budget proposal process. If I remember clearly (long shot at best) there were two different CIB proposals along that area of Phalen Blvd for improvements by the new medical complex. I can’t remember which of those projects passed or if it was actually Pierce Butler that ended up getting the direct route.

    I really do think that Pennsylvania can and should be put on a road diet and given off street paths. It connects the neighborhood to public transit via bike path and literally creates access to a train that can take kids from East Side to the University of Minnesota. Bravo for shedding light on this.

  3. Eric SaathoffEric S

    FYI, I (Eric) wrote this and there’s just a mix up with the streets.mn system because Elizabeth submitted something last time.

    On this plan for Cayuga (http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/35estpaul/pdf/cayugalayout.pdf)
    you can see that they plan to extend the 12′ off-street path in front of the new neuroscience center (north side between Olive & 35E), as well as 6′ shoulders on both sides of the roadway of Phalen Blvd. As you go west to 35E there will be a 12′ off-street path on BOTH sides of the street, then it continues west of 35E on the south side of Pennsylvania. One would have to cross the street to stay on the actual off-street path, but that will be a frequent crossing point because of the Gateway Trail (http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/35estpaul/pdf/trailimprovements.pdf).

    My proposal is actually to create buffered bike lanes that would be in-street – basically a continuation of the 6′ shoulders that will be painted on Pennsylvania west to the point where the Cayuga project abruptly ends. I don’t want those to end until they get to Rice Street.

    1. Eric SaathoffEric S

      My issues with Arlington are that leading up to the bridge from east and west is not particularly bike-friendly. The bridge itself has a decently wide protected path, but if you want bicycle facilities that lead you to the bridge you need to be on the Gateway or the Trout Brook Trail, which have limited accessibility for most nearby residents. They aren’t a part of the street grid. On the St. Paul Bike Plan Arlington is supposed to get an in-street bike lane. If it had that on both sides I would consider it a very bike-friendly crossing. Right now I think it just “somewhat” due to accessibility.

      Cayuga, on the other hand, has an off-street path that goes under 35E. To the east and west it connects with bike facilities that are on streets that are part of the neighborhood street grid and have many accessible connections.

      Maybe you don’t see as much of a difference as I do, but I think the Cayuga crossing is much easier to get to on safe bikeways than the Arlington crossing. However, Arlington is clearly better than Maryland Ave or University Ave.

      I hope for Pennsylvania to be much more bike-friendly than Arlington because once you cross 35E you will be able to continue west with bike facilities, not to mention accessing Jackson or the Gateway Trail.

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