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.