I spent much of this spring exploring the system of bike lanes and trails that South Minneapolis has to offer, as well as the state and county lands here in Sherburne County. Both are relatively new to me despite being a lifelong Minnesota resident. I spent my childhood in Becker, which meant our family made many trips to central Minnesota’s largest population center, St. Cloud. I lived in St. Cloud for about six months last year, marking the beginning of my pursuit of a carfree lifestyle; I’m still a frequent visitor to the city and whether I walk or bike, I still notice areas I think deserve some attention like the ones I’ll show you below.
Let me start off by saying, St. Cloud is relatively compact and well-served by public transportation. Nine months out of the year, the town swells with university students who receive free bus fare throughout the city. Metro Bus, who have trademarked what is arguably one of the best slogans in existence for a transit agency-The People Picker-Uppers-operate 15 fixed routes in the greater St. Cloud Metropolitan Area, which includes neighboring Sartell, Sauk Rapids, and Waite Park. This is in addition to the several Clipper routes that operate on the St. Cloud State University (SCSU) campus, although these are being replaced this fall by increased fixed route services. I can’t think of a single grocery store in the entire metropolitan area that isn’t served directly by Metro Bus, and many apartment complexes have their own shelter.
If you visit the convention center downtown, you’ll find pictures of the old streetcar service that, like many other cities in the early 20th century, served as the artery of this small town. For a brief period between 1917 and 1920, St. Cloud appeared poised to become a hub of automobile manufacturing for Samuel Pandolfo’s Pan Motorcar Company. Unfortunately for Pandolfo, the government accused him of fraud for sending promotional material in the mail for the purposes of selling stock before production began. Only 737 units of the Pan Model 250 were produced before Pan Motorcar Company dissolved like so many other small auto manufacturers of the time. The Pantown neighborhood still exists on the north side of St. Cloud, a city which today finds itself defined more by the presence of new car dealerships than Pandolfo’s failed effort that is now a century in the past.
I started this journey heading north from downtown, which by itself is relatively walkable with plenty of wide sidewalks and store front businesses. As I made my way up 9th Avenue, I reached a bridge which caused me a small amount of confusion when I first moved here. Here there are four lanes of road, separated by a median. Overhead are two bridges with rail tracks on them, along with a pedestrian bridge.
Heading north, I had two options; I could either walk on the east side of the street or the west side of the street. If I chose the east side, I would lose the sidewalk immediately after the intersection with 2nd Street, but there are a couple of options, the first being to follow this dirt path down to the narrow sidewalk.
Which brought me here:
Or, I could walk up the hill onto this dirt path, which brings me to the pedestrian bridge and the stairs that lead to the tunnel, under the railroad bridges and up to the street on the other side.
Instead of doing all that, I recommend walking on the west side of the street. After the 2nd Street intersection, the sidewalk follows and crosses 10th Avenue, where it connects with the pedestrian bridge and a set of stairs that will safely take you down 9th Avenue. There’s also an asphalt ramp here, but I’m not sure what it’s for. I don’t know a whole lot about wheelchair requirements for ramps, but I don’t think this thing is making the cut.
To understand why this is such an important spot, you need to understand the geography of St. Cloud. The railroad effectively splits the neighborhoods on the north side in half, with a large and active rail yard right in the middle. This means that, for 15 blocks, you cannot travel north or south without illegally crossing the tracks.
Veteran’s Drive, or 8th Street North, begins about half a block west of the Mississippi River in St. Cloud in a humble neighborhood before turning into the four lane thoroughfare seen in the map above. It then travels west into Waite Park and eventually turns into Highway 4.
The road is mostly flanked by homes and apartments. The exception would be Centennial Plaza, a strip mall which features Coburn’s Grocery and Pharmacy, the Good Earth Food Co-Op, Ace Hardware and a variety of other small businesses that serve the surrounding neighborhood. Also next to the plaza is the National Guard Armory. This is all great…if you can get there. The sidewalk on Veteran’s is intermittent, with plenty of stops and starts for no apparent reason. The only marked crosswalks are at 33rd, 25th, and 9th Avenues. The map shows the sidewalk situation on Veteran’s between 9th and 33rd Avenues.
I have never had a problem biking on the street itself, but I hardly ever share it with anybody but automobile drivers. I certainly don’t see families walking through the grass together or runners on the pavement. But with traffic levels so low on this street, I’m unsure why it is this wide to begin with. I think the outer lanes would better serve bikes and pedestrians. The speed limit here is only 30 MPH, and I don’t think removing a lane would affect travel times. At the very least, I would like to see more walked crosswalks since the bus only stops on one side of the street.
As I continue west past 33rd Avenue, the sidewalk is briefly lost again while approaching Highway 15. As I crossed the highway I noticed a pedestrian bridge down the street that connects Apollo High School with the north side neighborhood at 10th Street.
While not actually leaving the city, there is a definite difference in scale between the residential neighborhood you were just in and the sprawling educational, industrial and medical campuses on this side of the highway. Maybe it’s the longer distances, but I seem to be noticing more people walking out here than I did in the neighborhood, but the sidewalk situation still hasn’t gotten any better. The northern portion ends again shortly after crossing the highway, while the southern portion is non-existent.
A bike lane takes its place, but I can see a paved path off to the side of the road ahead. I cut through the grass, I think I’m on the Apollo campus now but there’s no way to be sure. I reach 44th Avenue and the path finally ends unless I want to head south, but I continue west until Highway 134. All of the people outside are either biking or walking through the grass, and they look like they are on their way to or from work in the factories and shipping hubs in the industrial park. I pass Joe Faber field, an athletic complex with an appropriately sized parking lot. The first time I ever walked this route, I was actually coming from the opposite direction from an even further and less connected neighborhood. While there a few different bus routes in the area, I’m again surprised at how intermittent the sidewalk is. In the neighborhood, I had to duck under trees and stop for cars leaving the alley; out here, there is a ton of empty space, and as of right now most of it is still receiving lawnmower traffic on a regular basis.
If, for some reason, you’re like me and have walked here all the way from downtown on a hot sunny day, you should probably stop at the Knights of Columbus Park down the street and relax on the Sauk River for a while.
Other Places on the North Side
This is the intersection of Division Street (State Highway 23) and 33rd Avenue North. As you can see, the Midtown Mall is a mixture of formal office space, government services, retail establishments, restaurants, and there’s even a gym and a call center inside as well. I’m sure I’m still missing a few things, but overall it receives a pretty steady flow of traffic throughout the day. On the other side of the street is a restaurant sharing a large lot with two auto shops. Three bus stops service this location, and people frequently make the mid-block crossing on 33rd instead of using the crosswalk at Division. I used to work at Pepperjax Grill, and during my off time I would watch the intersection from the north-facing window which apparently is now a drive-thru. It’s been over a year since I’ve visited this location, but it didn’t take long to capture what this intersection is notorious for.
Take the cyclist above, for example. The cyclist was heading straight across the street to the Midtown entrance. Unfortunately, he became stranded on the median waiting for south bound traffic to clear. It didn’t take long for the turn lane to fill up behind him, clogging up traffic even further until things cleared up.
A few minutes later, the northbound bus came. I’ve noticed most of the pedestrian traffic trying to cross here is coming directly off the bus to go to Midtown. When I worked here, I crossed the opposite direction, getting off at the stop just north of 1st Street. I’ve gotten stuck on the same median, sandwiched between four lanes of traffic, unwilling to cross at the intersection just up the street.
And it isn’t just pedestrians in danger here, there were plenty of near crashes from cars pulling out from all directions. I only spent about 25 minutes at the intersection this time, but I saw plenty of people stuck on the median and at least one car narrowly avoid being T-boned by oncoming traffic. As much thought as I’ve put into it, I truly have no idea where to begin to make this intersection safer for everybody. I used to think that if the entrances on the east side of 33rd avenue were closed off, it would solve a lot of headaches since there is still access on 32nd Avenue. But with the new drive-thru, I don’t know if Pepperjax would support that. I doubt they chose the location for aesthetics or walkability.
I almost forgot about this experience, but I think it’s relevant here. When living in St. Cloud, I rented a small economy apartment on the north side next to the community college. It was pretty quiet on the weekends when school wasn’t in session and the surrounding offices were all closed. So one spring day, I decided to put in some headphones and explore. Across Whitney Park and only a mile north of my apartment, I found this unfinished neighborhood. I thought the discontinuous sidewalks were pretty novel, so I purposefully walked down them. But it almost cost me as I noticed an SUV rapidly reversing out of a garage towards the street. I’m not going to identify which house it was coming from, although it wouldn’t be hard to guess.
I stood on the sidewalk on the driver’s side, just inches away from the vehicle as it turned onto the street. It was only after they had completely backed out that the driver noticed me. They rolled down their window, and I was immediately put on the defensive. Where are you coming from, why are you in my neighborhood, and where do you live were all questions that were asked. They finally left after warning me that a call to the police would be in order if I was to be spotted walking through here again. It was a pretty minor incident, and nothing happened as a result of it. But it left me with a bad taste for the area, especially when I could hear a young child in the back seat talking. Incomplete sidewalks, empty streets and distracted drivers do not make a place appealing in my opinion, and I hope the children here get the chance to safely explore the rest of the city. But on a positive note, they do have a community pool, gazebo and tennis court on the corner lot.
This is probably the worst problem I can identify when it comes to pedestrian infrastructure in the city. It all depends on which side of Highway 10 you live on. West of the highway, you’re part of a relatively connected and well served grid. But east of Highway 10, you’re pretty much cut off if you don’t have a car. This is because you don’t want to walk down Highway 23, as there is heavy traffic, no sidewalk, and no crosswalk or stop signs on the on/off ramps. If you want to get to the east side Target, you either have to go up to East St. Germain, or down to 15th Avenue and walk back up Lincoln. I chose East St. Germain, and I had to turn around once when I couldn’t find a way to cross Highway 23.
Much closer than Target are the fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. There are probably as many, if not more apartment complexes here as there are on the SCSU campus. Also on this side of the highway is the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter and a motel. Over on campus, a recent pedestrian safety campaign resulted in 15 citations and the distribution of informative lanyards, while much of this neighborhood lacks sidewalks. Which leads us to this:
The neighborhood pictured above is the Sherwood Manor manufactured home community as seen on the previous map. This well-worn trail runs directly across the four lanes of Highway 10 to the SuperAmerica on the other side. People walk (or run) to get to the median, wait for traffic to clear, then proceed to the other side where they have to cross a small frontage road. The speed limit on this section of highway is 50 MPH, and heavy traffic is a daily occurrence. As far as I can tell, this is the most direct link serving the far east side community, and the highway 23 interchange begins almost as soon as you pass this path. I never got the chance to come here during winter and check for foot prints, so I don’t know if it’s used year round.
I decided not to make the crossing myself, and fortunately I was quickly able to catch the #7 Eastside bus back to downtown. As I got on, it only seemed fitting that the bus was packed with people, with plenty more being picked up as we backtracked through the neighborhoods I just walked through. A bus this crowded isn’t unheard of in St. Cloud, but not all that common either. I wondered how many people would be riding if it didn’t take an extra mile just to cross the street in some places. I know I wouldn’t be.