The “low-hanging fruit” is a classic planning metaphor, the kind of thing that you hear all the time at meetings or during in-depth discussions about systemic behavior change. The concept is pretty simple: instead of beginning with the most challenging, expensive, or politically difficult projects, start with the easy, simple, or efficacious ones. In her book, Joyride, well-known bike planner Mia Birk describes it thus:
This isn’t our first bike lane project, though. By shaving a few feet off each travel lane, we’ve striped dozens of miles of bike lanes already. We call these the “low-hanging fruit.” No longer are bike lanes seen as a novel concept. Many staff and public objections have melted away as the scary concept has become a concrete, comfortable reality.
The low-hanging fruit is all about the cost-to-benefit ratio, maximizing the efficiency of fiscal, political, or institutional efforts to make sure the most people benefit. While Saint Paul has seen some key improvements of its bicycling infrastructure over the last year — most notably the Cleveland Avenue bike lanes, but also streets like Front Avenue or Upper Afton Road [pictured in the feature photo] — they have involved some heated debates with people who have been impacted by the loss of parking or travel lanes. It hasn’t been always easy to build support!
But the reason that these projects offer such delicious and accessible fruit is that they can be done without impacting anyone, and/or offer safety benefits for all users, including car drivers, at little cost to the public in terms of dollars or “congestion.” So in no particular order, here you go!
#1. Bike lane and road diet on Plato Boulevard
Where: Plato Boulevard on the West Side Flats between Harriet Island and Highway 52
Existing conditions: 4-lane road with medians
Proposed change: 2-lane road with medians and on-street buffered bike lanes
Jurisdiction: Ramsey County
The West Side Flats is a formerly dense, run-down immigrant neighborhood that was “urban renewed” and turned into a light industrial park in the 1960s. Most of the existing streets date back to that era and, as a result, are both aging and overbuilt for the existing traffic loads. For example, both Wabasha and Robert Streets are 5-lane undivided roads through the Flats, while Plato Boulevard, which connects Harriet Island to the Saint Paul airport and the Highway 52 interchange, is a 4-lane road with a wide median and turn lanes.
That kind of road can handle a lot of traffic, but Plato only carries between 5,000 and 12,000 cars per day, easily enough for a 2-lane design with the existing median and turn lanes. You could very easily tweak the street to allow for protected or buffered bike lane designs, and in fact, Plato is funded for a regional bike lane connection that would connect the Lilydale trail to the West around the airport and to the South Saint Paul / Kaposia trail to the East. (With a bit of engineering magic, a protected lane here would have the added benefit of connecting to the new bike lane that crosses the Lafayette Highway 52 freeway bridge.)
Removing 2 of the unnecessary lanes on Plato would still handle the existing traffic loads easily, but it would improve safety, reducing speeding in this part of the city that suffers from a dearth of walkability. This project could be a big step towards connecting the West Side to downtown, and making the whole area a bit more pedestrian friendly. And all for the cost of a little bit of paint.
#2 Bike lane and road diet on Pennsylvania Avenue
Where: Pennsylvania Avenue between Phalen Boulevard and Rice Street
Existing conditions: 4-lane divided
Proposed change: 2-lane with buffered bike lanes
Jurisdiction: Ramsey County
This is one that streets.mn writer and East Side bike advocate Eric Saathof wrote about a while back. Currently, the wonderful Phalen Boulevard off-street bike path connects the Bruce Vento trail and Lake Phalen to Swede Hollow and the Payne Avenue / Railroad Island neighborhood. It’s a great trail that lots of different people — mostly East Siders — use on a daily basis.
But the trial dead-ends when it gets near Interstate 35 and Phalen Bouelvard turns into Pennsylvania Avenue, leaving this entire stretch of bike trail a bit cut off from the city’s core.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, for 4 blocks, is a 4-lane divided road with an ADT count of 14-16,000 cars per day. With almost no turns or intersections, this is a place where a 2-lane design would work.
Read through Eric’s well-illustrated post, and then imagine what this street could look and feel like with a buffered or protected bike lane connecting Como to Phalen Boulevard. You would suddenly be able to safely ride a bicycle between the East Side and the rest of the city, and the Phalen off-street bike trail would be much more useful. The County could do this tomorrow with a little bit of paint, and almost no impact to existing drivers or businesses.
#3 Bike lane and road diet on Energy Park Drive
Where: Energy Park Drive between Lexington Parkway and the UMN Transitway
Existing conditions: 4-lane road, half divided, half undivided
Proposed change: 3-lane with bike lanes
Jurisdiction: Ramsey County
I was nearly run off the road by a UPS driver while biking in the right lane on this street. It was frustrating because traffic is so low here, and drivers can easily take the left lane to pass anyone on a bicycle. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a bike lane?
Energy Park Drive offers a very similar story to the above Pennsylvania example. It’s a 4-lane divided road running from Lexington all the way West to the University of Minnesota transit way with ADTs of only 8 – 13,000 cars per day, along with minimal intersections and driveway access. Much of it runs through industrial areas, but a key section between Snelling and Lexington is lined with more pedestrian uses like housing, offices, and even two schools and a hotel. The existing traffic could very easily be accommodated by a 3-lane design, leaving plenty of room for a buffered bike lane in each direction.
This path would connect the well-used University of Minnesota transit way to the now-existing Front Avenue bike lanes and North-south Lexington Parkway off-street bike trail that leads to Como Park and points South. What’s more, like the other proposals on this list, it would be done at almost minimal cost to County coffers, driver congestion, and zero parking spots while improving safety for every user on the street.
#4 Bike lane and road diet on Saint Paul Avenue
Where: Saint Paul Avenue between Cleveland and West 7th Street
Existing conditions: 4-lane divided and parking
Proposed change: 2-lane divided with buffered bike lane and parking
Jurisdiction: City of Saint Paul and Ramsey County (depending)
Saint Paul Avenue is one of the rare streets that connects the Southern Highland neighborhoods along West 7th Street and the River (by the Highway 5 bridge) to the northern more historic sections of the neighborhood. But it offers an incredibly wide right-of-way with a 4-lane divided (with turn lane) design with an average daily traffic that peaks (!) at 8,000 cars per day.
As with the other examples, the city could stripe a quality buffered or protected bike lane here with no impact on congestion or parking, that would improve safety for drivers while providing a quality route for bicyclists, at very low cost and they could do it ASAP.
The extra benefit of this route would be to connect the recently-completed Cleveland bike lanes all the way South to the Sam Morgan trail along the Mississippi River (in theory, if you could get around Shepard Road). The only hitch? Saint Paul Avenue is currently one of the potential routes for the Riverview transit corridor, but that project is many years away and I am skeptical that, compared to the CP rail corridor, it is really under consideration as a route for any future rail or bus connection.
#5 Buffered bike lane on Summit Avenue
Where: Summit Avenue between Lexington Parkway and the East River Road
Existing conditions: 16′ drive lane, 5′ bike lane, and parking
Proposed change: 11′ drive lane with a buffered bike lane
Jurisdiction: City of Saint Paul
This is an idea from semi-prolific streets.mn writer and bike advocate, Mike Sonn, who rightly points out that in many places, Summit Avenue has a design with a 5’ bike lane and a 16’ (!) driving lane. For the record, those widths are far wider than the lanes on Interstate 94. When faced with such a design, cities like Minneapolis would likely reverse some of those priorities, and use the extra 4-6’ to paint a buffered for the bike lane.
Saint Paul could do this tomorrow without impacting traffic or parking one iota, and they’d be improving safety for everyone, because narrower lanes are safer for drivers and buffered bike lanes are safer for bicyclists. Wider lanes would also offer a more comfortable infrastructure for experienced bicyclists or those traveling with older or younger people (e.g. kids, seniors). I see people bicycling down Summit al the time with their families, and wouldn’t it be nice to make their trips safer at little cost to the public?
Read through all of Mike’s piece on this, but this seems low-hanging fruit indeed!
In Conclusion: Fruit is Good for You and Delicious
The common theme on this list should be pretty obvious. Saint Paul has a whole bunch of streets that are over-built for their current traffic loads, many of which run through aging industrial areas. There seems to be an unspoken subtext that the wide rights of way many of these routes need to be reserved for some future date when trucking and traffic appear in droves. (For example, the proposed freight connection between Pierce Butler Route and Phalen Bouelvard.) But a far more likely scenario is that technology, economic, and cultural changes make 4-lane roads like these unnecessary in urban areas in the first place. Meanwhile, in the the interim period, there is much to be gained by creating safe, comfortable bike routes that link diverse parts of Saint Paul.
The city and county could make all of these changes next year. They would improve safety for drivers by reducing speed differentials and complexity, and at the same time they would provide high-quality bike connections through often-difficult areas for bicyclists. These changes would improve conditions for pretty much every road user at the cost of just a little bit of paint, no loss of parking, and minimal impact on congestion or traffic.
These are ripe fruits just sitting there within reach. Most importantly, they’d maximize the positive impact of our other more-extensive bike projects like the downtown Loop, the Cleveland Lanes, the bike boulevards, and the Grand Rounds. Let’s pick the easy stuff!