Five Easy Pieces of Low-Hanging Bicycle Fruit that Saint Paul Should Pick

sidewalkdetritus51

A box of strawberries sitting on the ground at Saint Paul’s Central Station for some reason.

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

plato-blvd-adts

Numbers denote daily traffic counts.

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

pennsylvania-ave-adts

Numbers denote daily traffic counts.

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

energy-park-adts-2

Numbers denote daily traffic counts.

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

st-paul-ave-adts

Numbers denote daily traffic counts.

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

summit-ave-adts

Numbers denote daily traffic counts.

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

stp-cleveland-bike-lanes

The new Cleveland Avenue bike lanes.

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!

34 thoughts on “Five Easy Pieces of Low-Hanging Bicycle Fruit that Saint Paul Should Pick

  1. Ethan OstenEthan Osten

    Some slightly higher-hanging fruit:

    1) Maryland Ave between Como and Rice. Right now, the street has two lanes (11′ each) and two 9′ parking lanes, but parking demand is virtually nonexistent. Removing the south parking lane would leave plenty of parking space and give enough space for bike lanes.

    2) Front Ave from Dale to Park. There are sharrows from Dale to Western, which is ludicrous when the parking lanes are always empty. East of Western has more parking, but one lane would still be plenty.

    3) Lafayette Rd, at least the bridge east of University. Four lanes of traffic for 8100 cars, just vastly overbuilt.

    4) Minnehaha Ave east of Payne. Four lanes, 6800 cars.

    All of these but Maryland are on the bike plan (in one form or another), but all would quickly fill significant gaps with minimal pain.

    1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

      I agree with these suggestions so much. I’m hoping we can get some movement on Tedesco / Lafayette with the new police shooting range being built in Railroad Island. Minnehaha should be done yesterday, and Front should have been done right – that was my old commute.

      In case you haven’t heard – Ramsey County has committed to doing a 2-month test of a 4-3 conversion on Maryland between Greenbrier and Johnson Pkwy in the spring. After the two months they will be doing a mill & overlay and will decide whether to keep the 3 lanes, go back to 4, or figure something else out. Maybe we’ll stick with the 3-lane configuration and it will spread to other parts of Maryland.

        1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

          I don’t think they’d go for it. I was happy enough to get this opportunity, not bold enough to ask for more. They see it as a unique opportunity to try something before a scheduled M&O. This much of an experimental mindset is welcome compared to just being content with the status quo. In addition, this is not “low hanging fruit” like all the other great projects you mentioned. This is very much above St. Paul’s comfort threshold for road diets.

          Don’t get me wrong – I’d love a year to try this.

      1. Ethan OstenEthan Osten

        I had heard about the Maryland test, I didn’t know that it was going to be so short though. Are the outer lanes going to be bike lanes or just buffer/reaction zones? I’d heard they’re only going to be 4 feet (so 4-11-10-11-4?).

        1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

          Actually I imagine the turn lane will also be 11′, though they didn’t specify lane widths to me. That leaves even less shoulder space.

          They considered doing the test this fall but figured it would be too short. If the winter is short they said they will start the test early – maybe get three months instead of two.

  2. Jonathan Lord

    All five of these suggestions are sorely needed. Plato boulevard and the horrible RR crossing by the Holiday station is the cause of numerous pinch flats, and fixing this would complete the commuter route to the east side of downtown available through Lilydale park once the final construction is done.

    Directionals from Saint Paul Avenue onto Plato and over the soon to be abandoned RR tracks to the Ford Plant to get to the River Road would be nice too.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

      So I’m not the only one that has had multiple flats at that RR crossing? Now I slow down to almost walking speed to cross it. It’s the worst RR crossing I’ve seen in the city!

      1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

        I have also had two recent flats on those RR tracks. Reuben assured me they were far from the worst in the city, but I went as gingerly as I could today because I’m out of patches or extra tubes!

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Grand Avenue is another street with extremely wide travel lanes (and extremely long crossings for people trying to cross it on foot). Oh, it also has a few destinations along it that people riding bicycles might like to go to.

    1. Tom Quinn

      Why bother with Grand Avenue when Summit, with its bike lanes, is a block off? All the businesses on Grand are easily accessible.

      1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

        This is the same reason why I sought bike lanes on Payne more than Edgerton. Cyclists want to get to businesses, and one block off is not the same. Imagine Grand was completely closed to cars and someone said you’d be fine with Summit and Lincoln – that’s TWO car-friendly parallel streets. Why do you need to drive on Grand?

        It’s nice to actually see all the businesses as you ride through. Trying to get to Cafe Latte but forgot which cross street it is? That’s fine, just ride from Summit south to Grand on Dale, then do the same on St Albans, Grotto, Avon, – eventually you’ll figure out it’s actually on Victoria. No big deal.

        Riding your bike on a commercial street allows one to effectively window shop. It’s the kind of browsing pedestrians can do and sometimes drivers try to do, but at 30mph it’s just not practical or safe.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        In no particular order: (1) the stuff that people want to get to (assuming they aren’t mansion-dwellers) is on Grand, which is a good reason to have Grand itself be open to additional modes, (2) the Summit bike lanes are pretty bad (although Bill’s plan would change that, (3) Grand would be an even better, safer and more appealing place to shop and stroll with further traffic calming, and (4) as Walker says, the existing set up includes lanes that are too wide (e.g., too fast and less safe).

        1. robsk

          “Riding your bike on a commercial street allows one to effectively window shop.” I don’t think you should promote distracted riding.

          Putting bike lanes on roads that have fewer cars is an excellent idea. Grand would be another feel-good bikist disaster.

          Is there evidence that narrower lanes for cars is safer? Narrowing roads makes snow removal more difficult. They also leave less room for corrections when accidents happen.

          As a firefighter, I frequently see how wider roads are safer and more practical than narrow. Three lanes can be better than 4 in some situations, but 2 definitely isn’t. Observe how cars and bikes pull over for emergency vehicles and see if you still think narrower is better.

          Wisconsin’s city speed limit is typically 25 mph, while Minnesota’s is 30. Yet Wisconsin has more motor vehicle fatalities and more car-vs-pedestrian deaths per year than Minnesota. Wisconsin also does not allow for speeds over 45 thru stop-and-go light intersections.

          I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how narrow lanes as a “traffic calming” measure makes for calmer drivers and safer streets. Please help me understand, thanks.

          1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

            According to Iowa DOT the most common speed limits are 20mph for business districts and 25 for residential and school districts.
            In 2012 (this is the data I found quickly), Iowa had 20 peds killed, which was 5.5% of all traffic fatalities.
            In 2012, MN had 40 peds killed, which was 10.1% of all traffic fatalities.
            Iowa had total 364 fatalities and MN had 395.

            2012 ped deaths for MN were .00074% of the total population.
            for Iowa it was .00067% of the total population.

            I wanted to find some data comparing the percentage of pedestrian crashes that led to fatalities, but it wasn’t easily googled.

            That year Wisconsin did have more pedestrian fatalities (45), but it was still a smaller percentage of total traffic fatalities (7.3%).

          2. Mike SonnMike Sonn

            As a business, you want people to easily see your store and be able to also easily stop and access it. Walking/biking provide this – that is what Eric is talking about. Many drivers don’t even see what’s along the road so businesses are missing out on the best free advertising they have available: their actual store front.

            As for firetrucks, we need to design them to fit our streets – not design our streets to fit them.
            http://sf.streetsblog.org/2015/06/29/sf-firefighters-take-campaign-against-safe-street-design-to-north-beach/

          3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

            You don’t need to wait for someone to explain how narrow lanes are safer. Plenty of posts on this site about it:

            Wider lanes cause people to drive at higher speeds: https://streets.mn/2015/11/03/chart-of-the-day-lane-width-vs-speed-on-suburban-streets/

            Higher speeds means reduced stopping time and higher severity of injury/higher risk of death: https://streets.mn/2015/04/02/the-critical-ten/ & https://streets.mn/2016/06/23/chart-of-the-day-pedestrian-crash-survival-rates-by-age-and-speed-of-car/

            Higher speeds reduces visual field, making it harder to see potential crashes: https://streets.mn/2015/04/09/chart-of-the-day-visual-field-at-different-speeds/

            Narrower lanes (the trough at ~10.5′ wide) have the lowest incidence rate of crashes: https://streets.mn/2015/05/27/chart-of-the-day-lane-width-vs-crash-severity/ (and, as discussed earlier, even with slightly *higher* crash *rates* below that lane width, the aggregate risk to health is still *lower* because crash severity drops off significantly with lower speeds).

            And, as a firefigher, I hope you’d be interested in reading this: https://www.cnu.org/sites/default/files/CNUEmergency%20Response_FINAL.pdf

            Even with our fewer and narrower lanes, emergency response times in Minneapolis and St Paul are quite good, thanks in large part to the ability to support many police/fire stations nearer to more households as well as a grid that helps responders have multiple route options to get to a property. But even if you assumed wider roads would help reduce emergency response times, the risk of injury or death in traffic incidents washes out any benefit gained.

          4. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Could someone with moderator powers un-pending Alex’s substantive reply? I assume it was filtered because of the links, but maybe we need a process to deal with pending comments that doesn’t leave them in limbo for days at a time?

            (Or, alternatively: if you’re an editor or whatever, you should probably log in to the site when you read it so you will know there are comments await moderation.)

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Sort-of-low-hanging fruit:
    Make Shepard Rd two-lane from Eagle Street to Sibley Street, using the northern carriageway. Convert the southern carriageway into a much wider two-way bike/ped facility.

  5. John Bailey

    To tie this article with your previous one on pork chops, I would also note the annoying pork chop on Energy Park and Lexington. The city build an awesome ped/bike bridge over the tracks on Lexington along with a nice, wide path. Unfortunately when heading north on Lex, the sight line totally sucks to cross Energy Park with eastbound cars zooming into their “slot” to turn south onto Lex. This is especially hard with a gaggle of kids on their bikes behind. A calmed Energy Park, sans pork chop, would make this much safer.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

      yes that pork chop is terrible. The whole Lexington sidepath trail connection is pretty dated at this point. The main problem, apart from the porkchop and the “stop signs people ignore” intersections, is that it ends once you get into Como Park proper. How do you, for example, get to the lake or to Dockside?

      (A: Very dangerously)

  6. Tom Quinn

    Bill, 4 or 5 of your suggestions are east/west routes, but from my experience what St. Paul critically needs are more north/south routes. The Green Line, I94, Pierce Butler and the rail road tracks south of Como Park are make it difficult to commute from central St. Paul to points north.

    Chatsworth has a pedestrian crossway over I94 and a stoplight at the Green Line, but requires a desperate dash to cross Pierce Butler. Then there’s the little goat trail to get to the tracks where you have to carry your bike to cross. Getting through Como Park is a breeze, but continuing north on Lexington from there can be harrowing.

    Speaking of Lexington, I’ve unsuccessfully lobbied to get a bike lane on Lexington north of Larpenteur for years, but to no avail. Lexington is single lane all the way to 694 with a huge, absolutely huge, center turn lane. Several feet of the turn lane could be used to expand the shoulders into respectible bike lanes without any impact on parking or traffic whatsoever.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

      Can’t disagree. It’s just that these are higher-up-the-tree fruit that would take significant money to make happen. Chatsworth is a good example, you’d need concrete and infrastructure which would cost probably hundreds of thousands.

      The point of this article was that *all* of these projects would have a minimal price tag, pretty much just paint.

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