It’s been depressing to read the recent stories about the capital improvement budget (CIB) in Saint Paul. A group of East Side neighborhoods commissioned a study to point out the inequity and imbalance in infrastructure spending in the city. Fair enough, even though some of the results are a bit arbitrary or unclear — for example, the #1 area for spending was actually Frogtown, probably due to the light rail, and a place that could surely use the investment focus.
The takeaway for me is twofold. First, Saint Paul is an unequal city. If you look at income, housing value, and demographics, there is a lot of geographic imbalance. Second, inequality seems to exacerbate the isolation of the East Side, which (unlike Frogtown) is on the wrong side of downtown from Minneapolis when it comes to economic development.
The key problem with city infrastructure spending, and the CIB process in particular, is that Saint Paul has a limited budget and everything gets pitted against each other. Looking again at the CIB dollars, you see that the massive share of the projects are taken up by the Public Works budgets, from 2/3 to 3/4 of the fiscal pie. For example, one $30M bridge or $8M street reconstruction will eat up a huge part of the money pie. Where these bridges or fire stations are located can be a bit misleading, and I’m not entirely convinced by the report’s accounting. That said, the key point is that roads, bridges, and asphalt are really expensive and they can only go so far to fix the complex economic and social problems facing East Side neighborhoods.
That’s why today I’m proposing a solution that will help with three of the biggest problems on the East Side, and can be done at low cost relatively quickly. It’s something I’ve talked about before, but we shouldn’t ignore the call for attention to this large, diverse, economically working-class part of Saint Paul.
The Deadly East Side Street Landscape
One major problem with the East Side is that almost none of the major streets do it any favors. The list of East Side “four-lane death roads” is long — Maryland, White Bear, and McKnight — and all these streets are very dangerous. And what’s more, most other East Side main streets are even wider — East 7th, Mounds Boulevard (in parts), and Arcade Street — all of which are US highways.
The end result of East Side’s car-centric streets are that people trying to walk, bike, or simply hang out are faced with a choice between driving or danger. With streets like these, who needs enemies? Neighborhoods become isolated from each other, and the most vulnerable people in particular — the poor, the young, the elderly — are placed at risk by design. Pick any non-signalized corner on White Bear Avenue and spend ten minutes there watching how people and drivers interact with each other. If your heart doesn’t leap into your throat when you watch two kids scramble between a gap in the speeding cars just to get across the street, you’re not paying attention.
On the East Side, many of the main streets are designed like this. As a whole, the East Side often feels as if it’s intended, not for the people living there, but for the people driving through the area from Maplewood or Oakdale.
Here’s a thought experiment. What if the traffic engineers installed 4-3 conversions (road diets) on all these streets? What if all of these roads — Maryland, White Bear, East 7th, Arcade, and McKnight — were redesigned with walking and bicycling in mind?
To my mind, there would be three big positive changes.
Boosting East Side Public Safety
The biggest benefit of safer East Side streets revolves around actual life and limb. So far this year, there’s been a 60% increase (!) of pedestrians being hit by drivers in Minnesota. In Saint Paul the problem is especially intense. There have been three fatalities, two of which were on the East Side. For every injury there are likely dozens of “near misses” that freak people out and keep them from walking. Four-lane roads like the ones on the East Side are particularly dangerous because of the “whip-around” two-lane trap.
A road diet would solve three problems at once. It would all but eliminate the passing-car risk, lower speeds (reducing severity of crashes), and make it much easier to install medians where appropriate. It would be safe to cross the street on the East Side.
The other aspect of having safer streets is less literal. Contrary to popular opinion (see: North Minneapolis Greenway), more people out on the street walking around would help public safety problems which can sometimes be an issue in parts of the East Side. The basic principle is called “eyes on the street,” a concept that Jane Jacobs first described in 1960. The key idea: which street would be safer to walk down at night, an empty alley or a street full of people?
Public safety thrives on having a public, people that see, hear, and notice each other and can call attention to any aberrant behavior. Encouraging walking, and heck, even slowing down drivers, would surely increase the number of people outside and help reduce violent crime.
Boosting East Side Public Health
The second big benefit of safer streets would be to encouraging more walking in the neighborhood. Health is not evenly distributed in the Twin Cities, and the East Side suffers from lack of access to health options. It is what a public health expert might call an “obesogenic environment,” and not having safe places to walk or bike, or not being able to cross the street to get to the playground, literally harms people’s health.
Instead, imagine an East Side where the main roads through the neighborhood didn’t divide people but connected them. Imagine a White Bear Avenue or East 7th Street where people wanted to spend time and money at businesses, or hang out walking along the sidewalks. How much more would we find ourselves walking? Would it help with our long-standing health crisis on the East Side?
It couldn’t hurt.
Boosting East Side Economic Development
The third benefit of a East Side-wide road-diet is that it would help economic development. Because it makes it unpleasant to walk, the four-lane layout of many main streets is one of the things that keeps commercial property vacant. The speed-at-any-cost approach might have been designed for the old industrial base of the neighborhood, but it’s not well-suited for a future that will depend on small businesses and local entrepreneurs.
Look at the example of Payne Avenue. It’s the East Side’s most successful street, by far. It’s also the only commercial street that isn’t a 4-lane death trap. Cars travel much more slowly on Payne than they do on Arcade or East 7th, and any day now it’ll even have bike lanes!
That’s no coincidence. The speeding-cars-first design mentality is harming the East Side economy, and the small business future of the East Side depends on fixing the problem. Nobody will want to open up a business on a street that you can’t cross without taking your life into your hands. Streets like East 7th are full of teriffic old buildings and has a lot of assets, but the vacancy rate around corners like NAME and NAME is very high. For me, one big reason is that the street is deeply unpleasant to be around.
The same holds for White Bear, Maryland, and to a lesser degree, Arcade Street. Calming traffic on these streets would boost the economic fortunes and make it much easier for people to start businesses and attract customers to spaces that feel like a main street instead of a freeway.
An Inexpensive Fix
Over the last few weeks, East Side residents and politicians have been rightly pointing out some of the geographic inequality that persists between the wealthier and less wealthy parts of Saint Paul. With all the attention that’s been paid to the Central Corridor, downtown, and the city’s Southwestern neighborhoods, it’s easy to forget that the East Side even exists.
As the article in today’s Star Tribune (Wednesday, October 5) points out, so far in Saint Paul there have been 119 crashes, 91 injuries, and 3 fatalities of people trying to walk around the city. This comes on top of what is already a city with unequal health outcomes, where leading an active lifestyle is difficult for many people. And in many parts of the East Side, main streets are struggling to find businesses to fill many of the historic buildings that remain an asset to the area. All these problems revolve around street design, and the East Side can do much better.
I’m encouraged about the partial road diet that Ramsey County is testing out on Maryland Avenue. It will be crucial for East Side neighbors concerned about safety and liveability to strongly support this project, which can hopefully be the first step of many.
The East Side doesn’t have to wait for some magic pot of money to appear and solve its problems. Safer streets would be an affordable way to help the East Side thrive, and we can begin fixing our streets right away.