On Thursday afternoon, October 6, people gathered at the corner of Kellogg and Jackson to see a glimpse of the first dedicated off-street bike path in downtown St. Paul. Bike advocates, city officials, and even two Twin Cities Marathon runners originally from Florida just passing by joined in the fun and excitement. They saw the Nice Ride station and bicyclists that were starting to gather and had to check out what all of the positive energy was about. They eagerly accepted the offer to use a Nice Ride bike and joined dozens of people for the inaugural ride of the Capital City Bikeway loop. Currently just two blocks long, the loop will connect core streets of downtown to each other and finally, to arterial bike routes leading into downtown St. Paul.
People were not only smiling at Thursday’s inaugural ride on the newly unveiled “Capital City Bikeway” (formerly dubbed “the downtown loop”) because it’s the first portion of the dedicated, elevated bike loop, but also because it symbolizes St. Paul’s commitment and future of dedicated biking infrastructure. Some people viewing photos on Twitter were surprised this was in St. Paul and not Minneapolis. I’m a St. Paul Women on Bikes spokeswoman; we’re used to that. Minneapolis deserves a lot of credit for the variety of biking improvements made throughout the years. They too have protected bike lanes downtown Minneapolis and around the city, fun events like “Bites by Bike,” a wonderful bike-led event to eat and drink your way through parts of Minneapolis. According to KSTP, the number of bike commuters in Minneapolis is at an all-time high, with 5% of Minneapolis residents biking to work. The city has an ambitious goal of 15% of residents biking to work by 2025, and based on their current commitment to bike infrastructure, that goal seems achievable. St. Paul is behind in bike-focused city infrastructure.
Back to St. Paul. Rewind to March 28, 2015, when dozens of bicyclists and concerned citizens packed city hall to to speak in favor or to bring up concerns against a system-wide bike plan that would benefit many parts of the city. The plan was adopted to the amazement and happiness of many bicyclists. We pledged to support thoughtful discourse of the plan as it developed, aware that not everyone felt as exuberant about the developments as we did. Genuine concerns about loss of parking, access to businesses where bike lanes would be installed were common themes. Some bike lanes became controversial in parts of the city, like Cleveland and Upper Afton. The concerns and criticism were helpful, a necessary part of the process to learn what residents feared, and provided an opportunity to educate. Like the Capital City Bikeway, other dedicated bike lanes aren’t just used by nearby college students, but by commuters, families, seniors, everyone.
In downtown St. Paul, the rate of individuals that are car-free is naturally higher than the rest of St Paul. Having a dedicated bike loop, separated from traffic, separated from pedestrian-used sidewalks makes sense in an area of high population and worker desnity, and is trending in cities across the nation. According to Philly Voice, Philadelphia was the largest US city without protected bike lanes. Until 2016. They too installed a mile-long, two-way lane in a population-dense portion of their downtown. Like our inaugural event, their mayor and city officials unveiled the opening of their new dedicated bike lane.
Our own Capital City Bikeways unveiling was met with cheers from downtown St. Paul residents and workers, Mayor Chris Coleman, City Council Members Russ Stark and Rebecca Noecker, and Cynthia Whiteford, Chair of the St. Paul Community Advisory Committee. She sums up the project nicely by saying, “The Capital City Bikeways project is an example of the amazing things that can be done when it’s done collaboratively….we ensured that residents, businesses and advocates had a voice at the table and that voice was heard during the entire process…. I’m convinced this project will make our city more aesthetically pleasing, easier to get around in, healthier, and more vibrant.”
Not everyone shares Cynthia’s perspective. A fellow state employee, Ted Sitz, bikes a minimum of 15 miles a day every work day into downtown St. Paul and he emailed me his concerns: “Are you following the bike lane construction on Jackson St? St. Paul will be running a bike lane up Jackson, with bikes heading north against traffic, on a one-way street. It does not matter if it is a protected bike lane; traffic turning right onto Jackson from parking ramps and cross streets is conditioned to look north on the one-way street, not south. Did anyone consider this hazard?” I let him know that I think a lot of his concerns are valid, as we watched cars exiting one of the parking ramps in front of this path watch us with an amused smile on their face while on our inaugural ride. Will everyone be watching for bicyclists and pedestrians? Not at first, not all the time. That happens throughout all of downtown, all of the city, and this is a separate issue that DOES need to be addressed. But as more pedestrians and bicyclists take to the sidewalk, bike paths, and bike on the road as bicyclists always have been legally allowed to do, we will get noticed. Downtown drivers will have no choice but to be aware of pedestrians and bicyclists, they will hopefully drive more cautiously anywhere they see people walking and bicycling, which will be a good thing no matter what transit option people are using.
I was in Philadelphia for a work conference a year ago. Their streets are narrow, their pedestrian and bicycle use is high. Cars simply couldn’t drive without looking everywhere they go within their populated city, and now they too have a dedicated, separated bike lane. I want that here; I want every auto driver to actively look at their surroundings at all time and consciously allow pedestrians to cross at a green light, to allow bicyclists to safely bike on roads with traffic, and I want bicyclists young and old, families and commuters, to feel safe bicycling in, out of and around downtown St. Paul. Our city, just like Philadelphia, is changing – and definitely for the better.