Rice Street, the main drag of Saint Paul’s polyglot, working-class North End, has long been seen as a street that primarily serves suburban commuters. Despite the narrow (66′) right-of-way, Rice has four lanes of high-speed traffic all the way from downtown to a block short of Wheelock Parkway, where it switches to a three-lane layout just in time for the wealthier territories of the northern suburbs. For these automobile commuters, Rice Street can seem like a pretty functional street. It’s sometimes congested, sure. And yeah, you have to change lanes all the time, but it gets cars where they’re going at the maximum possible speed.
Outside of those cars, though, streets like Rice have consequences. Bikram Phuyel learned this in the worst way imaginable on the morning of October 27th, 2014, when the 11-year-old student had to cross Rice Street on his way to school. What happened next is a depressingly common scenario, one that has almost killed me multiple times: one car stopped to let Bikram cross, but because drivers are conditioned on Rice Street to treat stopped cars as problems to weave around, another car did not. Miraculously and fortunately the boy survived, but even months later he faced a long road to recovery:
Bikram Phuyel wakes up crying at night, since he was struck by a car as he walked to school in St. Paul this past fall and was critically injured. After weeks in the hospital, he’s back home and family members sleep with him to comfort him.
“He wake up, he don’t know where he is,” said Lok Phuyel, 17, who helps take care of his little brother.
Bikram sustained a serious brain injury and his life hung in the balance after the crash. Little by little, his condition improved, and the boy is back at Washington Technology Magnet School, said Chue Vue, an attorney in St. Paul representing the family.
“Everybody was really happy with how he recovered,” Vue said recently. “They didn’t know if he was going to make it at the time. Now, he’s able to walk and talk again. The family is happy, but they will have lingering issues as the boy grows up.”
It’s for this reason that Bill Lindeke calls roads like Rice Street four-lane death roads, because incidents like the one that almost killed Bikram Phuyel aren’t tragic accidents, but the entirely predictable result of a design for urban streets that prioritizes speed for suburban commuters over safety for all users.
I live just a few blocks off Rice, on Marion Street, in a cute little house I’m proud to call home. But my neighborhood is surrounded on all sides by almost insurmountable barriers: railroads to the north and west, busy Maryland Avenue to the south, and the rushing roar of Rice Street to the east. I’ve often watched people spend five or ten minutes trying to cross Rice without a crosswalk, sometimes with two or three children in hand, searching in vain for a momentary break in the speeding traffic. For my own part I treat Rice as I would a river of lava; I’ll only cross it when something tells me explicitly that I’m safe. But even this is difficult, because Rice has as few as one stoplight per half mile, so that reaching destinations mere blocks away can become a long and anxious trip.
In 2016 alone there were at least four crashes involving bicyclists on Rice Street, several of which sent the cyclist to the hospital. In that same period there were also four pedestrian crashes, and one of those caused the unfortunate pedestrian serious injury. Automobile crashes are almost too numerous to list; just last year, the District Council refused to consider a new bench at the corner of Rice and Maryland out of a not-unjustified fear that it would soon be smashed down by a speeding driver. These incidents, many of them life-changing, are the inevitable consequence of the way that Rice Street is designed. So long as Rice has four high-speed lanes, the next Bikram Phuyel is only a matter of time.
Just a mile and a half east of Rice Street lies Payne Avenue, the commercial heart of Saint Paul’s East Side. Payne and Rice can sometimes feel like cousins; they are the same width (66 feet), they have similar streetcar-era commercial buildings lining both sides; and they are both surrounded by areas that are deeply poor, the sort of racially-concentrated regions of poverty that researchers at the University of Minnesota have linked to entire categories of issues which are of deep relevance today.
But no-one who walked the length of both streets could really confuse the two. Where Rice is pockmarked with abandoned buildings, empty lots, and vacant storefronts, Payne is awash in historically-sensitive redevelopment, with a variety of thriving businesses and trendy restaurants. Payne owes its success to many factors, but surely one of the most significant is the fact that it is mostly safe and, indeed, pleasant for all users, whether on sidewalks or in cars. Empirical research has demonstrated that such streets have dramatically different economic outcomes from streets designed exclusively to move traffic:
In 2011, Louisville converted two one-way streets near downtown, each a little more than a mile long, [from two lanes in one direction to one lane in each]. In data that they gathered over the following three years, Gilderbloom and William Riggs found that traffic collisions dropped steeply — by 36 percent on one street and 60 percent on the other — after the conversion, even as the number of cars traveling these roads increased. Crime dropped too, by about a quarter, as crime in the rest of the city was rising. Property values rose, as did business revenue and pedestrian traffic, relative to before the change and to a pair of nearby comparison streets. The city, as a result, now stands to collect higher property tax revenues along these streets, and to spend less sending first-responders to accidents there.
Even still, you’ll hear Payne brought up a lot in the North End, though often with a tinge of envy. “When you compare how Payne feels to Rice, I don’t think Rice works well for anyone, even drivers,” said one area resident, a member of the District Council board. He added: “To know that Payne and Rice are the same width, but Rice feels so incredibly wide and dangerous compared to Payne… it’s really unbelievable.” Over the last few months I’ve spoken to several people in the neighborhood who never allow their children to cross Rice Street, even at signalized crosswalks, because it’s simply too great a risk. Payne itself is far from perfect, of course–there were crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists there too, though none resulted in serious injury–but the two are miles apart in comfort and safety, and the gap only continues to widen.
Stories like these are all too common in the North End. After a decade in which Payne has become a neighborhood amenity known city-wide, something that nearby residents are largely proud to claim as their own, Rice’s problems have continued to multiply. Ten years ago, when the Winnipeg redevelopment brought the first new mixed-use buildings seen on Rice Street in at least half a century, boosters predicted a new beginning for the neighborhood. A decade later, almost none of the commercial spaces added have ever seen a single tenant.
And as long as the high-speed traffic of Rice Street is only ten feet away, they probably never will.
Just a few weeks ago, after many months of planning, Ramsey County announced the beginning of a Rice Street transportation safety study, the recommendations of which could be implemented as soon as 2019. From the study’s stated goals, neighborhood activists might have something to be hopeful about:
The transportation safety study will consider pedestrians, bikes, transit, vehicles and parking and will guide future investments in sidewalks, bikeways, transit and the roadway. The purpose of the Rice Street transportation safety study is to:
– Identify future investments.
– Design a corridor that will enhance the safety for all modes of transportation.
– Promote economic growth and community investment.
But the language of the study masks the fundamental fact of Rice Street, the one everyone knows but which many have nevertheless tried to avoid: there is absolutely no room for any improvements–bike, pedestrian, transit, or otherwise–if Rice Street keeps four lanes.
It’s often said that Rice Street is too busy of a street for a road diet, and many neighbors are skeptical that the street could avoid serious congestion with a three-lane profile (a 4-3 conversion). But although Rice is used by approximately 15k cars every day, there are a number of streets, both in the Twin Cities and across the nation, that have seen successful conversions around or higher than this number, including Marshall Avenue in Saint Paul and Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis.
This is fortunate, because a 4-3 conversion on Rice Street would vastly expand the universe of possible improvements. In the first place, the conversion would be an improvement in itself: three-lane roads are inherently much safer than four-lane roads, because they eliminate the weaving between lanes that is the cause of so many crashes today. At the same time, the conversion would also free up space for the first time to add multi-modal improvements. For example, it could allow the County to add bike lanes:
This is critically important, particularly on the northern end of the corridor. Ramsey County has a large system of trails, many of which converge around the intersection of Rice and Larpenteur Avenue. From there, however, even the most optimistic plans require cyclists to take a long detour to reach areas south of the railroad tracks. It is therefore essential that Rice have bicycle facilities at least as far south as Geranium Avenue, from which cyclists can gain access to the completed portion of the Trout Brook Regional Trail.
This layout also allows for major pedestrian improvements. One of the most important is that it creates room for crosswalk islands, which halve the crossing distance of the road and make it comparatively easy to traverse even very busy streets. This one is located on Dale Street at Charles Avenue, in the Frogtown neighborhood, and I can personally attest to the transformative effect it has on the ability to cross here:
One obvious intersection for this sort of treatment would be at Ivy Avenue, which is planned as a bicycle boulevard. At a “Stop For Me” event held late last year, not a single car slowed or stopped, even when pedestrians were directly in their path. Police issued dozens of citations and added a flexible plastic sign to warn drivers of their legal obligation to stop, but months later the sign has been obliterated by traffic and plows, an ominous warning of the fate that awaits any who attempt the crossing.
South of Geranium Avenue, however, and all the way to Atwater Street, the character of the street transitions from a mix of sprawling, post-war auto-oriented development and residential to small, streetcar-era commercial buildings, many of which lack their own parking. Although street parking on Rice Street is prohibited during the morning and evening rush hours, these spots are well-used during the day, as a 2010 study sponsored by the District 6 Planning Council attests.
Here, much depends on whether engineers would deem a full-length center turn lane necessary. If it is, parking is possible on at most one side of the street, probably the western side (because of the larger block sizes), but this would require forgoing bicycle lanes on this segment. However, if turn lanes can be dropped except at certain key intersections, Rice could easily accommodate parking, bicycle facilities, and automobile traffic in a single layout, identical to the one used on Payne Avenue:
None of these suggestions are radical. Studies have consistently shown that any extra congestion created would amount to truly trivial times for most drivers–likely as not a few seconds, perhaps half a minute at most. To some, that may seem a lot to ask. But I ask that this price be weighed against the cost of our inaction; the businesses that will never open, the houses that will never be considered, and most of all by far, the lives that will be lost. The moral price of a four-lane road is unambiguous; it is human lives, an unending yearly stream of them. No-one, of course, enjoys the experience of being stuck in traffic, but a person’s life is a terrible sacrifice for a speedier commute.
On Wednesday, February 1st at 6:00 PM, Ramsey County will host a Community Meeting to discuss the Rice Street study, one that is likely to set the tone for any future action. Opponents of a road diet have already begun to organize, centering their opposition around the same familiar concerns. What we make of this meeting, this literal opportunity of a lifetime, depends entirely on our willingness to show up and emphasize the stakes of this decision. A safer, healthier, friendlier Rice Street is within our grasp, but only if enough of us reach out for it.
Think again of Bikram Phuyel, only the latest child whose life was forever changed by our choices on Rice Street. The school to which he was walking that morning, the Washington Technology Magnet School, will be Ramsey County’s host for this first meeting. When you step inside, take a moment to think of him, and all the others like him. This is our chance. These are the stakes. Come, and make your voice heard.
Rice Street Transportation Safety Study – Community Meeting
Wednesday, February 1st, 2017
Washington Technology Magnet School
1495 Rice Street, Saint Paul 55117