The Opportunity of a Lifetime on Rice Street

Rice Street, looking south from Geranium.

Rice Street, looking south from Geranium.

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.

Bike and pedestrian crashes on Rice

Bike and pedestrian crashes on Rice

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.

Payne Avenue, looking south from York Ave.

Payne Avenue, looking south from York Ave.

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.

Rice Street as it is today.

Rice Street as it is today.

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:

Rice Street after a 4-3 conversion.

Rice Street after a 4-3 conversion.

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.

The Saint Paul Bicycle Plan here. Note that not one of the connections across the railroad tracks currently exist.

The Saint Paul Bicycle Plan here. Note that not one of the connections across the railroad tracks currently exist.

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:

In this design cars are prevented from turning left onto Dale from Charles, but this is not always necessary.

In this design cars are prevented from turning left onto Dale from Charles, but this is not always necessary.

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:

Rice Street with the same layout as Payne Avenue.

Rice Street with the same layout as 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
6:00-8:00 PM

Washington Technology Magnet School
1495 Rice Street, Saint Paul 55117

Ethan Osten

About Ethan Osten

Ethan Osten is a writer, a co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, an avid cyclist and bus rider, and generally a pretty boring guy. He lives in Saint Paul's North End.

22 thoughts on “The Opportunity of a Lifetime on Rice Street

  1. Reilly

    Frankly, I’m amazed that Marschall Road in Shakopee — which has been lined with auto-oriented development since the time it was built — has a 3-lane layout, while the much more traditional-neighborhood Rice Street doesn’t. Indeed, if memory serves, the conversion happened some fifteen years ago.

    I deliver pizza in Shakopee and can speak from experience that Marschall is almost never “congested”, just sometimes a bit slow in some places. This is, of course, a feature rather than a bug. And it would be even more so in an environment that was originally designed for non-automobility (unlike Shakopee anywhere other than its immediate downtown). Does anyone have the traffic numbers that could tell us whether Marschall and Rice are similar in volume?

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      You can look up traffic volumes for any MSA street, county road, or state highway on MnDOT’s website.

      I had a bit of trouble finding the section of Marschall Rd you were talking about, because south of the Shakopee Bypass, there appears to be a brand-new divided modern suburban highway. But yeah, to the north, around 10th Ave, it is around 22,000 ADT, tapering down to about half that by the time it reaches 1st Ave/Old 101. 22k is very high for a three-lane road, so it’s cool to hear that it works for this short stretch in Shakopee.

      Rice Street is pretty evenly around 15,000 through eastside St. Paul. So at that level, less busy, although other factors may make a higher volume work in Shakopee but not in St. Paul — like fewer signals, more limited access, and more evenly dispersed traffic throughout the day. For example, Riverside Ave in Minneapolis has a daily volume that doesn’t seem that high at all — 11,000. But much of that traffic is rush hour traffic going to the U of M West Bank campus and hospital. So although 3-lane works pretty well, there are backups during rush hours, and they had to do a lot with added turn lanes and signal treatments to make it work as well as it does.

      Of course, there are lots of “other factors” in favor of doing this in St. Paul, like the need for neighborhood connectivity and pedestrian safety. I agree with your point: if Shakopee can do this, surely St. Paul can.

      1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

        Just a reminder that “eastside St. Paul” does not equal poorer portions of St. Paul, although it seems that is often the connotation being invoked when the term is used.

        “East Side” is not a neighborhood but a huge geographic portion of St. Paul that lies east of 35E.

        Rice Street is a part of the North End, which is west of 35E.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Sorry, no specific connotation intended — I’m much less familiar with St. Paul east of Dale St (except downtown and Cathedral Hill). I see you’re right, that eastside is not a very accurate name, geographically or otherwise. I really just meant, “Rice St from the city limits to the Capitol area”.

  2. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    As a nearby resident to Payne Avenue I can attest to the ease of crossing the street. I advocated to add bike lanes and this helped push cars to a narrower portion of the street, whereas previously the cars had something like 16′ of space to swerve back and forth in their lanes.

    I can also attest to trying to get to Washington Tech by bicycle for work meetings and deciding to just take the sidewalk. Rice Street feels like a highway in that section, and the school is not easily accessible. I could instead choose to go up Hoyt from Arlington, which of course was the site of a 2016 pedestrian death.

    Down by the Winnipeg buildings it actually feels like a city, and I’ve been astounded to see those commercial spaces empty.

    The big difference is that Payne is not a county road, and this is because it is not one of the great through streets where traffic gets bottled up when traveling long distances. Rice, like Edgerton and Dale, is one of the streets with an exit from Highway 36. Unlike Edgerton and Dale it also leads into the Capitol area and downtown St. Paul.

    Regardless of that, people need to know that when they enter a city driving will be different. When people enter downtown they know that there will be a stoplight on every corner. In different contexts it changes. I’d like to see our neighborhood “entering St. Paul” signs reflect this.
    Something like this.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Yes. A narrower and more dangerous feeling (to the driver and potential damage to their precious vehicle) a road is, the better care and attention paid by drivers. 10′ of travel lane bordered by parked cars or a sharp cement curb can do wonders for how much attention drivers pay to what they’re doing.

      It’s sad that drivers pay closer attention when a crash that could damage their car is imminent vs the potential to kill another human being but that is the case everywhere – including The Netherlands. Drivers simply do not believe ‘it’, killing another human, will happen to them. They do believe that their car can be damaged.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post Ethan. We really need to properly prioritize how we use these critical ribbons of transportation right-of-way. Parking can fit anywhere, safe walkways and bikeways cannot. Should a few seconds of time savings for drivers really be prioritized over others safety?

    Interestingly, on a recent return from Europe we stopped by a place on Payne for dinner. My thought then was how much more dangerous it is than just about any street in Europe. And Payne is what we’re considering safe. Part of this was the higher speed of cars on Payne but also drivers making right turns without stopping and often hardly even slowing down.

    Something else that planners and engineers maybe should consider is if Rice should have 15,000 motorized vehicles per day. How many of these should perhaps use a different route—like 35E? Or how many would walk or ride bicycles if it was safe to do so?

    1. Al DavisonAl Davison

      I noticed in the AADT counts along Rice ranging from the 1998 until 2012-15, that the traffic volumes really haven’t increased that greatly on the street from I-694 down to John Ireland Blvd:
      (Note that though I would need to study this further to ensure that my findings are truly correct and without error)

      When roadway expansion has occurred on Rice, it tends to benefit mainly drivers over anybody not in a car despite claims of “pedestrian and biking improvements”. One example is the 3′ wide “bike area” lanes on Rice near Highway 36, which are practically an extra 3 feet of space for drivers going 45+ mph in the already wide enough right lane & turn lanes. I am never comfortable when biking there until I get to the paved trail south of County Rd B.

      Rice is classified as a Minor Arterial – Reliever (for 35E); maintaining four lanes in addition to adding more designated turn lanes (like what the county has done on similar county roads) would attract more people off of 35E. That would make the street an even more distinct physical barrier for the North End community. Rice is already a dangerous street for pedestrians and cyclists, and that has led to tragedy as you and others like Bill have sadly stated. Given that it is a commercial corridor used by people using various transportation modes, it truly needs to become a multi-modal corridor that is safe for all users. One example where a 4-3 road conversion in a similar urban area has worked is Riverside Ave in Minneapolis. That avenue is much more pleasant now than when it was a four-lane road. I say that even as a driver who has driven there plenty of times during rush hour.

      Rice is 3-lanes near my house in Little Canada like what you have stated, and does face congestion during the peak of rush hour. I agree with you in that I also don’t consider it to be that bad, especially when improvement projects along Rice have been constantly delayed due to funding constraints in the past. We cannot afford expansion and must make greater strides towards multi-modal transportation rather than maintaining our reliance on a single mode (automobiles) that is very expensive to serve. 3-lanes would still serve drivers adequately. I would also be fine with 2-lanes along some portions of the roadway (as it already is when cars are parked on both sides). It also should also be 30 mph or less within the entirety of Saint Paul. They could reduce the speed limit to 35 mph from County B or Roselawn to Larpenteur as a result.

      I will try to make it to the community meeting to voice my support of a 4-3 road conversion, along with recommending improvements on Park St (especially regarding those connection gaps) if it’s truly going to become a bike boulevard. I can only speak as a private citizen, but I drive, walk, bike, and take the bus on Rice a few days a week so I’m very familiar with this street. I hope that the City, County, and the community will work together to improve this street for all users.

      Thank you for this article, as this will help me prepare for the meeting. You have my full support.

      1. Al DavisonAl Davison

        Whoops I meant that as a direct comment to the author, but must have accidentally hit reply to Walker’s comment when writing this long comment.

  4. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Door number 3 please! Let’s just put the Payne Avenue design in place. The only part of Rice Street that feels pleasant for anyone on foot is the part where people actually use the temporary on-street parking, i.e. between the Library and Atwater. That’s the part that is “functionally” a two-lane street for much of the day. It works just fine.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Yes. Except perhaps put the bikeways directly next to the sidewalk instead of trapping bicycle riders between speeding cars, opening doors, and drivers parking or pulling out of parking without looking.

      Oh, and where the bikeway can be kept safe and useable ALL year instead of only during warmer months:

      Payne Ave Painted Bike Lane

      1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

        I believe Payne Ave was striped with 11′ driving lanes. I advocated for 10′ driving lanes, 4′ bike lanes, and a 2′ buffer between bike lane and parked cars.


        I like the idea of putting the bikes close to the sidewalk, but what dimensions would you make?
        |5|1|7|10|10|7|1|5 ? The 1′ is for a buffer w/ bollards. I don’t think it would work unless there were something physical to keep the cars from parking in the bike lane.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          Agree. I’m not a fan or bollards or sticks though. They are easily broken and personally I think they look ugly when new and even uglier when cracked or broken. They might also present a problem for people opening car doors.

          In northern Europe the bikeway would be; raised above parking level a few inches to create a curb, have a narrow raised curb/door section between parked cars and bikeway, or have a gutter along with different materials. The different materials might be red asphalt (green in the U.S.) for the bikeway and black for parking though in many cases parking is done with pavers which they’ve found hold up better and are more permeable.

          I’d also push for parking only on one side and if additional parking is needed then those who want it can purchase some land for it.

          1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

            Can anybody clarify for me – what is the scope of this study?
            Is this just a restriping consideration for a M&O like with Maryland Avenue or is there going to be a complete rebuild in 2019?

            If there is going to be a complete rebuild I think we should definitely consider some of what Walker has proposed here. Do we have any local examples of a raised bikeway that is not 2-way (on the same side of the street)?

            1. Ethan OstenEthan Osten Post author

              One problem with a raised bikeway here would be the same challenge Minneapolis faced on Glenwood, the required “curb reaction distance” (provided by the bike lanes here).

              Removing one lane of parking from the Geranium-Atwater segment could give a couple feet of buffer to the bike lane, but I’m hesitant to remove more parking here than necessary. Too many of the historic buildings have already been knocked down for private lots.

              1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

                IOW, the bike lane is there to provide protection for drivers who are not paying adequate attention and thus provide a place for them to correct their error before they hit the curb and damage a wheel. Hitting someone riding a bicycle is clearly OK in this scenario.

                We really need to abolish the curb reaction distance. I believe MN is the only state with something called a curb reaction distance. Perhaps others have something similar under a different name? From everything I’ve seen it does nothing to promote safety, especially if people are expected to ride within it as targets. It does encourage drivers to pay less attention to what they are doing and to drive much faster than they should.

                Is curb reaction distance required between parked cars and a curbed bikeway? E.G., walkway, 8′ bikeway, curb, 7′ parking lane, 9-10′ driving lane.

                1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

                  It’s true. A quick Google search only yields results from Minnesota. Does this concept exist elsewhere? It seems like an excuse to widen a lane without saying it’s as wide as it really is. It’s like a street design of 40 mph and a posted limit of 30 mph.

                  1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

                    AASHTO Green Book, page 322, Curb Placement recommends 1-2 foot offset from traveled way to curb except in low speed urban settings. The thing is, usually the 30 mph settings would be classified as low speed, so this is for large highways and freeways. Then again, the manual seems to contradict itself shortly thereafter recommending an offset at all times.

        2. Ethan OstenEthan Osten Post author

          Thanks! I wasn’t sure whether to put that extra foot in the traffic lane or the parking lane, but obviously it doesn’t change the layout much.

  5. Allison

    Do you have a name and email for a contact at the county to whom I can submit comments? Is only restriping budgeted, or a rebuild of the road?

  6. Steve Gjerdingen

    To take an example from another state, Cherokee St (in St. Louis) reminds me a little of what Rice Street could become physically, if it were to add parking throughout the corridor and replace a driving lane in the process. Cherokee St. is almost exactly the same width Rice and is definitely a challenged street, economically (although recovering). Both are diverse corridors. Cherokee and Rice both attract night life (Payne doesn’t) and neither are a safe place to be at night. Cherokee doesn’t serve the same arterial function that Rice Street does which makes Rice more of an interesting animal.

    In this case (Cherokee example), there is no center left turn lane and parking on both sides is frequent throughout the entire corridor. Imagine what those old buildings on Rice could do if they had parking! Maintaining residences in the corridor in those commercial buildings or redeveloped sites might actually have potential! I’m a fan of the last option Ethan presents. Rice Street would function with better mid block crossings as well, but I’m just not sure how to balance this with parking. You can’t have everything.

    On a side note, it’s too bad no one is making efforts to develop Sylvan Street into a continuous corridor. The same could be said even more so for Jackson, which has that really awkward turn at Acker Street.

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