St. Paul’s Universe of Alternative Facts

Neighborhood street with arrows and bike symbol on the street and a traffic circle to slow car drivers.

Griggs & Portland traffic circle

With last week’s City Council 4-2 vote to remove two traffic circles from the planned Idaho bicycle boulevard, most (Bostrom, Prince, Thao, Tolbert) of the elected officials of the City of Saint Paul have dragged the city into Trump territory, relying on alternative facts to support their decision. Except where Trump’s spokesperson used “alternative facts” to greatly exaggerate inauguration attendance, St. Paul used them to make identical intersections seem incompatably different. Thanks to Council President Stark and Council Member Brendmoen for supporting the actual facts and staff recommendations.

The Pioneer Press article about the vote outlines the arguments.

ALTERNATIVE FACT: The Idaho intersections were too small to do neighborhood traffic circles and accommodate school buses or emergency vehicles. From the article:

Bostrom pointed out that Idaho Avenue is 32 feet wide, and adding the circles could pinch maneuvering space for buses and emergency vehicles. Prince reiterated that point on the bicycle coalition’s Facebook page the next day.

“If you put a 20-foot traffic circle on a 32-foot street, you’ve got 12 feet left,” said Bostrom, who proposed the amendment to remove the two circles. “There is very, very little room to do this.”

ACTUAL FACT (from the same news story):

City officials have noted that the widths are comparable to that of Griggs Street, Charles Avenue and other residential streets that have traffic circles. Buses and emergency vehicles are allowed to make normal left turns.

“Both the street widths and the traffic circles are similar,” Ellickson said.

ANOTHER ACTUAL FACT: The city already has 25 similar traffic circles that seem to be functioning fine. No one has brought up any real concerns with how any of the existing ones function. Someone decorated the one at Griggs and Portland for Easter.

A traffic circle is lined with plastic colorful Easter eggs

Griggs & Portland traffic circle decorated with Easter eggs

ANOTHER ACTUAL FACT: The City Council approved the city’s Street Design Manual in October 2016. This manual has an entire page (on 120) explaining traffic circles and includes the information that school buses, emergency vehicles, and other large vehicles “may make left turns without going around the circle.”

ALTERNATIVE FACT: In the Pioneer Press story: “Bostrom also noted that traffic volumes on Idaho Avenue are too low to justify the circles. Ellickson acknowledged they’re low enough that ‘it’s not one we routinely count.’ ”

ACTUAL FACT: Where do we put bicycle boulevards? Let’s ask the city’s Bicycle Plan:

“bicycle boulevards are limited in applicability to streets with very low traffic volumes and speeds and are characterized through an emphasis on traffic calming.”


Council Member and mayoral candidate Dai Thao commented on the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition’s Facebook post about the project that he felt with limited funding the city should “prioritize building traffic circles in places with higher congestion.” The traffic circles would cost a total of $24,000 out of a $4.5 million street reconstruction budget.

We aren’t putting neighborhood traffic circles on streets with congestion. We aren’t putting bicycle boulevards on streets with congestion. (Ignore, for a moment, Jefferson and its use during construction detours.)

Before the mayoral candidate forum that was held at the East Side Freedom Library on Monday, I drove over to Idaho since I had never been there. It’s pretty obvious how the street connects the busy Lake Phalen and park with the Bruce Vento trail in a short distance. In the brief time I was there, I watched a man bike east down Idaho’s sidewalk. For a street with so little traffic, he still wasn’t biking on it.

It’s also a shame the Council’s micromanaging decision was made as part of an agenda item that didn’t clearly include this project and any proposals to change it. A public hearing that was held the previous week focused on property assessments, which is when some people complained about the proposed traffic circles. When Council President Stark tweeted about the Council’s decision, I had a difficult time figuring out the agenda item where they made the vote. This lack of transparency and notice is not how these decisions should be made.

And the city must stop making these decisions to whittle down bike boulevard projects to just sharrows and signs with no traffic calming. We have the policy documents in place with the Bicycle Plan and the Street Design Manual. It’s time for City Council to back those up with their consistent actions.

If we won’t safely connect neighbors with both a regional trail and a major lake and regional park on the East side by helping to slow drivers in between with traffic circles, when will we ever?

8 thoughts on “St. Paul’s Universe of Alternative Facts

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Maybe never? It’s so easy for politicians to cave in the face of any objection to changing the status quo. I mean, what are they supposed to do, explain why the new way is better or something?

  2. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    The larger issue is that these decisions were made at an assessment hearing, not at a hearing related to the circles themselves. If the hearing were advertised as being about this portion of the bike plan, advocates would have known about it and could have testified positively. There also could have been Public Works engineers available to provide factual information regarding the traffic circles (I understand a Public Works employee was on hand, but not a traffic engineer.)

    I find it a powerful reminder that the emotional appeal of a small number of people can have an impact. Advocates need to learn from this and remember it matters when we show up. I just wish we knew when to show up – we certainly can’t be at every assessment hearing!

    1. Heidi SchallbergHeidi Schallberg Post author

      Even worse, my understanding is the decision was made a week *after* the hearing after it was laid over. None of the CMs who voted to remove the traffic circles apparently bothered to notify the Council President of the concern and intent to amend the item since he said he had no idea it was of concern going into the meeting. Also doubt they checked with public works staff about their concerns, which they had time to do before the vote.

  3. Kyle

    Why on earth do need to mention Trump in an article about traffic circles in St. Paul? It’s completely irrelevant to your post and 100% distracting.

    Not everyone sits in your cone, have some sensitivity to other viewpoints and other readers.

  4. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    If you want to help make a good bike boulevard in this neighborhood, we have a good opportunity with Greenbrier. So far this has been designated a bike boulevard with paint and signs only. There is a chance that with a Maryland Avenue traffic calming measure we could get a full median/traffic diverter for the Maryland & Greenbrier intersection.
    I don’t think this is supported by the city council representative, but Public Works may be willing to give it a try and the authority rests with Ramsey County.
    If you want to help out, please come to the meeting on May 3rd to let Ramsey County know this is a good idea.

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