Summit Avenue Blues

Editor’s Note: One of the missing voices in bicycle planning in the Twin Cities is college students who belong to a generation much less likely than their parents to own vehicles. This series of posts written by Macalester students for the “Bicycling the Urban Landscape” course are one effort to include these voices.  This piece was contributed by Kaisy Jo Nunez, a sophomore at Macalester College. She is a History major and thinks she is going to specialize in urban history. You can find her in coffee shops around Saint Paul reading a book. 

My nerves wavered slightly as I emerged into the brisk Minnesota morning. I did not know how much bicycling I would be able to accomplish, but I was dressed for the day in a fleece lined jacket and a beanie to match. I was new to biking, but I wanted to get better. Best way to get better is to practice.

I was determined and a bit wary as I maneuvered my bike towards Summit Ave from my college dorm room. I eyed the cars that traversed the avenue. A deep fear of cars was instilled in me at a relatively young age. Bike riding around my godmother’s cul-de-sac was always interrupted by the random car that would come in to park in their driveway. It makes sense that my godmother and parents feared me biking around moving cars, but it also disillusioned me with a sense of separation between these two modes of transportation.

Summit Avenue bike lane with snow

Well, I went out that morning to do exactly what my parents had told me for years not to do. I was going to ride in the street alongside automobiles. The bike lane was filled partly with snow that only allowed the view of cracked asphalt every so often. I lost my nerve soon and had to get off of Summit at the nearest intersection. Even with a marked bike lane and drivers edging their automobiles near the center of the road, the cars seemed too close for comfort.

The weeks have passed, and I have become more comfortable on my bike, but even now I avoid taking Summit. Alone, the prospect of riding near cars in those bike lanes seems too risky.

However, I am not alone. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has calculated that 60% of bike riders are interested but concerned about the risks. Furthermore, even experienced bikers are concerned about the bike lane on Summit Ave. There have been a couple of articles that advocate for a buffered bike lane. In September of 2016, Bill Lindeke wrote an article named Five Easy Pieces of Low-Hanging Bicycle Fruit that Saint Paul Should Pick. Lindeke mentions the Summit bike lane and comments how there is enough space on the road to accommodate the cars as well as a buffered bicycle lane. He wrote that “Summit Avenue has a design with a 5’ bike lane and a 16’ (!) driving lane.  For the record, those widths are far wider than the lanes on Interstate 94.”

Saint Paul, unlike Minneapolis does not have many buffered bike lanes. Downtown Minneapolis feels much safer to traverse than the Saint Paul’s downtown. Despite the Minneapolis bike lanes switching sides of the roads, they offer more wider and buffered bicycle lanes than Saint Paul’s downtown. If the planners of Saint Paul wish for its citizens to have a better relationship between bikers and automobiles, it would be best to make some areas safer. The planners in Saint Paul are already in the process of adding safer biking infrastructure downtown. However, it is daunting to enter downtown Saint Paul from Summit Avenue. Not only is the bike lane small, but bicyclist have to do the dangerous maneuver of constantly stopping at red lights in intersections as well as watching for the opening of parked car doors. A buffered bike lane on Summit Avenue would help bikers be better protected from cars; due to an array of bicyclist that use Summit Avenue on a regular basis, there would be support for improving the bicycle lane.

A buffered bike lane makes sense on Summit. There are protected bike paths that connect to it when you head towards the river and there are bike boulevards that connect to it when heading towards downtown Saint Paul. Biking in groups helps make sure that automobiles are more visible of you, but that is not always a feasible option. There are people who use the Summit bicycle lanes as a means of travel. Getting back to Grand Avenue from University without the use of Summit Avenue is long and arduous. The neighborhood one would have to traverse is a tangle of roads.

Summit Avenue is not as safe as is could be, but it is safer to bike on Summit than it is to bike on Grand Avenue. Putting in a buffered bike lane would change the dynamics of Summit Avenue, but it would help bicyclists to have a safer commute and even promote others to try biking. Riding alone down a bike boulevard does not have me worried about my well-being as much as riding down Summit does. If others share my sentiment, why has there not been a change?


Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.

7 thoughts on “Summit Avenue Blues

  1. Alexis

    Couldn’t agree more! As a cyclist who identifies with that “enthused and confident” segment and commutes from Minneapolis to St Paul on occasion, I find myself more often than not taking Grand Ave with no bike path over Summit’s path. Glad it hasn’t deterred you from riding altogether!

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post. Yep, even though I fit more in the strong & fearless category, I don’t like riding on Summit. Between the danger of being hit by a passing car on one side*, a door opening in to me from the other, or a car pulling out from a parking space without looking, it’s not exactly a safe or comfortable place to ride.

    Cement curbs enforce much better than painted lines or paper tickets.

    * Nearly 50% of cyclist fatalities in the U.S. are hit from behind, typically from an inattentive driver, and often while riding in a painted bike lane.

    1. GlowBoy

      This conflicts with my understanding of cyclist fatalities. As Ken Kifer’s pages put it, being hit from behind *feels* like one of the biggest dangers (because it’s harder to see coming), and is one of the biggest dangers on rural roads, but overall is actually pretty low on the list. IIRC (and it has been a while), he quoted an Oregon study that put hit-from-behind incidents at 3 percent (!) of fatalities.

      Overwhelmingly in developed areas (where most cycling is done) the danger is in your field of vision: the oncoming vehicle left-hooking you, the vehicle approaching from the right T-boning you, and the vehicle just to your left right-hooking you.

      That said, no one likes being on a narrow, high traffic road where being hit from behind IS the greatest danger. But as far as cycling overall goes, it’s far from the biggest hazard we face.

  3. Kathryn Hohmann

    Nicely done, students! I grew up in St Paul and want to see us evolve in ways that support all kinds of travel. Of all the boulevards to bike down, Summit has to be one of the most scenics and best candidates for this work!

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