Safer Mississippi River Roads are Long Overdue

The river roads along the Mississippi in Saint Paul and Minneapolis are, rightly, the crown jewels of the Twin Cities’ urban landscape. Thanks to forward thinking planning over a century ago, these bluffs are not private spaces but open to the public for everyone in the whole city to use.

And we do! Every nice day, you will find thousands and thousands of people walking, biking, hanging out along the Mississippi River, especially in the “gorge” area between downtown Minneapolis and the confluence. Springtime is my favorite time to ride my bike along the river, because of the combaination of long views, early sunshine, and collective post-winter exuberance. Back in February, when it hit an apocalyptic 60º, I rode up and down each side of the river and saw thousands of people with untanned skin out and about using these wonderful spaces. I’ve been repeating the ritual with every nice day since.

It seems idyllic…

… until you actually look at the street and trail designs.

We were all brutally reminded of the everyday danger and risk of the current River Road designs when Scott Spoo was killed back in late February. The situation is really bizarre — with some strange dynamics including (possible?) brain damage and a professional ethics attorney — but the essence is simple: car drivers are still driving too fast and too distractedly on these roads that are chock full of kids and adults and dogs biking and walking and enjoying moving along the Mississippi River, our city’s #1 natural amenity.

Spoo’s story is tragic, but it’s not the only one. A few years ago, a 61-year-old bicyclist named Thomas Malloy was killed by a rogue truck driver near Franklin Avenue and the River Road. And whenever I ride along the River Road, I’m struck by how dangerous many of the intersections remain, despite the low design speeds and high bike/ped counts. Tragic situations like Spoo’s death seem all too easy, and people — especially bikers — seem to be dodging speeding cars by the minute.

Here are just a few of the persistent trouble spots, in both Saint Paul and Minneapolis. You’ll notice some patterns here.

[in no particular order]

West End of the Lake/Marshall bridge (Minneapolis)

(See the photo above.) This is one of the worst-designed, most-used intersections in the city. The curb cuts, pork chop islands and land configuration mix terribly so that north- or south-bound bicyclists have to jump curbs, acutely crane their necks, and use the sidewalk (going the wrong way) on a regular basis. It’s a dangerous mess and full of people.

Cretin / Otis / Summit (Saint Paul)

Also known as the “Otis Wiggle”, the bend in the River Road places cyclists really close to Summit Avenue near the Cretin intersection. It’s a great little shortcut, but because Cretin is a four-lane death road (right next to a populated walkable University Campus), the maneuver is almost always hair-raising. Waiting for a break in the speeding Cretin traffic, going out into the vague left-turn lane, is rarely safe or comfortable. Some people take the sidewalk, some don’t, but either way this corner is terribly designed and full of people on foot and on bicycles.

I can think of a few potential solutions, and they all involve reducing space for cars.

East end of the Lake/Marshall bridge (Saint Paul)

The other end of the Lake/Marshall bridge sucks too. Not only is there a gap in the bike lane at the very place where it’s most needed, but the way that the traffic median works to connect from the River Road to the bridge, with slip lanes galore, is not safe.

Personally I would do to this bridge what they did to the Franklin bridge, a mile to the North. Because of the lack of intersections, reducing travel lanes to one in each direction would have minimal traffic impacts and allow for safe infrastructure to be built that might connect two of Saint Paul’s most heavily used bike lanes to each other in a safe way.

(And obviously, the corner where Scott Spoo was killed could maybe use some fresh design thinking.)

West end of the Ford Parkway bridge (Minneapolis)

The west end of the Ford Parkway bridge is a nightmare for bicyclists. Crap sidewalks, no gutter, few curb cuts, beat-up concrete streets… I don’t know how anyone bikes around here elegantly or safely. I still can’t tell you how to get down to the River Road. Each time I do it it’s as if for the first time.

I can’t even begin to think about what to do here, but at the very least, it involves shedding a travel lane.

Conclusion: Put People’s Safety First

Lake Street and the River Road in 1910.

Just like the Chain of Lakes biking and walking paths, the two river Roads should be put under a design microscope. These two roads are long overdue for safety improvements. Why not add a bunch of stop signs at some of these key corners? Temporary bumpouts where possible? Close off some of the slip lanes?

Here’s a crazy idea: Make the river roads into a one-way pair for cars. Northbound on the East Side, Southbound on the west side. Or the other way around, I don’t care. You could add protected bike lanes and greatly minimize the dangerous bike/ped traffic mixing that happens whenever the weather draws a crowd to the river gorge.

Whatever we do, let’s make sure that active transportation and public space are the #1 priority for these spaces, not a shortcut for commuters or a secluded thru street for the wealthy riverfront homeowners. The status quo is not good enough, as the makeshift Scott Spoo memorial at the corner of East River Road and the Lake Street frontage road will quickly reveal.

Until just recently, I would have added the West side of the Franklin Bridge to this list. It had long been a nightmare maze of bike paths and twisting onramps, so that getting from the river bike path from the bridge (or vice versa) involved jumping curbs and/or going the wrong way down streets or any number of other risky acts. But finally, as part of the revolutionary Franklin Bridge project, the design issues have been largely solved with a new, well-marked refuge median and new path that provides for an additional turning maneuver.

That’s the kind of thing we should be doing everywhere along the River Road, which is one of our #1 public spaces and natural attractions, potentially the best public space in the Twin Cities.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.