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.


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15 Responses to Safer Mississippi River Roads are Long Overdue

  1. Sean O'Brien May 1, 2017 at 1:45 pm #

    What is the authority in St. Paul that manages River Road and the land and trails adjacent to the river? MPRB is clearly of a mood to be master planning, the idea of a joint effort on these areas is great.

  2. Kele May 1, 2017 at 2:54 pm #

    Not to mention the east side of the Ford Pkwy bridge can be dangerous to cross in front of the PetCo. The current construction slows cars down a lot and crossing between the Woodlawn A Line stations is now quite pleasant.

  3. Serafina Scheel
    Serafina May 1, 2017 at 3:32 pm #

    Thanks for getting the conversation going on a favorite and yet infuriating area of the Twin Cities. This is the corridor where I live my life and the Mississippi River is at the heart of why I love living in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Would love to see many of these changes to make the public access more people friendly.

    The west end of the Ford bridge is a nightmare for pedestrians as well as cyclists. There’s no north-south crossing where there should logically be one, since there are paths on both sides.

    My quibble with the new Franklin Ave. bridge is that the eastbound bike path doesn’t have adequate curb cuts if you are continuing along Franklin up that (blasted) hill. It dumps you right into the pedestrians gathered on the corner. I’d have like to see more maneuverability.

    And as much as I’d like t see the Marshall Ave. bridge (Sri Chinmoy Peace Bridge) calmed, there are many, many evening rush hours when eastbound auto traffic is gridlock–though usually when weather is inclement.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller May 1, 2017 at 4:07 pm #

      I’d like to see all of the bridges attached to surface streets get the Franklin treatment, and not just for the added space for bikes and pedestrians (which, yes, Mr. Markle, could use grade separation between them).

      Just narrowing the driving lanes and increasing the side friction makes that bridge a much better place to drive. And makes it a lot easier not to rev up to 50mph, as people like to do on the Ford bridge.

    • Rosa May 1, 2017 at 10:13 pm #

      on the new Franklin bridge – is the only way to turn left out of the bike lane (when you’re headed East) to go as a pedestrian and cross twice? Once it’s warm I’ll be trying to do that – not a hard left but the left that goes up the hill but isn’t Franklin – and I can’t see how it’s supposed to work.

      • Serafina Scheel
        Serafina May 2, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

        That is a real problem, Rosa. To go left onto 27th Ave. SE, you either have to find a way to take the lane (which is pretty much impossible from the bike path), or cross as a pedestrian, or go across onto Franklin and do a weird bob through the parking lot of SE Auto Service, which I’ve done a couple of times.

        • Rosa May 2, 2017 at 7:28 pm #

          That corner is pretty terrible, I have a lot of sympathy for the designers of the lights and signage. But the separated bike lane makes it even weirder for anything but forward or right. About 80% of the time I’m going forward on Franklin, and that’s great – the cars are actually really careful about bikes when turning right. But the other 20% of the time I’m going left and have the kid with me and that got a lot harder with the redesign.

  4. GlowBoy May 1, 2017 at 4:51 pm #

    I agree, the east end of the Ford bridge has problems too. Connecting between the Ford bridge and the east river parkway’s pathway is also frustrating.

  5. Drew Ross May 1, 2017 at 9:56 pm #

    Talk about separation, there appears to have been bike bridges. From a 1901 article on cascades in the river gorge: “There are two other as yet unnamed cascades in this vicinity. One is between the government works [Meeker?] and the Town and Country Club grounds, near the first cycle path bridge, while the other is near the second cycle path bridge.”
    I’m guessing these bridges would have been over Kavanaugh (now filled in, just north of Marshall) and maybe Shadow Falls.

    I’m not able to find the pic, but MNHS has this caption for a pic in the archive:
    “Sign restricting traffic to pleasure vehicles only on Mississippi River Boulevard; near the Town and Country Club looking north, St. Paul.”

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 2, 2017 at 10:16 am #

      I don’t think there were ever different bridge locations. I’d bet that back then, there were no cars, but it was the middle of the first bike boom, so every bridge was a “bike bridge.” See also (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Street-Marshall_Bridge):

      The current Lake Street-Marshall Bridge replaced the previous bridge, a wrought-iron span built in 1889. The previous bridge was the second-oldest bridge in use over the Mississippi, next to the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri (built in 1874).

      i’m guessing the bridges were at their current locations, and it was before the river had been dredged and the water level raised with dams, so there were more waterfalls as well.

  6. Rosa May 1, 2017 at 10:16 pm #

    it’s not a river bridge, but I rode the 10th St/19th Ave bridge today – why is that one 4 car lanes? It’s literally parallel to the interstate, so we know the cars could go elsewhere. No car follows the speed limit because it does not look at all as if it should be 30mph. and the street cuts down to 2 car lanes and 2 bike lanes as soon as the bridge ends going north, which means the cars that plan on turning left just drive in the bike lane (at 45 mph) for at least a block.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 2, 2017 at 10:17 am #

      Yes that is super un-necessary. Maybe they’re keeping it 4 lanes in case the 35W bridge falls into the river again.

    • Ian May 2, 2017 at 1:57 pm #

      When I was a kid, there was a speed trap parked permanently on the 10th St bridge. I am sure that trap funded the entire MPLS police budget. My parents NEVER went over 30 when crossing it. The habit is so ingrained in me, that I can’t bring myself to do the requisite 50 mph that the design and current lack of speed traps imply I should.

      • Serafina Scheel
        Serafina May 2, 2017 at 2:13 pm #

        I remember that back in the late 80s/early 90s. For the sake of marital harmony, we have a rule that as a passenger we are not allowed to criticize the other person’s driving. But I can rarely contain myself from saying, “Slow down!” when going over the 10th St. bridge.

  7. Jackie Williams May 3, 2017 at 11:35 am #

    The 3rd ave bridge also used to be a speed trap. Yet today drivers exceed 40mph. Its scarey to bike next to them. Buses have a hard time slowing down too. I think the car commercials imprint into our minds that we are the only ones on the road and we should drive as fast as we can.

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