Snelling Plan II: A Lot Of Room For Improvement

Part I: A Relatively Good Plan For Snelling From MnDOT & St Paul.

In Part I we looked at the many good bits of this plan for a protected bikeway on Snelling Avenue between Hewitt and Como Avenues. There is still much room for improvement though, especially compared to facilities built to CROW standards. There are also some unknowns that could prove important to safety.

The Not So Good

Walkway and Bikeway on the same grade – This is one of many why-don’t-we-just-learn-from-others bits. This hasn’t worked in The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, New York, Minneapolis, or elsewhere. Why will it work here?

The speed differential between people walking and riding bicycles is a nearly constant factor of four — 3-4 MPH vs 11-15 MPH. These are not compatible. These two modes are only more compatible than bicycles and cars because both are lightweight vulnerable users unlikely to kill or seriously injure each other.

Bikeways in Europe are separated in grade, color, and often material from walkways. The grade separation need not be more than about 2″ to be effective. Note that the curb is a quite shallow mountable curb which is much safer for bicycle riders. This grade separation has been the standard since the 1980s so the only time you will see a bikeway and walkway on the same grade today is on very old infrastructure.

Neither paint nor differences in color or material are enough to keep cars from entering bike lanes and killing bicycle riders. They don’t keep bicycle riders from slowing motor traffic, either. They also don’t work to keep people walking and riding safely separated.

Though harsher curbs are necessary to protect people from errant drivers, only a slight grade difference does so for people walking or riding bicycles. Just two inches difference using a safe mountable curb is enough to significantly reduce conflict and keep people walking from venturing in to the bikeway, and keep bicycle riders from going in to the walkway. It’s a difference that people feel, and it works.

According to Mark Lindeberg from MnDOT, the bicycle people they talked to did not want any grade separation between the bikeway and walkway. One reason is because it would take up too much space. Mark added that grade separation creates a drainage problem and makes snow plowing more difficult.

For space required, we’re talking about three inches (out of 13 feet) and this is three inches that will keep people walking 3 MPH from getting in the way of people riding 15 MPH. In querying a number of people, I’ve not found any that requested this.

This does complicate drainage. European countries successfully deal with this by including longitudinal drains along the bikeway, often built in to the mountable curb. These work well at minimal extra cost, do not cause problems for bicycle riders, and are better for pedestrians, since they reduce the amount of water on the walkway.

Plowing with current equipment may be an issue. Cities outside of the U.S. have been doing this successfully for decades though. Saint Paul Public Works should perhaps send some folks to The Netherlands to learn how it’s done.

More: Clearing The Streets Of Snow and Ice | BicycleDutch.

It’s likely that we’ll see autonomous plowing by the time this project is completed. This will not only reduce costs overall but allow for more customized plowing operations with no additional costs.

Dangerous Curbs – As indicated in the plans, the curbs facing the bikeway appear quite steep and dangerous. For bicycle rider safety, these should be much shallower mountable curbs. This especially given the somewhat narrow width.

The proposed curb facing the bikeway is quite dangerous. This curb creates a high probability of crashes due both to pedals catching on it and wheels hitting it. This should be a much shallower angle mountable curb.

12’ & 13’ Vehicle Lanes – These are quite wide lanes that encourage speeding and inattentive driving. Interstate highways are 12′ – 14′. And someone thinks a 13′ wide lane in the middle of a university campus will slow drivers down? In safer Europe, these would likely be about 10’ (3m). Even 11’ wide lanes would help considerably with speed and most importantly, driver attention.


West Breda Junction – The junctions of West Breda Avenue with the entrance/exit ramps are quite dangerous. Cars and trucks sometimes take these at considerable speed and often do not look or even attempt to slow down or stop. A positive note is that the crossings have been placed farther from the junction so that drivers will be more perpendicular to the bikeway and walkway and so more likely to see people crossing. Interestingly, Sharks Teeth were used to warn of vehicle on vehicle crashes but not used for vehicle on human crashes.

These junctions should be eliminated or made much safer than currently designed.

Proposed plan for West Breda @ Ramps (only northbound shown).


Dangerous Crossings – Sadly this project is not addressing the danger for people trying to cross multiple lanes of same-direction motor traffic without stop lights. Numerous people at Gingko mentioned how dangerous current crossings are and the need for traffic lights. I completely agree.

Average speed here is about 46mph based on a speed indicator sign just before this. When there is little traffic, this crossing isn’t a problem. Most dangerous is likely an overtaking hit when a near-side vehicle stops but the vehicle in the next lane does not.

More: I’m Really Disliking Traffic Engineers Today

Truck Route – The most dangerous elements of this design are perhaps because this is a designated truck route. Snelling Avenue itself is entirely residential, retail, and education. It is not an appropriate place for heavy truck traffic.

Wherever possible, trucks should be routed to safer and less impacting routes. For example, trucks to/from the Rail Depot and other industrial businesses on Pierce Butler should use Transfer Road and Cretin Avenue to I-94. This might be a slightly longer route but will keep these trucks on more appropriate roads and off of Snelling.

Longer term we need to begin considering where it is appropriate to allow larger trucks and industrial businesses with these generally limited to places that have direct access to motorways without going through residential/retail/education areas.

Continuation of Bikeway – The bikeways should be planned to continue beyond the project area. For example; 1) On to Snelling Avenue Service Roads off of West Breda to provide safe bicycling to schools and businesses served by these and 2) both north and south on Snelling.

Image showing existing junctions with West Breda Avenue and surrounding area. Bikeways should be extended to allow people to safely and comfortably ride to locations such as the Hmong Academy.


The Unknowns

Speeds – The two most immediate problems of higher speeds are the rain/snow/slush wake thrown by passing cars and trucks, and how dangerous higher speed make pedestrian and bicycle crossings. How fast can they go without endangering people on the bikeway and at crossings? I believe CROW recommends 30 MPH – the maximum speed in built up areas. Faster speeds require greater protection, typically a minimum 14’ verge (a vegetative buffer) and considerable bits at crossings.

Signal Pattern –  The signal patterns should provide for completely protected crossings that do not allow any motor traffic to cross when more vulnerable users have right-of-way. CROW calls this Separation in Time. Right On Green is one of the more dangerous maneuvers on U.S. roads as is Left On Green. When drivers have a green most look only for what might threaten them, not what they themselves threaten by continuing on without looking for people walking or riding bicycles. A green to them says go.

No Right On Red – How many drivers cautiously stop and look before turning right-on-red as they should? Extremely few and at some junctions, zero. I’ve watched and counted. This is worse with the wide radii curbs used in these new junctions.

This has a positive impact way beyond each individual junction. It tends to slow all traffic and make all drivers a bit more attentive and cautious. It helps to reduced the lets-go-everywhere-as-quickly-as-possible-without-caution mentality that right-on-red engenders in drivers. We need to begin to draw distinctions between surface streets and motorways or interstates. We need drivers to feel a huge difference in a road with no people walking or riding bicycles (motorway) and one with people walking along and crossing (all non limited-access roads and streets).

These are why nearly all other developed countries have outlawed right-on-red and are placing increasing limits on right-on-green and left-on-green.

Trees or Vegetation in the 6’ buffer? This isn’t so much an unknown as a thought that it might be good to have some grass, small trees, or other vegetation in the 6’ buffer between the traffic lanes and bikeway. A grass strip can be very effective in trapping road debris to keep them from migrating to the bikeway and endangering bicycle riders. With heated drainage underneath (powered by solar) this could also possibly act as a good way to drain off plowed snow, would be aesthetically appealing, and provide much needed shade during hot sunny summer days.

In Part III we’ll look at how this plan compares to others around the world.


Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

9 thoughts on “Snelling Plan II: A Lot Of Room For Improvement

  1. Karen

    Thanks great stuff.

    I think the last part about some vegetation in buffers is underappreciated in its impact on speed of car traffic. To me vegetation close to cars is effective in slowing down cars and encourage walkers and bikers. It changes the whole feel of a road from one all about concrete and pavement to make traffic go fast, to more of a street meant to be a part of the city, meant to be inviting to walkers, not just a freeway all about cars. It is a signal – sorry this road is not all about you drivers going as fast as you can, rather, you have enter a neighborhood street, be prepared to take your time getting though.

    Concrete medians on Snelling now do provide better safety harbor for pedestrians but their blank and barren concrete surfaces seem to say, “if you must walk where cars rule, we will make it bleak for yo and you will cold and lonely out there among cars, where you don’t belong”. Vegetation right next to cars/trucks, and between pedestrians/bikers and cars will be a signal that this street is not just about moving cars and trucks as fast as possible

    Of course the vegetation has other benefits, making there area more appealing looking, offering porous surface area that can absorb stormwater into ground rather than shed it into stormwater pipes etc.

    I wonder what main objections to planting some of this island/buffer area are? Likely maintenance issues but for looks of planted islands in parking lots, perennial grasses seem a very popular low maintenance option – especially more salt resistant ones, which might be cheaper than maintaining concrete surfaces.

  2. Karen

    To address three different concerns outline here: 1) the grade separation between the bike lane and ped lane 2) the dangerous curb height between bike lanes and buffer, 3) drainage issue – could the bike lane be elevated above the pedestrian lane by a few inches, rather than vice versa?

    Everything would still drain according to existing plans, curb along bike lane would be lower.

    Is there a danger to having bikes slightly above pedestrians rather than having bike path below them?

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard

      Thanks for taking the time to write this really comprehensive review of the project, Walker! I worked on the consulting team for this design, so I have some insights I’d like to share on the pedestrian/bikeway elevation issue.

      “According to Mark Lindeberg from MnDOT, the bicycle people they talked to did not want any grade separation between the bikeway and walkway.”

      I’m guessing this is the result of a long game of telephone, but I would actually characterize the “bicycle people” involved in this project as being okay with the same elevation, vs not wanting grade separation. There was one community member who expressed a concern about “falling off” the sidewalk into the bikeway, but that would be a concern under existing conditions – into the roadway! – so it wasn’t a huge influence.

      The design did originally have the sidewalk at a higher elevation than the bikeway, which was my recommendation and pedestrian advocates agreed was the better design. Drainage and plowing issues you bring up were definitely considerations – St Paul will be responsible for clearing the area, so their opinion on this mattered quite a bit.

      Another consideration is the sheer number of bridges on this section of Snelling. I am not a bridge engineer, but those involved in the project indicated that the bridges couldn’t handle much more weight than they’re already holding. So, widening the existing sidewalks AND adding the buffer space ended up being too much and we had to compromise. Proposing a project that required bridge reconstruction would have significantly increased the cost estimate.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

        Hannah, thanks for the great insight on this and for your efforts to make it as good as possible.

        I’d not thought about the weight issues and nobody else had mentioned them. I assume the bikeway & sidewalk are as thin (low) as possible? I wonder if 1′ less buffer width would free up enough weight in the right place to raise the walkway by 2″? Or if vegetation in the buffer might weigh less than concrete?

  3. Monte Castleman

    Bicycles and Ped separation: Are volumes really projected to be that great that separate paths are even necessary, much less physically separated. That is are we talking about volumes people on bikes an foot more like France Ave in Bloomington, or more like around Lake Calhoun on a nice day or Washington Ave after work?

    Traffic Signals: Even if one doesn’t care about the horrific congestion problem a bunch of unwarranted signals with exclusive pedestrian phases would cause, there are people in cars and they attend public meetings and vote. Doing something that would cause that much congestion could lead to a backlash against any other kind of similar projects elsewhere. Although It might be worthwhile seeing if any intersections warrant a HAWK, which are a lot lower than regular traffic signal warrants.

    But I agree that left on green is unsafe. Which is why it frustrates me that both cities are installing plenty of new signals that don’t have flashing yellow arrows, which are at least safer if not as safe as prohibiting the conflict. Of note the new traffic signal controllers being installed metro-wide are more flexible and can accept custom programming. Bloomington wrote a program that will not allow a permissive left turn when there’s a conflicting ped call. They urged Hennepin County to implement it as standard, but they’re only doing it on a case by case basis. As I’ve noted before the problem with banning right on red is all those cars will then need to make a right on green, which is much more dangerous. There are things to mitigate this though, like flashing yellow right turn arrows and exclusive pedestrian phases.

    Truck Route: The only two options are either just asking nicely which will have zero effect or turning the street back to the city so trucks can be banned, which has zero chance of happening any time soon unless St. Paul wants to take it without funding.. Plus there’s plenty of businesses on Snelling that presumably rely on trucks for delivery. The issue came up when it looked like the St Croix Crossing wasn’t going to happen, and residents wondered why they couldn’t just ban trucks from the bridge (or else just close it permanently), but you can’t ban trucks from a trunk highway unless there’s an engineering justification for it, like a bridge that really can’t support full legal weights.

    11 Foot Lanes and Breda: I’ll agree with you there that they’re more appropriate for urban non-freeway arterial and having cross-streets on an exit ramp is dumb. They such a layout in Savage that would have maintained access to ZInran Ave on the TH 13 exit ramp.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Shared ped/bike use, even at low volumes, is problematic. Both groups will also be more comfortable with good separation and more of each more likely to use the walkway and bikeway. Even if volumes are low, which I believe they will be initially, we need to think quite long term as what is built will likely be there for a few decades.

      How will the signals create much more congestion? Drivers are supposed to stop for people in the crossings anyway. There should be little difference in drivers stopping legally without signals or stopping legally with signals? Signals will hold them up a slight bit longer but it shouldn’t be significantly more than what they should do anyway? Then there’s the question of a few seconds delay vs people’s lives.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Good points on the truck route. If we had a good wheelage fee system then we could simply charge trucks more for driving on Snelling and let them choose the less expensive truck route vs the more expensive residential/retail/school campus route.

      I think Europe has done a much better job of this than we have. They can be somewhat quick to limit the size and weight of trucks on certain roads at certain times.

      A corporation may argue that they’ve been there for a thousand years and shouldn’t be punished just because a lot of residential or retail has grown up along the roads that they use. For me though human life greatly trumps corporate profits and we have to find a way to deal with it. Do we tell the company tough luck? Provide some incentive for them to move to a more appropriate place?

  4. Steve Gjerdingen

    *Raises his hand in confession*
    I was one of those “bike people” that recommended having the cyclists and the pedestrians using the “same grade” design on a single 13′ wide path. I’ve biked this stretch of roadway and have observed the volumes enough to say that I don’t think the amount of non-motorized traffic warrants super defined segregation of facilities. Also, I had concerns about snow removal with having the 6′ curb separated bike lane. Snow-removal is terrible enough on this bridge today as it is with the sidewalk. How are we to believe that is going to get any better with having to maintain two separate non-motorized facilities in the future? Would paint be an option for keeping the modes separate, if we are that concerned?

    This proposed design of a really wide (13′) sidewalk sort of reminds me of the Dale Street crossing over the BNSF rail yard. In that scenario, sometimes I take the sidewalk (since it’s very wide and hardly has any ped traffic) or sometimes I take the bike lane, depending on how I’m feeling.

    I think that if we were to see some sort of Snelling bi-directional ‘bikeway’ south of the tracks all the way down to University, then it might warrant keeping a bollard or planter separated bikeway on the bridge over the tracks. This would still mess up snow removal, especially with the effort given towards this stretch of roadway given today. Given that MN-DOT has already indicated a preference for 1 direction facilities on each side of the roadway, I think our options are more limited and we have to take that into consideration.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Thanks Steve. I think your concerns about snow clearing are quite valid. Sadly. Good point.

      I think current usage conditions are no basis for future. Non-motorized volumes today are low because the current design is quite horrible. The new design will result in somewhat higher volumes initially and considerable more over time as more bikeways are added to the network and increasing numbers of people have a safe and comfortable enough option to get where they want to go.

      This will likely be in place for 40-50 years. We want to get it right. Better to have a year or two of plow problems a few days per year and 48 of a quite safe and useable bikeway than four years of good bike use and then 46 years of problems of increasing numbers of people walking in the bikeway creating problems for riders?

      Given my experience with autonomous vehicles, I do believe St Paul will have a viable affordable option of autonomous electric plows by the time this project is completed which I’ve heard is hoped to be 2020. One great benefit of autonomous plows is that operating costs are extremely low so rather than a few plows with high hourly costs to operate, St Paul can have 10 times as many with much lower overall costs. Rather than plow a bikeway once per day or only after a snow storm they can plow once per hour during the storm which will keep the bikeways and walkways much clearer.

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