A Case for Stillwater Avenue

Recently, St Paul city council members received an update on a bike infrastructure improvement proposal for Stillwater Ave, a residential road on the city of St Paul’s east side. They voted 3 for and 3 against (1 absent), which halts support for moving forward on putting bike lanes on Stillwater Ave. The stretch is located 5 miles northeast of downtown St Paul, and was proposed as an addition to an upcoming mill-and-overlay project from Hazel Street to McKnight Road, if approved. This stretch, eight-tenths of a mile long, is in horrible shape and no doubt needing a mill-and-overlay upgrade. That upgrade will still move forward, but bike lanes painted on Stillwater Ave, approved in the 2015 city council vote on the city-wide Bike Plan, is on hold.

I biked on this road recently. This spring I moved to the (south) east side of St Paul and had been meaning to get to know this part of the city better. I noted that the street is wide, traffic was predictable and easy to bike with. Avoiding the potholes was my biggest challenge; I winced with every pothole I hit. With 3M to the east and downtown to the west, Beaver Lake nearby, and churches, a school, and lots of homes and small businesses on this road, it’s no surprise that bicyclists want to bike on Stillwater Ave. We need more safe east/west bike lanes on the east side. Hearing no major opposition to this lane ahead of time, bicyclists and bike advocates had no reason to think this proposal wouldn’t be supported. In fact, 7-8 people testified in favor of this proposal; no one spoke against it during the August 16 city council meeting.

However, that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees that putting bike lanes on Stillwater Ave is a good idea. When reaching out to my council member Jane Prince in frustration of the split vote, she let me know nearby businesses expressed concern, especially over some removal of parking. Also, bicyclists had contacted her in support of her vote and not all bicyclists agree with this aspect of the St Paul bike plan.

I’m personally not surprised by that, to be honest. I actually have a slight preference for bike lanes over separated bike paths because I can bike faster and feel that I’m more visible, more predictable, when I’m physically on the road. Council Member Prince let me know many other bicyclists prefer sharrows (green arrows painted on the road; bikes and cars share the same lane), which I personally detest. Many auto drivers on roads with sharrows do not give the same amount of space (or respect) to those on bicycles. That all being said, I will always support separated bike lanes, as many people do not feel safe biking in the road (which I can’t blame them). We may not agree on what sort of treatment we want on specific roads, but I think everyone can agree that bike infrastructure is sorely lacking on the east side. Not only that, but safe biking options needs to be considered a benefit community-wide. People on a bike are often like a person in a car; they’re travelling through an area to get to a destination, whether it’s work, the grocery store, a local park, etc. People north and east of Phalen deserve safe biking options as the residents of Como, Highland and Macalester neighborhoods, areas with more plentiful safe biking options. Because there’s a lack of a true bike system on the east side, that alone should motivate residents (bike and auto drivers) to support bike infrastructure on the east side.

I urge people who support Stillwater Ave and other upcoming bike infrastructure especially on the east side to please contact city council members before there’s a vote on bike infrastructure improvements. Let them know why you would support the bike amenity and especially mention if you or someone you know would benefit from it. The way overused adage, one I’ll use anyway, of the “squeaky (bike) wheel gets the grease” is certainly true here. We cannot take for granted that our elected officials will support something just because we haven’t heard about any direct opposition for it. Council members are naturally busy people and hearing from those of us who would use these amenities, or having us provide good examples of people who would benefit from these improvements are going to be helpful.

We know it gets tiring to have to speak up for something that we ALREADY spoke up for. But we have to assume that people who live or work along a proposed bike route slated for improvements have contacted their elected officials to complain about it. They’ll complain that the amenity is not necessary or no one bikes on that road, or it’s too dangerous to bike, or there will be a loss in parking and thus a loss of customers. Whether or not any of that is true (because after all, paid city planners and engineers have worked very hard to maximize benefit and minimize impact), just know that for every bike improvement we want, we will have new opposition for that bike amenity.
Let’s use our voice, our pictures, our stories, our examples, and tell our elected officials know how beneficial a proposed bike amenity will be. For us, for our entire community.

I learned a pretty valuable lesson myself. In order to make progress with bike amenities in St Paul, I need to get involved and contact city council members to let them know of my support of the proposed amenity. I recognize that I have a pretty strong, powerful story to tell, as a resident and bicyclist on St Paul’s east side. But I will maintain a level of respect try to work with advocates and elected officials alike to help us achieve our shared outcomes: safe, equitable transit options for everyone.

Melissa Wenzel

About Melissa Wenzel

Car-free bicycle advocate, passionate state employee, union leader. MN's "Industrial Stormwater Sherpa." Human being first, government employee second.