Three Short-Term Projects to Make Downtown Saint Paul Safer on Bike

On November 7th, Saint Paul elected a new mayor for the first time in twelve years, former Ward 1 City Council Member Melvin Carter III. Carter campaigned on a platform that pledged to move Saint Paul forward, calling to “reduce our city’s carbon footprint by expanding transit, biking, and pedestrian opportunities citywide” and to “design streets safe enough for kids to walk to school or bike to the corner store.” While these goals were shared (at least in principle) by many of the leading candidates, Carter was one of the only candidates to make this a significant theme of his campaign, holding a meet and greet about the issue in April and including it in statements on the trail and at candidate forums.

Saint Paul already has ambitious plans to build a safe, connected bicycle network across the entire city, including a grand vision for a safe downtown bike trail loop called the Capital City Bikeway, which was passed earlier this year. This is particularly important because downtown is one of the hardest neighborhoods in the city to get around or through on bicycle, with only one good route (one leg of the Capital City Bikeway on Jackson St) complete or under construction.

The lack of bike routes downtown is extremely noticeable, both on this map and on the ground.

However, both the scale of the problem and the ambitious design of the downtown loop will present an enormous challenge for the city over the next few years. The Capital City Bikeway plan for downtown, while wonderful, will take tens of millions of dollars to implement alongside full or partial street reconstructions on each segment.1 Given the City’s current budgetary challenges, it is unlikely that there will be money for these projects except over the span of a few decades. What is to be done until then?

In his response to the joint Streets.mn candidate questionnaire this year, Carter went into detail about just what such a solution might look like:

I absolutely support the city’s Bicycle Plan. We need more safe routes that connect our neighborhoods together: plain and simple. We should use low cost improvements so that cost isn’t a barrier or prohibiting factor to realizing the implementation. We should rethink our strategy so it isn’t so capital intensive – paint lanes in, restripe streets, and other less expensive methods before building out bike lanes. The city needs some time to get used to bikes, by painting lanes first, this gives them time to adjust while saving on cost until we’re able to invest in physical bike lanes.

As I read it, Carter’s suggestion is this: until we have the money to build the Capital City Bikeway to the standard of Jackson St, we should explore opportunities to restripe our streets in less expensive ways to create access in the meantime. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest three projects of just that type for downtown Saint Paul. Any of these could be implemented next year, many for far less than even a block of the Capital City Bikeway. As the new mayor weighs his choices for Public Works Director in his administration, they’re exactly the kind of projects he should have in mind.

1) Make Safe What You Have (Cedar St and Minnesota St)

The routes we could paint on Cedar and Minnesota.

In the absence of a good, separated bike route from Summit Ave or Charles Ave or Como Ave into downtown, generations of cyclists have made use of Cedar St south of the Capitol, which is very wide and relatively lightly-trafficked. However, this route is not uniformly comfortable even for experienced cyclists, and the one-way pair with Minnesota St south of 10th St creates considerable difficulties, as Minnesota St features higher numbers of high-speed vehicles weaving between lanes.

The Saint Paul Bicycle Plan recognizes these difficulties and the importance of this route, calling for bicycle facilities on both streets from the Capitol all the way to Kellogg Blvd. These could be implemented using only paint and within current curb widths, and they would create a dramatic improvement for cyclist safety going north or south through downtown.

(Half of) Cedar St south of the Capitol today. Note the wide lanes, which encourage speeding.

Right now, Cedar St from the Capitol to 10th St has two very wide traffic lanes and a wide parking lane. However, the road carries only 3-5 thousand cars per day, which is a very small amount of traffic for a road in this configuration. Instead, these very wide and often empty lanes encourage speeding and weaving, which endangers cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers alike.

(Half of) Cedar St south of the Capitol as it could be, with buffered bike lanes.

Far better would be to convert one lane in each direction into a wide, buffered bike lane. This would make the journey up or down this hill dramatically more comfortable, especially by keeping cyclists out of the way of the doors of parked cars. South of 10th St, Cedar becomes a narrow single-lane street which is one-way southbound. On this stretch, which moves slowly enough for many cyclists to stay in mixed traffic, large shared lane markings should be implemented to make the bike route more intelligible.

On Minnesota St, there are again two traffic lanes for a small number of cars (4-5 thousand), as well as parking and/or bus staging lanes on both sides of the street. Within the narrow overall profile of the street, this means a very uncomfortable riding experience for cyclists.

Minnesota St as it is today.

The Capital City Bikeway plan includes specific conceptual plans to redesign Minnesota St with a one-way buffered bike lane in the existing parking lane. The same concept could be implemented if one of the two traffic lanes were eliminated instead, something which has not caused major problems on Cedar St next to the METRO Green Line tracks.

Minnesota St if a parking lane were removed for the proposed buffered bike lane.

Minnesota St if a travel lane were removed.

If implemented correctly, this project would create a hugely important and well-used bike connection north and south across downtown Saint Paul. Best of all, it would be dirt cheap, only the cost of public process and paint. It’s perhaps the single best low-hanging fruit project for the City in the next few years.

2) Connect the East Side to the Rest (10th St)

Where an east/west bikeway could go on 10th and 9th Sts.

No east/west (or north/south) bikeways crosses either marked barrier.

The other competitor for that title might be 10th St. The absence of good east/west routes to the East Side of Saint Paul (roughly Districts 1, 2, 4, and 5) is one of the most arduous bike barriers in the city of Saint Paul. Only three signed or built bike routes currently connect the two halves: Wheelock Pkwy, Como/Winter/Jackson/Cayuga, and Shepard Rd. These are widely spaced from each other (more than two miles between the northern pair, and at least a mile between the southern), have few connections, and are geographically arduous, requiring cyclists to repeatedly climb punishing grades.

Worst of all, none connect well to the destination many cyclists are traveling east or west to reach: downtown. The only latitudinal route of any kind within the downtown area is the trail along Shepard Rd, but this is separated from the rest of downtown by a highway, steep bluffs, and very limited access points. Indeed, many would question whether this riverfront area functions as part of “downtown” at all, at least for people on bikes (or on foot). As a result, there is no obvious way for cyclists heading east on Summit, Charles, Como, or the Little Bohemia Trail to travel through these barriers.

The Capital City Bikeway plan envisions fixing this gap by constructing raised, high-amenity trails on Kellogg Blvd and 10th and 9th Sts, forming the southern and northern legs respectively of the loop. We will return to Kellogg a bit later. 10th St (and 9th St east of Jackson) is an obvious bike route; it is relatively flat, it connects well with planned north/south bike routes and the parking lot of the History Center (a frequent, low-traffic route), and it is reasonably continuous while still slow enough to be comfortable.

But although original the original plans suggested an interim implementation of this leg might be possible using paint and flexible posts, the city’s subsequent experiences (as well as discussions with those in charge of plowing) have convinced them that the proposal made there is too narrow to maintain in winter. Until the street is reconstructed fully, or until the city invests in new maintenance equipment, it is unlikely that any protected bikeway will be built.

However, if those plans are modified to allow unprotected bike lanes in the interim, it would be relatively easily possible to do so.

Current, bike lane, and Capital City Bikeway versions of 10th St.

Of course, adding traditional bike lanes to 10th and 9th Sts would not be without controversy. This is mostly because it would involve the removal of some parking along the route, especially on 9th St. However, these streets stretch through some of the most extensively-parked areas of downtown, with a wide variety of parking lots and garages for visitors to use. Street parking is often light in this part of downtown as well, especially in the evening. Removing some parking is a reasonable compromise to accommodate bikes, especially when the city’s long-term plan would remove parking on the street entirely.

3) Open the Pearly Gates (St. Peter St to 10th)

An interim implementation of the Capital City Bikeway route on the St. Peter bridge.

Bike lanes on Cedar St would solve the immediate problem of bike access from the northwest and west of downtown, but that route still has significant disadvantages, including relatively steep climbs, greater distance from destinations and from other bikeways, and poor connections to two of the most important streets in downtown Saint Paul, St. Peter and Wabasha Sts. For this reason, many cyclists continue to take these streets despite a lack of good infrastructure.

The Capital City Bikeway plan recognized this problem, including St. Peter as the western leg of the planned downtown loop. But this is probably the most controversial bikeway included in that plan, as it calls for either lane reductions or parking removal on St. Peter–neither of which is palatable to many businesses. In addition, even an interim implementation of the two-way bikeway on most of the street would require significant street reconstruction.

However, one section of St. Peter may be possible to implement without large costs, namely the section between John Ireland Blvd and 10th St. This would link what is today one of Saint Paul’s busiest bikeways very directly to the east/west spine established on 10th St, greatly improving access to the western side of downtown. Most importantly, building this stretch would eliminate what is today one of the scariest places to bike downtown, the blind curve going down St. Peter:

Given the frequent usage of this bridge and its relatively high danger currently, few short segments of the Capital City Bikeway would offer as much bang for their buck as this one:

An interim layout for the St. Peter bridge as depicted in the Capital City Bikeway plan.

Instead of affecting parking, the plan would remove a travel lane from St. Peter through to 10th. This would probably not cause significant delays given current traffic volumes, but even some delay would be a worthwhile trade for a big boost in cyclist safety and comfort.

Conclusion

Projects like these could be developed all around the city of Saint Paul, but only if the political will exists to fund them and to push them through. None would have major negative impacts on their neighbors (though some businesses would inevitably call foul). None would dramatically affect traffic flow, even at rush hour. But all would represent a huge improvement for biking in downtown Saint Paul, and that’s desperately needed.

We have a long way to go before Saint Paul is truly a city that is safe for everyone, no matter how they get around. These projects, short-term and relatively inexpensive though they are, are a microcosm of the problems faced around our city. We have a chance here to take a big step forward here; let’s seize it.

1: Given current City of Saint Paul snow removal equipment, most planned sections of the Capital City Bikeway will be too narrow to implement on an interim basis using paint and flexible posts. This could change if the city invested in new equipment, but this means significant additional cost.

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4 Responses to Three Short-Term Projects to Make Downtown Saint Paul Safer on Bike

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke November 30, 2017 at 10:13 am #

    All great ideas, but I especially love Door #3. That is a no-brainer that the city could do very quickly and would be a huge difference-maker.

  2. Andy Singer
    Andy Singer November 30, 2017 at 11:31 am #

    Good piece Ethan. #3 is super easy and so is the Cedar from Capitol to 10th portion of #1. There would be almost no cost and no impact on parking or business. All it takes is a willingness on the part of the city and the Saint Paul Public Works Department to implement it.

  3. Melissa Wenzel November 30, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

    Thank you for this article and for specifically speaking about east side connections. As you know, the Warner Road trail doesn’t take users safely across the “far east” side (east of 61), as the Fish Hatchery Trail is closed and will be for some time. Getting to downtown safely from all other parts of Saint Paul means that people can safely bike from any one part of the city to another. As we all know, people don’t often live very close (less than a mile) from where they work, shop, go to the doctor, take their kids to day care, etc. Having safe bike infrastructure in all parts of the city, that connect to one another, is key for city-wide safe biking options.

  4. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell December 1, 2017 at 4:02 pm #

    Ethan, overall great ideas and ones that should be able to be done fairly quickly for little expense.

    Why door zone bike lanes instead of parking protected bikeways? Among other benefits a parking protected lane could be 3′ wider so 9′ instead of 6′.

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