Winter Bikeway Priorities in St. Paul

When you live in Minnesota you come to expect that there will be snow during winter. We’ve crafted numerous adaptations to provide comfortable winter living, including the declaration of a “snow emergency” when streets are difficult to pass with a personal car. Is it also an emergency when you cannot travel by bicycle (or walk)?

If the City of St. Paul is going to take alternative modes of transportation seriously, we must be serious about providing safe and dependable winter routes for bicycles in a connected network. We also need to have a serious discussion about sidewalk clearing, but this article is going to focus on bicycle transportation.

Current Priorities

During a “snow emergency” the only requirement for residents and visitors is to remove parked cars from a street for half the day depending on whether it is a day or night “plow route.” St. Paul’s website warns car owners that “any vehicle parked in an area that has not been plowed full-width is subject to ticketing and towing for 4 days (or 96 hours) after the snow emergency initially took effect at 9 p.m.” It appears that most major streets in the city, including all downtown streets, are “night plow routes” while side streets alternate between day and night clearing. Look up your street here.

Does St. Paul actually tow your car if you leave it? There are many examples of cars covered with snow that never get towed. Meanwhile, one evening two years ago I had out of town guests and wasn’t sure about my street. Of course, the car got towed. Towing does happen but it is inconsistent, and it doesn’t happen enough.

1/23/18, Grand Ave between Chatsworth and Oxford, by Nick Hannula


When it is not a snow emergency
St. Paul explains its priorities as such: “our efforts are concentrated on main roads, and high volume areas. It is not a standard practice to plow and or salt residential streets during non-snow emergency snow events due to costs, time constraints, and environment concerns […] Our first focus is on safe and passable main streets – for the most amount of travelers, public safety vehicles, and public transit.”

Did you see anything about bikes (or pedestrians) in that statement? Your answer may depend on your interpretation of “travelers” or “most amount.”

I live by the Phalen Boulevard / Bruce Vento Trail, and the city has done an excellent job clearing this trail after each snowfall this winter. However, this trail is not competing for snow storage with car lanes or car parking. The in-street bike lanes just a few feet away on Phalen Boulevard, by comparison, have been unusable.

Snow Storage

We don’t have a practice in St. Paul of hauling away truckloads of snow after each snowstorm, so the snow has to go somewhere. Ideally it wouldn’t be on the sidewalk, in the car lanes, bike lanes, or parking lanes, but that doesn’t leave much space. Some streets have boulevards where the snow piles high. In practice it often just gets pushed against the curb, whether that’s in a parking lane or a bike lane. Streets with nothing but car lanes, like much of Snelling Avenue, appear to get an efficient curb to curb clearing.

The worst situation happens, however, when snow is pushed into the parking lane (or left there because someone didn’t move their car), and the plow clears the car and bicycle traffic lanes. Why is this the worst, you ask? Because drivers continue to park on the side of the street as if the bike lane is part of their parking lane. And we all just sit back and let them. This means we have no bike lane.

2/28/18, Summit Avenue, by Mike Sonn

Functional Classification of Bikeways

In 2015 the St. Paul City Council adopted the St. Paul Bike Plan. This document outlines a network of bikeways throughout the city, and it also provides a functional classification of either “major” or “minor” bikeways.

Saint Paul Bike Plan, Figure 3

According to the Bike Plan, Summit Avenue (pictured above) is considered a “Major Bikeway.” After snow storms, however, the bikeway is not even usable, while car movement is completely free and car parking continues unabated. Summit is not the only street like this.

What does it mean for the City of St. Paul to have a functional classification of bikeways?
The Bike Plan itself states:

Major bikeways form the backbone of the bicycle network. They carry the majority of longer-distance bicycle trips and provide the primary connections to major attractions and trip generators. Major bikeways provide the primary connections across major barriers (e.g. rivers, railroad tracks, freeways) or to other adjacent communities. Greater weight should be given to the needs of bicycles regarding questions of how to balance the competing multi-modal needs. Major bikeways should be designed to anticipate a larger number of users.
Major bikeways should be distributed throughout the city at approximately one-mile spacing. This plan prioritizes facility types on Major bikeways that provide dedicated space to cyclists, such as bike lanes, cycle tracks, or off-street paths. The designation of a corridor as a major bikeway emphasizes the needs of bicyclists along these corridors. In some cases (but not all cases), it may be necessary to remove parking, travel lanes, or other roadway features to establish space for use by bicycles, and when these occasions arise on a major bikeway, this designation gives greater weight to the needs of bicycles than on other bikeways.” (p. 41)

There is no mention of winter or snow removal in this description, but this classification was created to “help guide city policies regarding development, maintenance, and design of bikeways” (p.40). If a heavy snowfall doesn’t trigger an “emergency” we don’t clear every street and we won’t be clearing every bikeway, either. But we clearly need to use a bikeway functional classification to create a new city policy about winter bikeway maintenance and snow clearing priorities.

Winter Bikeway Policy

I will repeat the city’s stated priority for snow plowing: “Our first focus is on safe and passable main streets.” This needs to apply equally to our bicycle “main streets.” While the city is doing a great job on off-street bikeways, we need to refocus efforts on “major bikeways” that have in-street lanes.

It may be that the functional classification in the existing Bike Plan needs to have a third category – perhaps “collector” or “major arterial.” Whatever group of bikeways are chosen, they need to be named, they need to be connected, and they need to provide adequate coverage of the city.

What do we need to do on those streets?

  • Immediately tow cars that are left behind during plowing. They create a serious safety hazard and we should not look the other way.
  • Tow cars that are parking in the bike lane for the same reason. This should apply whether there is snow on the ground or not. Parking in the bike lane is obstructing traffic; it should not be treated with a ticket.
  • If snow storage is a problem, either ban parking for the season or haul it away.

Obviously, this whole conversation is about cyclists who choose not to ride in car lanes if they don’t have to (which often leads to angry drivers). A better answer to the entire situation would be to install a network of protected bike lanes, which can be plowed. Really. It’s possible.

Cycle track plowing in Toronto

Eric Saathoff

About Eric Saathoff

Eric Saathoff is a public school teacher living in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. He is a regular walker, cyclist, transit user, and driver with his wife and three young children. Eric serves on the Payne-Phalen Community Council and the St Paul Transportation Committee.

16 thoughts on “Winter Bikeway Priorities in St. Paul

  1. Matt Brillhart

    Good thoughts here. As the winter drags on, especially with a couple of heavy snowfalls like we had this year, parked cars inch further and further into the roadway.

    On major streets without bike lanes, that just means the parked cars stick out into the driving lanes – a good example of this is Lyndale Avenue near Lake Street. Parked cars north of Lake St obstruct the outer driving lanes pretty much all winter long. Some would call this dangerous, some might call it an unofficial form of traffic calming, desirable even.

    On major streets with striped bike lanes, the parked cars eventually take over the entire bike lane, evidenced by Mike Sonn’s photo of Summit Ave.

    As far as solutions go, I’ve often wondered why we don’t have permanent “No Parking – Street Cleaning” signage on major streets, like many large cities do. For example, why not prohibit parking overnight one night per week, or from 9am-noon on every Tuesday, etc? In the summer this would accomodate street sweeping and other maintenance. In the winter, it would allow for additional follow-up plowing to make sure things are plowed all the way to the curb where it is absolutely necessary (i.e. streets with striped bike lanes). It’s probably unrealistic to expect that every street is going to be cleared perfectly to the curb on a first-pass overnight snow emergency, so additional passes for “clean-up” work seems like a reasonable expectation for a “critical network” like you suggest in the post.

    The other thing that routine “No Parking” hours would do is make it more difficult for people to store vehicles on the street indefinitely, in violation of existing rules that prohibit storing a car on street for more than 72 hours without moving. That rule is rarely enforced without a specific complaint. I’d very much be in favor of a revised parking policy like this that makes it more difficult to leave parked vehicles indefinitely, so every car has to be moved at least once per week or risk getting towed.

    1. Alan

      There are permanent no parking signs on some major streets, Selby ave for example has no overnight parking on the even side one night a week, odd side another night. It definitely helps keep the street clean and relatively snow free in these areas. I strongly endorse this for other main or minor viens.

    2. Rosa

      or, we could have a one-side parking ban every winter, instead of leaving it up to the Mayor’s office to call. Then people could plan for it, instead of it being a surprise and emergency for people who rely on street parking.

      In my experience the long term parking ban is pretty strictly enforced – I see chalk marks on car tires all over Phillips and Powderhorn. Maybe the enforcement is unequal? Or maybe we’re dense enough people complain all the time.

    1. Guthrie Byard

      I bike this nearly every work day and have found that while it eventually gets cleared of its snow, it unfortunately is not prioritized by public works like the parkway is by the park board. Not sure if you’ve also experienced this, but I’ve had to bike on Pelham proper on a handful of mornings after significant snow fall (like, 9 or 10am) because the bike lanes were unplowed.

      1. Davis Parker

        I also bike this daily for my commute. There are definitely some challenges with the new design, but I’ve only found the bikeway to be impassable once (yesterday morning in fact, but even then around 9am I passed a plow that was working on it). The plowing scheme also has to account for plowing in the right order, as if the bikeway is plowed first, then the street, a bunch of extra snow/ice gets dumped back into the bikeway. Ideally they’d come back through and clean out the bikeway, which they do sometimes, but it makes sense to prioritize efficiency right after a storm. Overall I’d rate the plowing of the Pelham bikeway to be quite good.

        Now they just need to figure out how to keep all the bollards from getting run over!

  2. Jake MohanJake

    I’ve stopped commuting by bike to my job in St. Paul because the bike lanes on most of my route—Marshall, then Cleveland, then Summit—are full of snow and/or cars. I’ve filed numerous 311 reports about the cars in the bike lane on Marshall, which were “forwarded to Parking Enforcement,” then closed. My numerous pleas to actually plow the streets to their full width were just ignored.

    So then I called Parking Enforcement, which told me it won’t ticket or tow the cars parked in the bike lane. “They have to park there because of the snow.” So there it is: St. Paul explicitly values the convenience of drivers over the safety of everyone else and, well, the actual law.

    Once the snow has melted I may resume commuting by bike—it’s a lot faster than the bus. But for now I don’t feel safe or welcome when biking on St. Paul’s streets.

    1. Jeff

      So maddening. It’s not even prioritizing the convenience of drivers, but prioritizing the convenience of people to store their property on public right-of-way. St. Paul’s policy on streets like this is clear – the focus is (and should be) on maintaining safe, passable streets in the event of snow. Nothing in that policy indicates any preference to parking. The only reason St. Paul doesn’t do anything is that it identified with drivers and not cyclists.

  3. Kate Lockhart

    I don’t understand why Saint Paul is so hesitant to tow. Aggressive towing would solve two problems: a) generate more desperately needed revenue for the city, and b) create an incentive to abide by the rules (or, more accurately, a disincentive to break the rules).

    I’m sure the city has limited resources, but it doesn’t even have to do the towing itself. Saint Paul should contract the towing out to local businesses who get a cut of the revenue. It becomes a win-win-win for everyone except whoever parked illegally.

    A couple of days of aggressive towing and I’m confident many folks will change their behavior. And if they don’t, that just means more money for the city.

    1. Rosa

      Minneapolis tows pretty aggressively, but it doesn’t seem to help – the towing isn’t coordinated with the plows so the spots the cars were in still don’t get plowed, they just also incur the extra tow fees.

  4. Serafina ScheelSerafina Scheel

    Honestly, I’m worn down this winter. Sidewalks are difficult to manage. City and Park Board property doesn’t get adequately cleared for pedestrians and explicitly preferences vehicles. Bus stops are ice bound. The only bike lanes adequately cleared are the protected ones, and there are too few of those. Major institutions like the Minnesota History Center only let visitors in by the parking lot. I’m just going to stay home till the ice melts.

  5. mara larson

    They don’t tow, they don’t make any effort to clear, let alone keep the bike lanes free of parked cars, and they don’t treat cyclists like people who matter.

    Marshall has no parking overnight on Tuesdays, yet the snow covers up most of the parking area if not also the bike lane and zero efforts are made to fix that – the road is wide open for plowing, yet it doesn’t happen.

    It is not unreasonable that the city keep the streets safe for ALL users.

    I’d love to see folks in charge of streets and plowing take just one bike ride the length of Summit or Marshall after a snowstorm. Maybe then they could develop some empathy for those not enclosed in cars.

  6. RW

    Saint Paul’s snow management is poor compared to the surrounding suburbs and Minneapolis.

    There are neighborhood streets that seem to be covered with snowpack throughout the entire winter. This is virtually impossible to ride a normal bike on. Even driving is a challenge. Especially when combined with hills, like in St. Anthony Park.

    I’ve never understood why this is the case.

  7. GlowBoy

    This is my fourth winter here now. Although this is the first “real” winter among the four, the same problem existed the prior three years: plows don’t clear the street to the curb, leaving conventional, unprotected 5-7′ bike lanes essentially unusable.

    Even my main route into downtown, Park/Portland, famous for its massively wide lanes, has several blocks near Lake Street with narrower bike lanes, and has unusable sections – especially around parked cars that weren’t moved or towed for snow emergencies – where I have to merge into traffic. It’s risky, but for that short distance I’ll take my chances.

    But otherwise I consider streets with unprotected bike lanes to be *unusable* once plowable snow has fallen. No way on earth am I riding Nicollet (61st to 40th), for example, until the snowbanks have melted away. The other day (in my car) I observed that Fairview in St. Paul is just as bad. Essentially, the bikeway network shrinks to half its summer size in winter. Half the bikeway mileage makes it a quarter as usable.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the aggressive plowing of protected lanes and off-street paths. Those are usable almost every day of the year, even soon after a heavy snowfall. I still get a lot of the places I want to go. Things could be much worse. But it also makes a strong case for why we need *more* protected bike lanes: they get plowed!

Comments are closed.