“Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough on Summit Avenue

Biking on Summit during the Alan Grahn memorial ride, to honor his tragic death.

I like biking on Summit Avenue, Saint Paul’s most well-used bike lane, but I always try and remind myself that not everybody enjoys it. Though I’ve been riding down Summit since high school, and after a few decades it seems fine to me, appearances can be deceiving.

Yet the truth of the matter is that Summit is not great.

A true story: I once tried to take my sixty-something parents on a bike ride down Summit Avenue. The narrow lanes, with cars speeding by just over their shoulders profoundly freaked them out. They did not like and did not feel safe, and we took side streets on the second half of the ride.

Another true story: I once ran into two friends of mine, middle-aged parents riding casually with two of their children down the Summit Avenue bike lane. They were very nervous, as they should have been! The 8-year-old boy kept speeding ahead of his parents, and I can still picture his mom yelling at him, riding down the narrow lanes, basically terrified.

In both cases, Summit Avenue did not seem that safe, and it isn’t. The deaths and bad crashes speak for themselves. I was recently on the memorial ride for Alan Grahn. Watching his relatives sob in front of the hastily erected ghost bike, covered in flowers, while a hundred people watched on in silence, is something I never want to do again.

Riding in the city’s #1 bike lane shouldn’t be this difficult.

A Public Works crew restriping the narrow portion of Summit Avenue.

For one thing, there is a ton of room on Summit Avenue to make improvements. Mike Sonn’s article from 2016 pointed this out very nicely, and if you haven’t read that, go do so. For much of the street, the driving lanes are 16’ wide, which is wider than the lanes on I-94. There are lots of options for designing safer bike lanes that we be welcoming to more people on Summit Avenue, and there are few compelling reasons why the city should do this. Safety is the most important, of course…

But in this post, I want to focus on one reason that I have heard for leaving Summit alone. More than once over the past few years, I have heard folks say something like this:

“Why should we spend money on Summit? It’s already one of the better bike lanes in the city. It’s in a wealthy neighborhood. Surely any city money is better spent other places that need it?”

Well that misses a key point. Here’s why we need to focus on Summit.

Summit Avenue today is popular but mediocre. It’s not particularly wide or safe, but it’s still a very well-used bike lane and gets the most traffic of anywhere in the city.

And that’s exactly why the city should improve it.


Typical condition of Summit Avenue bike lanes in winter.

In his must-read book, Walkable City, Jeff Speck lists ten things cities need to do to create walkable streets. A lot of the prescriptions are pretty straightforward — “get the parking right” or “plant trees” — but the last point is pretty interesting. Speck argues that cities need to focus attention on places that are already pretty walkable and improve them, rather than spread out or dilute investments in walkability.

Here’s his explanation, about what he calls “the first question to ask before investing in walkability.”

Here’s the lengthy quote, which makes a fascinating point about urban design:

Where can spending the least money make the most difference?

The answer, as obvious as it is ignored, is on streets that are already framed by buildings that have the potential to attract and sustain street life. In other words, places where an accommodating private realm already exists to give comfort and interest to an improved public realm. Most cities have their fair share of streets like this, where historic shopfronts and other attractive buildings line sidewalks that are blighted only by a high-speed treeless roadway. Fix the street, and you’ve got the whole package, or close to it.

In contrast, there is little to be gained in livability by improving the design of a street that is lined by muffler shops and fast-food drive-thrus. When you’re done, it’s still the auto zone and not worthy of our attention.

Speck’s point is that making truly walkable streets is difficult, especially in cities that are dominated by speeding and dangerous cars. And that’s exactly why cities should double-down on places with a lot of potential.

This is just as true for bicycling as it is for walking, and by Speck’s criteria, Summit Avenue is the perfect candidate for promotion from good biking street to great biking street. Instead of spending a lot of time and money trying to improve any of Saint Paul’s really bad streets and make them “just OK” for bicycling, why not spend a little bit of time and money and make Summit Avenue great?

If Saint Paul did this, the payoff would be huge.

Imagine if the number of people bicycling on Summit Avenue every day doubled or tripled? Imagine if the bike lanes connected seamlessly to downtown Saint Paul? Imagine if its intersections were safe and well-marked? Imagine if the bike lane was clear of ice and snow all year long? Imagine if the bike lane was wide enough and protected enough that both older bicyclists and younger bicyclists could ride safely down the lovely Victorian Avenue without having to constantly freak out?

Making Summit Avenue a great place for people riding bicycles would do more for bicycling in Saint Paul then a dozen striped lanes on streets elsewhere. Right now, Saint Paul’s  “best bike lane” is both unsafe and uncomfortable for far too many people. It’s also legitimately deadly.

And in spite of that, hundreds of people still ride on it every day. That’s exactly why the city should act. Summit Avenue is a tremendous opportunity to create great bike infrastructure at relatively little cost.

If you agree with this post, please sign the petition to improve Safety on Summit. Not only will it save lives, it’ll be a huge boost for bicycling for everyone living and riding in Saint Paul.

We can design a street so that this will never happen again.

38 thoughts on ““Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough on Summit Avenue

  1. Micheal Foley

    Your photo showing “typical condition of Summit Avenue bike lanes in winter” isn’t actually too typical. Typical would show cars parked halfway into the bike lane because snow is piled up on the right side of the parking area.

  2. Tom Quinn

    I’m inclined to disagree. St. Paul needs to spend its meager funds making other routes at least marginally safe. In particular, St. Paul needs better routes for traveling north and south. How about a Summit-like bike lane on Victoria from St. Clair to Highway 36? How about a bridge to cross the railroad tracks at Chatsworth and Pierce Butler?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Well it depends on if you want to help the existing small # of bicyclists go more places safely, or grow the # of bicyclists in the city. It’d be nice to do both, but I think Summit should be a top priority.

        1. Tom Quinn

          I doubt many people avoid biking on Summit because it isn’t as developed as the Greenway, and further development would be of little benefit if your goal is increased ridership.

          On the other hand, there are many people, including myself, who avoid the north/south routes because they are so damn dangerous. Crossing I94, University Avenue, Pierce Butler, two railroad tracks, and dealing with the high speed traffic of Lexington north of Larpenteur isn’t for the faint of heart.

          Providing a north/south route equivalent to what Summit is today would benefit a lot more people.

          1. Monte Castleman

            There’s quite a few people who will absolutely refuse to use an on-street bicycle lane, with only a thin stripe of paint between them and cars. They’ll take a different route, ride on the sidewalk, or simply not bicycle. On street bicycle lanes are for the 8% “Strong & Fearless” and “Enthused & Confident types in the Portland study. Fully protected paths like the Greenway (and ***not*** plastic flim-flam sticks) are for the remaining 60% of the population that are interested in bicycling.

            1. jklein

              That depends on the street. If your concept of a street is one where car traffic must move in three, four, or more lanes at 35 mph plus, then yes, you need a fully separate lane. But if you have a street that can be calmed into submission and made into a place where cyclists, pedestrians are truly first, then there’s a lot more flexibility in what can work.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Especially as it can be improved cheaply. At bare minimum, move the lane over to get a buffer from the doorzone. Slightly more than minimum, add a buffer on the car-side too. That’s all just paint.

        Then go from there to add bollards or planters or parking protected or whatever.

  3. Sam

    I think the issue isn’t that Summit is a better or worse candidate for investment but that buffered bike lanes would be an incredibly cheap first step towards a protected bikeway when the road is rebuilt. I’m not a paint expert but there has to be a couple thousand dollars in the city budget to go paint a few extra lines asap

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I am relatively open to design ideas, and I’m sure there are many possibilities. Protected bike lanes can be done in lots of different ways.

  4. Janne

    This inspires me as we think about how to rebuild Hennepin Avenue through Uptown. It’s the same story there, with a street and building fronts that have good bones, but which has been ceded to pass-through drivers somewhere in the last 80 years. Thank you!

  5. Pine SalicaPine Salica

    I hope this happens. Right now, I only feel safe riding Summit in the dead of night, long after all good st. paulites are in bed.

  6. Jeff McMenimen

    I couldn’t agree more with you! As someone who regularly walks, rides and drives on Summit Avenue, and as a landscape architect/urban designer who thinks Summit is one of the great boulevards in the country, I would like to see a number of improvements made. It desperately needs a mill and overlay treatment from Victoria, west to the river. The pavement is dangerous for bikers and hard on bikes and vehicles. The roadway also needs a diet. The drive lanes are too wide, as you noted. The 16 foot drive lanes should be narrowed to anywhere from 12-14 feet wide. The remaining space could be used to provide buffered or protected bike lanes. While I like the wide planted medians on Summit, I understand they are confusing to motorists. Better and smarter wayfinding/signage and traffic signals can be incorporated to reduce this confusion. I wonder how many of the accidents between bicyclists and motorists along Summit Avenue are due to this confusion?

    I also agree that Summit Avenue is an easy win for the City and the bicycling community. It’s already set up to accept these simple enhancements and really be something special. It’s a primary east-west bike corridor that connects numerous neighborhoods to community destinations. Improving it’s connection to downtown Saint Paul would be a welcome improvement and fulfill the goal of a more connected city.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The pavement is in terrible shape. On the memorial ride, where we were taking up the whole road, I realized it’s actually even worse in the driving lanes, but the bike lanes are bad too.

      There’s no reason for the driving lanes to be wider than 11 feet. Heck, they should probably be 10 feet. There are no buses. There are no trucks. It’s a parkway, really, and should be at parkway speeds. You don’t want wide lanes.

      1. Jeff McMenimen

        Summit Ave is a Collector roadway and carries quite a bit of traffic. I can’t imagine City Transportation would allow travel lanes narrower than 12 feet next to bike lanes.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Extra width in the lanes does not create more capacity for cars, it just encourages them to go faster.

          You’re may be right about what the city would allow, but if you are, they are wrong.

        2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          I think the average traffic engineer in Europe would scoff at 12′ wide travel lanes for something like Summit. Even fairly major 4 lane roads often have 3m (9.8′) lanes. It takes a gob of traffic to increase that to 3.25 (10.6′) or 3.5 (11.5′). And these are curb to curb, no inattentive driver curb reaction distances.

          This is because they know that narrower lanes are safer and cause drivers to pay closer attention which is one reason that they have 1/2 to 1/5 the road fatalities that we do.

          1. Noah Lamont

            In Europe. Always with the Euro argument. I lived there for a bit. The roads are narrow because they are old and everything is crowded. Engineers scoffing. No. They will never get the opportunity. They keep the bikes and the auto traffic separate however they can.

            1. Caitlin Cohn

              Echoing what Bill said, Europe is a big place and not every part of every city is old with buildings close together. It’s true that the US isn’t Europe, but that doesn’t mean the US can’t sometimes use it as a model.

              I recently moved to Linz. Austria and there are a number of fairly wide streets and many off-street bike lanes- including one right in front of my apartment. I’m not an expert on transit infrastructure, but many streets clearly were designed with pedestrians and cyclists in mind.

              Our bikes just arrived, so I haven’t ridden here yet, but I’ve walked a fair amount and I feel much safer as a pedestrian here. Cars almost always stop at marked crosswalks, for example. I am usually wearing a baby or pushing a stroller, but even when I’m walking alone, people stop for pedestrians.

      2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        Past research I recall into lane widths, traffic speeds, and safety would suggest that 10.5ft is the optimum. Truck and bus routes should probably be a little wider, but as you noted neither is the case along Summit.

      1. Daughter Number Three

        I realize Como Ave. in St. Anthony Park is not comparable since it does have buses, but the minimum width allowed for the driving lane by MnDOT (or whatever the controlling agency is… USDOT?) is 11 feet. So that’s what it’s going to be. We tried for 10 but were told absolutely no.

  7. Christa MChris Moseng

    Thanks for this. I agree that right now the facilities on Summit are the bare minimum, and unquestionably deter plenty of would-be cyclists. It just so happens that the bare minimum passes for Ultra Deluxe Bike Facilities in St. Paul.

    Buffer them yesterday, grade separate them asap.

  8. Keith Morris

    I thought you were working up to this point: that a best Summit Ave bike lane would raise the bar for new bike lanes in the rest of the city, so that they get high quality bike lanes done right the first time also.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      That’s a great point. It would set a standard and example for thousands of people to raise their expectations about bicycling in Saint Paul.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Excellent point. Most people cannot even imagine what a well designed safe and comfortable road design is because they’ve never experienced one. I don’t believe there is any roadway anywhere in Minnesota (and possibly the U.S.) that meets even minimum Dutch CROW specs.

      I’d love to see a Dutch Demo Project or something where a roadway or ideally an entire neighborhood was made as safe as Dutch roads and neighborhoods.

  9. Troy DavisonTroy M Davison

    Great stuff Bill. As someone who has as rode down Summit or Grand from end to end several times a week in both directions for the last 12 years all year round. I have thought this should happen for many years now. I ride Grand more than Summit. In the winter it has less snow and ice. Even in the summer it feels just a little bit safer because passing cars are usually going a little slower and they usually give me more room when passing. It has so much potential just being wasted every year that nothing changes.

  10. Carol Becker

    You could also develop Portand, one block north, into a rocking bike way. It would be much safer, bikes could have much more of the street and it would be safer for everyone. And ultimately cheaper.

    1. Christa MChris Moseng

      While I appreciate the enthusiasm, I feel that this is an unhelpful and derailing suggestion. Portland has obvious flaws on even casual scrutiny, and if the suggestion is for a “bike boulevard” where cars travel at 30mph posted limits and parking is retained on both sides, it would be a clear step backward for cycling and the city.

      For my equally serious and even cheaper and safer counterproposal, I suggest on-street parking be banned on Summit. Now parking-protected bikeways are the compromise position.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Portland does not connect over the barriers and across other arterials like Lexington, Hamline, Snelling, Cretin, Cleveland, Prior, Fairview, Dale, Ayd Mill Road, etc. That would be a bike boulevard, and Saint Paul does in fact have a few of those (griggs, charles is the best of them). They aren’t really comparable and not at all well used compared to Summit.

      1. Frank Phalen

        Charles?!? Charles is a terrible bikeway. I took Charles from Rice to near Lexington a couple years ago. In one 13 block stretch, there are SEVEN stop signs! It was better to take Edmund or Sherburne.

        I wondered what clown thought that was a good idea, making Charles the bike boulevard and leaving all those stop signs there.

  11. Lou Miranda

    I’ve argued much the same for suburbs. Eastern Edina has a few streetcar nodes that are relatively walkable. Why not concentrate biking-as-transportation infrastructure here, where people can actually walk or bike to shop, eat, work, etc., rather than the parts of the city that are mainly low-density cul-de-sacs with no destinations?

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      City planners and traffic engineers too often think of bicycles as only recreational and not a mode of transportation. The result is that when people ask for bikeways and are even very specific that they want them so that they can ride to dinner or the local pharmacy, the folks doing the planning produce recreational paths and think that they’ve not met people’s desires.

      The other bit to this is that many people in the U.S. think the same – if you are ‘going somewhere’ then you drive. Even if it’s a half mile journey. Even in Shoreview with decent protected bikeways people don’t think of them as transportation. I remember a deal where a family was riding their bicycles and the dad said that when they get home they’ll drive to get some ice cream. Their kid looked at him and asked why they didn’t just ride their bikes because they were already quite near the ice cream place.

      I wonder how much of this is not having the right bikes? The shops all sell faux racing or mountain bikes that can be difficult to ride in normal street clothes.

      1. Caitlin Cohn

        I agree with most of what you said. However, bike shops in the Twin Cities sell a wide range of bikes, including bikes that work better for commuting. Many people who buy new road bikes and mountain bikes probably use them for road and mountain biking, respectively. Granted, a lot of people probably own old road or mountain bikes that may be the wrong size, haven’t been taken care of, and thus aren’t a lot of fun to ride.

        For better or worse, I like bikes too much to just own one and like having both a computer bike, as well as bikes that are best ridden in spandex.

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