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.
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.
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.