Downtown St. Paul Bike Plan

Downtown St. Paul Buses and Bikes

Does Downtown St. Paul Need Bus Lanes?

Bus-only lanes have recently been rejected for Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. This street can get congested, which causes buses to move very slowly. Of course, the point of bus lanes is to help transit vehicles bypass the congestion, so it makes sense to add them on a street like Hennepin.

In St. Paul we have bus-only lanes on 5th and 6th Streets. These two are parallel one-way streets that form the main east/west bus routes through downtown, while the Green Line LRT is on 4th. These streets also carry car traffic and sometimes have on-street parking.

If bus-only lanes are there to help buses bypass congestion are they truly needed in downtown St. Paul? Based upon the latest traffic figures from the City of St. Paul I would say “not yet.”

Traffic and Lane Numbers on 5th and 6th Streets

There aren’t average daily traffic counts for every block along 5th and 6th, but there’s enough to get a good picture of what’s going on:

Table of Traffic Lanes and Volume

I have to assume that the AADT numbers reported here include the numerous buses that drive on 5th and 6th Streets every day. Nearly every block has 2-3 lanes for cars in addition to the bus-only lane. Clearly, there are more lanes than necessary for the amount of traffic volume. Maryland Avenue was recently converted from 4 lanes to 3 with somewhere around 20,000 AADT. These two streets combined aren’t even close, and yet on its busiest block (Sibley-Jackson, 12,500 AADT) there are are a total of 8 vehicle lanes!

It’s also worth mentioning that there are so many buses on these streets that they are often leapfrogging one another and actually driving in one of the car lanes instead of the bus lane because other buses are stopped at a bus stop and blocking the way.

Missing Bike Lanes in Downtown

Downtown St. Paul Bike Plan

St. Paul Bike Plan – Downtown


The Saint Paul Bicycle Plan includes a bold downtown loop called the Capital City Bikeway, which is planned to be a comfortable, off-street bikeway that encircles the city (on Kellogg, Jackson, 10th, and St. Peter Streets). This was partly inspired by the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. It is worth noting that in Indianapolis they not only have a loop encircling part of their downtown, but they also supplement it with bike lanes going through downtown.

Map of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail

Indianapolis Cultural Trail

Map of Bikeways of Downtown Indianapolis

Bikeways of Downtown Indianapolis


Clearly there are many safe ways to get around downtown Indianapolis by bicycle when you choose to get off the Cultural Loop. It may appear that 7th and 4th Streets are on the Saint Paul Bicycle Plan, but they are both only marked for “further study” and have significant problems.

Mill & Overlay Every Downtown Street

Recently, the St. Paul Director of Public Works stated a goal of doing a mill and overlay (M&O) of every downtown street within three years. It has been practice in St. Paul to install bike lanes when a street is receiving this M&O treatment if they are called for in the Bike Plan. This new goal provides not only an opportunity but an urgency to examine every downtown street to see where we have excess capacity and where we might be able to provide more safe riding opportunities for residents and visitors.

Bike Lanes AND Bus Lanes

On 5th and 6th Streets we can both increase capacity by diversifying modes and increase comfort for pedestrians and cyclists without majorly impacting the current traffic load. I propose that we install buffered bike lanes on 5th and 6th Streets between the curb and the bus lane by removing one car lane in each direction.

Buses would regularly need to pull into the bike lane in order to pick up or drop off passengers, but this is already the case with most bike lanes in our city. Shifting the bus-only lane from the curb would put many buses in the same position they are already since they must drive around other buses that are stopped. A few blocks, such as 6th between Wacouta and Sibley (between the Bulldog and Mears Park), would require bicycles and buses to share the same lane. This isn’t the most comfortable, but it’s manageable for single block segments, such as this.

Image of 6th Street Cedar Wabasha Before

Image of 6th Street Cedar Wabasha After

If we reduce one car lane in each direction we might possibly have a bit of congestion downtown, which would justify the bus-only lanes we already have. We should not avoid car congestion at any cost, and certainly not by limiting more efficient and healthy modes of transportation like walking, cycling, or taking transit.

No Such Thing As Redundant Bikeways

Even if 4th Street and 7th Street were to become bikeways that would not make bike lanes on 5th and 6th “redundant.” Planners and engineers need to retire this argument. We don’t talk about redundant sidewalks because the next street has sidewalks, or even because the other side of the street has one. We never call streets that accommodate cars redundant, though they sometimes have too many lanes. We want our car and sidewalk networks to be complete and provide access to every place in the city. Bikeways should likewise be part of a dense network. Just because I can safely ride on the Capital City Bikeway (someday when it’s completed) that doesn’t mean I can safely get to my destination on 5th Street. Many of us want to be able to ride not only around downtown but through it.

Opportunities Potentially Lost

I hope that we don’t go ahead with the M&O for every downtown street without considering where we can add bicycle lanes for little additional cost. It’s a great opportunity and it would be a great fail if we don’t act on it. The Saint Paul Bicycle Plan has been a great start for our city, but it is already in need of updating. We should not let it be a tool to support inaction simply because something is not listed in it.

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.

27 thoughts on “Downtown St. Paul Buses and Bikes

  1. Betsy Larey

    I understand this is written from the prospective of a biking person. My issue remains the same: bikers represent a very small percentage ( 5%?) of traffic. To give them a dedicated lane, at the expense of cars and buses is just not an appropriate use of space. In addition, the first time a bus collides with a biker there will be calls to change again. Dedicated bike lanes make sense in a warm climate, but not the coldest large metropolitan area in the United States. I realize your readers will disagree and that’s fine.

    1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      Building safe infrastructure has proven to increase mode share. If we continue to keep streets extremely unsafe to bike on, not many people will bike. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      It’s totally an appropriate use of space. People don’t bike where there’s no bike facilities, so citing current usage isn’t saying much. A primary goal is to allow more people to bike.

      Another primary goal is to make these streets safer for everyone using them. Everyone , whether walking, biking, driving or using the bus, is safer from the lower speeds and traffic calming influence that can be associated with bike lanes.

      Then there’s also the fiction that cars and buses are losing something when we take space that isn’t needed for them. They aren’t losing anything.

      Much to their credit, I don’t think Metro Transit buses hit other road users with much frequency.

    3. Reilly

      But even from a driver’s standpoint, bike lanes can be helpful in that they clearly delineate areas for each type of road user — leading to more-predictable behavior, greater safety, and lesser stress for drivers and bikers alike.

    4. Will

      I’d much rather people use a bike lane than in the narrow sidewalks that plague much of downtown St. Paul. This is doubly true when the bikeshare programs start up again in the spring. There just isn’t enough car traffic for all those wide lanes, except for very short periods in the rush hours. As someone living on 6th Street, most of the time, it’s people racing to and from the highways. Slow down and everyone is safer.

  2. Dan Choma

    There are many ancillary benefits to bike lanes that are often overlooked in the debate of “bike users” vs “motor users.” Here are a few:

    1) Bike lanes often times improve property values. This happened in Memphis’s Broad Street. Though its not a 1:1, I could see bike lanes in DT St Paul improving the area by increasing its quality of life. Perception is big in property values and the difference in a building next to what is effectively a 4 lane highway and a building next to a bike path can lead to a better tax base.

    2) Bike lanes can slow down traffic and as much as I know an extra 2 minutes might seem like a lot driving a car, we have a veritable epidemic of pedestrian casualties in MN. We have a duty of care to slow down traffic in our designs especially in high pedestrian areas like downtown. Bike lanes help that.

    3) There will still be cars in downtown St Paul even if we put a bikelane on every street. The argument that “we must listen to car users as they are the majority” assumes that all car users want to go as fast as possible all the time. I drive in Saint Paul daily. I want to drive slower and safer so I am sure to promote safe and vibrant neighborhoods. I am sure a lot of automobile operators such as myself also value pedestrian safety.

    4) As seen in Montreal, bicycle lanes can lead to more successful local businesses. Businesses can service more people when they accomodate the higher amount patrons that pedestrian infrastructure such as bike lanes provides. I want businesses to succeed and I think bike lanes help in that goal.

  3. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    I’m honestly surprised that we devote as much space to cars as we do in downtown St. Paul. It’s typically just one person, and yet they have an entire car/truck/SUV/van, with multiple wide lanes on every street, plus extensive car storage on most streets and many off-street areas. I think this many car lanes could make sense in a rural freeway where there’s lots of space, but in the middle of downtown? Just not a logical use of space.

  4. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I am all for dedicated bus lanes but as you point out, DT saint paul streets are almost never congested, with a few key exceptions in small spots. 5th and 6th are often empty and deserted.

  5. Frank Phelan

    Would it be possible to have the bike lanes on the left side of the streets, as they are one ways? When I bike on 6th, I’m usually over there anyway, avoiding the bus lane.

    I’m not really interested in the loop. Typically I bike east-west through downtown, using 5th and 6th.

  6. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

    I’m definitely open to the idea of the bike lanes on the left side of the street rather than the right side. For some reason I was thinking it would cause less conflict by the buses than the side with street parking. What do others think?

    1. Daniel Choma

      They have them in DT Minneapolis and Im not super thrilled, I think they confused people, but that might just be because they face an oncoming bus lane.

  7. Lou Miranda

    I very much agree with your final image, where there are bike & bus lanes. So I’m a little confused why you’re saying there shouldn’t be bus lanes. Or are you saying there shouldn’t only be bus lanes?

    If anything, now is the time to put bus lanes in. With few cars competing for lanes, there will be few rational complaints about cars needing the space. (Compare this to Hennepin, where drivers will complain about buses taking up a lane.) Then as downtown St. Paul gets more congested (i.e. successful), it will be harder to pull the bus lanes out. If wait until then to add bus lanes, then motorists will complain vehemently. Do it now! 🙂

    One final thing. I’m not a huge fan of “paint” as infrastructure. That is, a painted sharrow or bike lane or even a buffered lane offer zero extra safety to riders. So I’m a little leery of the painted buffered bike lane. However, if this is viewed as Phase One, where all the streets get bike lanes all at once, so (a) drivers can see it’s not problematic and (b) cyclists see a future of a real bicycle grid that’s useful (as you say) for getting around downtown, then this is a good thing. But only if the idea is to follow up (within a decade?) with protected bike lanes on each of these streets as the streets are redone (not just mill & overlay).

    1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

      Bus lanes exist already, but it appears things would continue as is without bus lanes just fine. That is to say, there is more room on the road than needed. I suggest we do keep the bus lane but take out a car lane. Then the bus lane will truly be useful, and we can have space for bikes, too. It seems silly to have bus lanes now – this is a clear indication that we could add space for bikes.

      As to paint vs better infrastructure… this proposal is for immediate implementation, low cost with the planned mill and overlay projects. Putting in protected, elevated, or separated bike lanes could be problematic since one side has bus stops and the other side often has street parking. Additionally, the street parking is not consistent and frequently has bumpouts at one end or the other. A longer term bikeway could be constructed that would provide more physical safety, but it would be an expensive undertaking like that of Jackson. I’m not ready to propose what that should look like, and I don’t believe it’s realistic in this set of fiscal and political circumstances.

      I also didn’t want this proposal to take on the fight of removing on-street parking. I believe removing a car lane would have less impact and be more politically palatable. I do think that buffered bike lanes, while not providing physical protection, make a world of difference in rider comfort. And I would hope that if these lanes were installed they would be a prelude for something better in the future.

      1. Daniel Choma

        One of the things I’ve always liked (generally) about your proposals is their pragmatism. As much as I would like the finest bike lanes available, I agree with you it does more for our city and community to implement a cost effective on street option during the Mill and Overlay instead of making plans that require federal funds in 15 years.

        1. Lou Miranda

          Pragmatism is fine, to a point.

          You could say that society was pragmatic in building out our suburbs, such that some people could live there. It provided a lot of housing for a lot of people. But it wasn’t equitable for everyone, as we’re realizing today.

          Sure, it makes sense to reserve the space for future, great bikeways by painting bike lanes today. But if we don’t push to make every downtown bike lane upgraded to a protected lane when the street is reconstructed, then we’ve failed our most vulnerable riders—youth, elderly, and anyone not fit enough, daring enough, & confident enough to ride alongside traffic.

          1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

            The goal is to have a Mill & Overlay on downtown streets, which I’m guessing you know isn’t a full rebuild. So that’s simply not on the table right now.

            When I hint at having the St. Paul Bike Plan updated I think that’s the place to really outline where we need to have a protected bikeway network, as well as a winter bikeway priority network.

            Overall I agree with you, and I think this is an important short term step.

  8. Daniel Choma

    A general set of comments that has been stuck in my maw, sorry its a bit off topic:

    A) I believe in downtown Saint Paul and think infrastructure improvements are hugely important there as DT Saint Paul is an intersect of many cultures and economic strata. Its both a transit transfer point and a destination in and of itself. Its hugely important for culture and infrastructure.

    B) There isn’t alot of traffic. In street bike lanes would be easy and cheap. It would help improve the lives of tooooons of people in a growing region. And 6k worth of cars is really a shoe in for reducing lanes.

    C) Why is everyone so friggin obsessed with Summit Ave then? Its got 12k worth a traffic a day, (twice as much as any street in DT) It doesnt have a cheap mill and overlay coming up, The fight to get infra is going to be as bad and likely worse than putting infra into downtown, and even if lanes go in it will only help the already affluent.

    For my money (and the city’s money, $500k of bike funding is exciting but still not alot) I think downtown has sooooo much more return on investment compared to Summit.

    Why are we demanding to spend most of our limited resources on rich folks when Downtown would help more folks?

    1. Frank Phelan

      Stuck in your “maw”? I’m familiar with suck in my “craw”, which is an idiom meant to rankle or cause resentment. But I can’t find any reference to sticking in one’s maw.

      Only a %$&#@! would notice.

      1. Dan Choma

        Frank sometimes I have an odd country way of talking, Ive been told Clarence Thomas is a supreme court justice and Clearance at Macy’s is a thrifty place to buy shoes, but I often conflate them in pronounciation 😉

      2. Dan Choma

        Sometimes I mix up words! A unique one people notice is how I conflate the pronunciation of Clarence Thomas and Clearance sales. Its as if a supreme court justice is on sale at the mall. 😉

        1. Frank Phelan

          About half the idioms I hear these days are incorrect. Like when someone says “bled like a stuck pig”, when it’s “squealed like a stuck pig”, pigs being no more prone to profuse bleeding than other mammals.

          Frank Phelan
          (aspiring grammatical editor for

  9. Jay Severance

    I am a downtown resident. I regularly use St Peter and Wabasha Streets, and 5th and 6th streets joining them. There are some assertions in the responses to the article that congestion is not a problem in downtown St Paul. This may be true for streets West of Cedar St., but not for the area to the East of Cedar. All four of these streets are main thoroughfares in the downtown, but significantly narrower and more congested than others East of Cedar St. I do not believe it is prudent to further restrict automobile lanes or parking access on these streets.

    If I understand correctly, part of the downtown bicycle loop would require a dedicated bike path, similar to the Jackson street portion of the loop recently completed. Putting anything of this design on St Peter Street would severely impact traffic and access to businesses for deliveries etc. I agree that 10th and Kellogg streets have capacity for dedicated bike routes, but rather than use St Peter street to join them, consider continuing the route over the lightly used streets west of St Peter, and join Kellogg at Smith Street or another convenient location.

    Before doing anything further to construct dedicated bike lanes, there should be a comprehensive review of all forms of transportation in the downtown. The Metropolitan Council is in the approval process for the Riverview Corridor “Modern Streetcar” proposal which will put 80 foot streetcars on 5th and 6th streets, between the Green line right of way at Central Station and 7th street at seven corners. These will be running in shared traffic every 10 minutes each way. I combination with the Green line, this may require closing Cedar to automobile traffic between 7th and 5th streets, as well as 4th street east of Minnesota.

    Until a comprehensive review of traffic needs in the future is conducted, no action which would further restrict automobile or pedestrian access to St Peter Street should be taken!.

    1. Jay Severance

      Oops: Correction- third sentence should read:. “This may be true for streets East of Cedar St., but not for the area to the West of Cedar.”

    2. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

      Thanks for bringing up the streetcar. I hadn’t considered how that would impact the traffic capacity or placement of bicycle lanes.

      As to the traffic east of Cedar, most of the AADT numbers I posted above (from the City of St. Paul) are east of Cedar. Three of the blocks east of Cedar were measured on both 6th and 5th, and neither showed high numbers of cars each day.

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