Apologies in advance for all the terrible metaphors in this post. They are like going for a walk to the park but having a jalapeño cheddar Corn Nut stuck in your shoe.
The point is that Downtown Saint Paul has been a black hole for bicycling for so long that it’s hard to imagine that another world is possible. In the otherwise solid Saint Paul Bicycle Plan, for example, which passed to much acclaim a few short years ago, there is literally a map where downtown is grayed out, covered by a large area with the caption AREA FOR ADDITIONAL STUDY.
Downtown Saint Paul has long been the place where bike lanes go to die. Bike lanes headed to downtown literally drop off cliffs and throw themselves into rivers. Approaching downtown Saint Paul, bicyclists have for decades turned from princes into frogs, in the sense that they must play Frogger with cars on multi-lane speeding roads where drivers careen around corners or around porkchop islands and blow red lights like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer in a tornado. As a result, biking in downtown Saint Paul is a Lord of the Flies experience, the kind of situation that libertarians or Dave Cossetta fantasize about, where nobody seems to care which way the street runs, where the stoplights are vague suggestions, and where it seems like a no rules free-for-all except that half the people have a 5,000-pound 200-horsepower deadly machine at their disposal.
In short, for most people on bikes, downtown Saint Paul sucks.
The caveat here is that I, personally, kind of enjoy no-rules-style bicycling, especially if traffic is generally slow, as it is in downtown Saint Paul. Sometimes I imagine myself as a bike messenger in the movie Premium Rush, going the wrong way down a one-way street for two blocks to successfully navigate the maze of sidewalks and one-ways required to bike around downtown. I am relatively comfortable swearing and swerving between drivers in their cars, or taking the middle lane on Wabasha Street to dodge between the dueling on-ramps on either side. And to its credit, downtown Saint Paul does have the dubious advantage of having relatively little traffic in the first place.
This is a downtown where “rush hour” lasts for 37 minutes, and where, at 7 p.m., you could literally stand in the middle of some streets, if you wanted to, and do a complete sun salutation without anybody noticing. So, in that sense, downtown Saint Paul is OK for bicycling, in a less-is-more kind of way. But in any meaningful planning / equitable / accessible way, or for people who do not want to imagine themselves gladiators, it remains terrible.
All that said, into the downtown void shines a thin beam of light. [Cue angelic choir music.] For the Capital City Bikeway (CCB) offers an as-yet scant ray of hope piercing the darkness. A few years ago, the city of Saint Paul had a brief pot of money devoted to creating a fine, well-designed, off-street, two-way curb-separated bike lane that runs north-south from the Gateway Trail all the way to the Mississippi River. This lane exists, and not just on a map, but in real life. It’s pretty cool — and so long as nobody’s truck is parked on it, I cannot complain.
Well, yes I can. The only problem with the CCB is that it does not actually connect to the main east-west destinations that most actually existing bicyclists use. The Jackson Street leg of the CCB sits there like a ripe avocado in a breadless kitchen full of toasters.
So far, the CCB does not connect to the places people want to go, and that’s why few people are using it. Until the downtown bike network includes links to the northwest past the State Capitol area, and west to Summit Avenue and West 7th Street, and (somehow?) over to the East Side, it won’t attract a meaningful number of bicyclists. Those connections are desperately needed in Saint Paul, especially now that e-scooters have descended into the sidewalks of downtown like confetti at a political convention. (Please note: the CCB is perfectly suited for e-scooters.)
That’s why building the rest of the Capital City Bikeway is a great idea. The current mayoral administration has promised to try and do so, but right now there’s no money to complete this expensive project. It might be years before the key streets needed for the network, for example Kellogg Boulevard, are reconstructed.
So what to do in the meantime?
A year or so ago, I made a trip to Seattle where, with the help of a great bike shop in Pioneer Square, my partner and I got some bikes to ride around the city.
Unless you have a guide, riding bikes in a new city is harrowing. You neither know just where you’re going, or where the best routes are, and the experience makes you really appreciate consistent networks and wayfinding, especially when you reach busy intersections. (You know, exactly the things that Saint Paul does not have.)
One thing in downtown Seattle that really made life easy was its protected two-way bike lane, which seems like the perfect design idea for what Saint Paul could do downtown.
Seattle’s lane is a relatively simple, sometimes bollards / sometimes concrete-and-planted-barrier with a narrow but contiguous two-way bike lane running through the heart of downtown. Importantly, the signals and intersections are clearly marked to make sure bicyclists have right-of-way through intersections. I think this is what Saint Paul should consider for its interim design.
Currently the city is seeking feedback on its plans for an east-west leg of the bikeway on 9th and 10th Streets and another north-south leg of the bikeway on either Wabasha or St. Peter streets. The city hosted a public meeting about it earlier in June at the fire station on 10th; if you care about biking through downtown Saint Paul, you can comment with some of your ideas.
Personally, I’d rather see the bikeway on Wabasha, a street that desperately needs reconstruction, where the existing concrete street surface has the consistent complexion of Steve Bannon’s face, where the potholes have potholes in them so it’s like a mind-bending fractal, and where it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between figure and ground. Is it an asphalt pothole with some concrete in it or a concrete street with asphalt in it? (Then there are the bricks, many of which are missing.) So, yeah, reconstructing Wabasha seems like an awfully good idea, and I hope the city can find some money to do this soon. Though, given Saint Paul’s recent and unfolding budgetary fiascos around basic stuff like collecting garbage, I am not super optimistic.
The only other problem with the interim plan is that it almost connects with Summit Avenue, but not quite. The project would go up to the Minnesota History Center parking lot gates, but it would end there, just one land parcel and change from the bike lanes on Summit Avenue. (Presumably there would be no wayfinding help for people who might want to ride a bike through the parking lot up to Kellogg and John Ireland Boulevard.) To me this is like putting a new oven in a spot in your kitchen where where the gas connection almost reaches the gas line, but not quite And then clapping your hands and saying, “close enough!”
Why not find a way to hook it up?
If Saint Paul can build these legs of the bikeway network — up Wabasha to the State Capitol, and down 10th Street to the Cathedral — then we’ll be cooking with gas.
Except of course, that bicycles and e-scooters do not require gas. That’s the best part.