Saint Paul Should Copy Seattle’s Downtown Bike Lane

Stp Bike Lane Dead Zone

File photo.

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.

Anyway.

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.

Jackson Street

Capital City Bikeway: Part One

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 Bike Lane 3

Raised aprons for driveway intersections

Seattle Bike Lane 4

Two-way traffic in place of the parking

Seattle Bike Lane 2

Signals timed to separate bikes from people on foot

Seattle Bike Lane 1

Yellow bollards, planters, hand rails for people who are riding clipless

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.

Share your feedback by taking this quick survey.

Ccb Meeting 3

Public meeting about the Interim Bikeway design

Ccb Meeting 2

Public meeting about the Interim Bikeway design

Ccb Meeting 1

Public meeting about the Interim Bikeway design

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.

Stp Ccb Interim

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.

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16 Responses to Saint Paul Should Copy Seattle’s Downtown Bike Lane

  1. J June 18, 2019 at 9:59 am #

    Bill, your metaphors are so good and so ridiculous I imagine you might also be a Billions viewer.

    Regardless, excellent points and even better imagination.

    Hoping the #LindekeChallenge leads to thousands of young instragrammers performing sun salutations downtown.

  2. mplsmatt June 18, 2019 at 10:10 am #

    I occasionally have cause to go to the SOS Business Offices on Empire Dr. and have tried to employ the CCB as part of that trip, but beginning/ending on that Jackson Street hill has been a deal breaker. It’s a grind to ascend it in my work clothes and it’s pretty spicy on the way down. As it is, I end up taking Wabasha and connect through the Capitol area, which (as you mention) would make a fine place for a bikeway.

  3. Andy Singer
    Andy Singer June 18, 2019 at 10:58 am #

    I agree with you more than Senate Republicans agree on tax cuts and more than rabbits like leafy greens. Wabasha Street is best because it goes straight into the bridge at the southeast end and straight onto the capital grounds at the northwest end. A spur trail to connect it with John Ireland could be on the capital side of 12th (and St Peter) Street. By contrast, St. Peter doesn’t connect with the Wabasha bridge or the capital. Because of how it merges with 12th, any bikeway would have to be on the freeway side, making it less pleasant and less connective. The survey you link to doesn’t allow people to express a preference between Wabasha or St Peter… but there’s a way to email the project engineer Randy Newton on the project’s website at https://www.stpaul.gov/departments/public-works/capital-city-bikeway-interim-design-study

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff June 18, 2019 at 11:05 am #

      Agree with Andy on Wabasha, downside being it doesn’t get as close to Rice Park, which would make a pedestrian zone more inviting.

  4. Eric Saathoff
    Eric Saathoff June 18, 2019 at 11:03 am #

    Protected bike Lanes through the middle of downtown St Paul on 7th. Just 4-3 it. The space is pretty much ready. Maybe problematic by Excel during an event? Then continue east on E 7th. West 7th gets sharrows thanks tho Dave Thune.

    • Frank Phelan June 18, 2019 at 9:22 pm #

      Xcel: It’a an arena, not a spread sheet.

  5. David June 18, 2019 at 11:12 am #

    As a daily bike commuter to downtown St. Paul, I agree with Bill on every point that he makes in this piece. I even go out of my way to use the CCB because I want to support quality infrastructure. We need more CONNECTED and PROTECTED bike facilities to provide safe options for all cyclist not just spandex warriors.

    The good news is that most of the road space needed for protected facilities can be obtained by removing street PARKING. If the city uses simple low-cost protective barriers (like Seattle) it is also a very cost-effective way to increase mobility. Fortunately, St Paul has a massive surplus of parking downtown, 3 LRT stations, and great transit service so the loss of a few on-street parking spots would not be felt. In addition, the vitality of connected bike facilities would be a boon to downtown businesses and the people who work and live there.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 18, 2019 at 11:23 am #

      I biked over to check out the CCB. I used the Sneaky Trail (https://streets.mn/2016/07/29/the-isla-de-muerta-of-saint-paul-biking/), only to get to the end on the south/west side of downtown and find that there’s is no route across downtown to get to it.

      Thankfully it was a weekend morning so I could take the lane on Kellogg reasonably comfortably, but still. Crazy that there aren’t even just basic painted lanes.

  6. Jeffrey Klein June 18, 2019 at 12:52 pm #

    As far as I can figure, two-way bikeways are only a good design if the street is otherwise a one way, and we should get rid of those anyways.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 18, 2019 at 1:28 pm #

      Well, Wabasha is a one-way… I think for a one-way downtown it works well. Speeds are slow enough that to make it a decent downtown street for people on foot.

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff June 18, 2019 at 2:59 pm #

      The alternative under consideration is St. Peter, which is also one-way. I would not be opposed to one-way pairs. It would be somewhat intuitive since the streets are already designed that way.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell June 22, 2019 at 10:45 am #

      Two-way bikeways are considered excessively dangerous in Europe and only used where there are extremely few motor vehicles ever crossing the bikeway. This is because drivers often only look in one direction – whatever direction the threat from other cars is coming from – so drivers do not look for or see bicycle riders coming from the other direction. This is largely the same for U.S., Dutch, German, French, Norwegian or whatever country drivers come from. Denmark drivers are perhaps the lone exception though they don’t even do two-way.

      I was in Helsinki in February and a local guy showing us around pointed out a two-way bikeway and said “stupid dangerous bikeway that nobody wants to ride on”

      However, in the case of St Paul I’d say that a well protected two-way is better than nothing.

  7. Frank Phelan June 18, 2019 at 9:32 pm #

    In recent years, I’ve commuted by bike through downtown. I also commute by bike to my side hustle at the X, from my posh, lavish East Side villa.

    For getting to the X, or to W. 7th, 5th Street isn’t bad at all. Like Bill, I like the wild west aspect of it. If a bile way were on 7th, it would be a bit longer than 5th.

    And yes, Wabasha would be the preferred route for going north/south.

    Even for the PM commute, downtown Saint Paul isn’t bad. Kellogg gets a bit dicey, but isn’t too bad. Of course, I’m a male in good shape, and that testosterone thing makes me think it’s not a bad deal to trade paint once in a while. YMMV.

    Of course, what we now call 7th Street used to be 8th and 9th streets. The real 7th, now 7th Place, was severed by the Abomination Formerly Known as Town Square, a mistake even more difficult to re mediate than the Lake Street
    K-ma-part. And if this rings a bell, you may be a Certified Old Guy like me.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 19, 2019 at 4:19 pm #

      Can’t argue with anything there!

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff June 26, 2019 at 4:33 pm #

      never too late to put a bikeway through the middle of a building.

  8. Christa Moseng
    Christa Moseng June 28, 2019 at 7:19 am #

    Hopefully I’ll still be able to ride a bike by the time St. Paul gets around to implementing its own plan.

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