A friend recently attempted a bit of tactical urbanism to make the North Cedar Lake Trail crossing at W 36th St in Saint Louis Park safer. The popular Cedar Lake Trail is closed and detoured to this section of the North Cedar Lake Trail, trail use has increased quite obviously here. He tweeted about it and how a city employee didn’t seem to appreciate his tiny effort at making the lives of trail users safer.
Before vs After on a major trail route through @stlouispark. Almost immediately, before the last cone was even dropped, a city employee stopped to interrogate me. While calm and respectful, he clearly did not understand what was going on and saw it as a problem. pic.twitter.com/USu1Mh3jp9
— Brandon Lust (@Brandon_Lust) July 11, 2019
I biked to the streets.mn picnic at Boom Island which took me through this crossing right after reading his tweet so the unfortunate geometry, and unsafe distances and curves. It’s been like this for so many years I guess so many of us just accept how long we have had dangerous crossings, how hard it is in North America to get trail intersections to get equal considerations with street intersections.
Having been born in Saint Louis Park and lived in the Saint Louis Park and Hopkins area for nearly 40 years has meant seeing a lot of changes. Changes like the creation of Belt Line Boulevard, removing stoplights on TH 100, extending Louisiana Avenue south to Excelsior Blvd, and extending County Road 18 (now called US 169) to sever Mainstreet Hopkins from Excelsior Boulevard. But also the Rails to Trail projects that created the Cedar Lake Trail and North Cedar Lake Trail.
These Cedar Lake Trail crossings in Saint Louis Park and Hopkins have been dangerous and a source of controversy among cyclists. In four locations the Cedar Lake Trail crosses four- or five-lane roads at Belt Line Boulevard and Wooddale Avenue in Saint Louis Park, and Blake Road and 11th Avenue in Hopkins. Wooddale has since been reconfigured to a 2 lane road. With the SWLRT construction, the parallel Cedar Lake Trail will be reconstructed to go under Blake Road and Wooddale Avenue and go over Belt Line Boulevard. Grade separation will increase safety and speeds for drivers and people using the trail.
North Cedar Lake Trail has not had the quantity of dangerous crossing as the Cedar Lake Trail. But there are two that create anxiety and safety challenges to drivers and people using the trail. The North Cedar Lake Trail crossing at Virginia Avenue, and the North Cedar Lake Trail crossing at W36th Street. I’m going to stick with the crossing at W 36th Street.
First Some History
To know why the W 36th Street crossing is like it is today we need to go back at least to when Hennepin County created the freeway-style County Road 18. When County Road 18 was extended south to the western side of Saint Louis Park in the late ’60s early ’70s, it was connected to the then-thriving Knollwood shopping center where commuters would also be able to access the bustling industrial jobs along Blake Road and the rail corridor through Hopkins.
Here is an aerial image from about 1968 showing the freeway-style County Road 18 being built to connect to Knollwood and Blake Road.
Connecting the freeway-style County Road 18 to Knollwood, Target, and Blake Road brought with it wide roads and widening of existing roads. By 1971 the area where the North Cedar Lake Trail would come in decades later would look like this.
By the early 1980s, County Road 18 would be extended south to connect to MN 62, where homes were cleared in Hopkins and Mainstreet was severed from Excelsior Blvd. But the wide four lane configuration of W 36th was left behind for us today.
Knollwood entered a period of decline when Ridgedale and Eden Prairie Center were constructed giving people living further west shopping options closer to where they lived. The traffic amount for the streets affecting the trail crossing have plummeted far below 8,000 AADT. We see in 2018 W 36th carried 7,500 vehicles west of Aquila and 6,700 vehicles east of Aquila. We see Aquila carried only 6,200 vehicles for its four lanes of traffic.
7,500 in 2018 is a recent high point, in 2005–2007 W 36th was down around 6,100 vehicle per day. But it has been remarkably low traffic for so long. A city that put a higher value on bike safety and bike networks across the city would have done something with this excess road space.
I forget when it happened, but the city did repaint W 36th to the west of the trail crossing to remove a lane for vehicles and stripe in a bike lane. The result was a single lane for motor vehicles that is ridiculously wide leading to the obvious result of speeding drivers. Worse, because W 36th curves it means people using the trail who are trying to cross do not have sufficient visibility for oncoming traffic to try to cross effectively four lanes of pavement. Here are some Google Streetview screenshots to give you a sense of the trail crossing and the views users will have.
Then, like a bolt of lightning that no one was prepared for, out of the blue with no warning, the Green Line Extension construction started, closing the Cedar Lake Trail and detouring all trail use to this stretch of North Cedar Lake Trail. A light rail line coming out this way was so sudden that … you get the sarcasm.
Maybe there is an aversion to changing streets and roads until they need full reconstruction. Whatever the reason is we end up with infrastructure problems that last 40-50 years until we can completely rebuild the perfect replacement. Sometimes it means we don’t even try cheap temporary efforts like repainting or putting out traffic cones for a weekend.
I don’t think there is any case for keeping this stretch of W 36th Street and Aquila Avenue as far as W 37th Street as four lanes. W 37th is the main access to Target Knollwood.
I think there is a case for removing a lane in each direction and reusing that space for bike lanes.
- Bike lanes here would fill in a necessary gap in the bike lanes on W 36th.
- Bike lanes here on W 36th would link Knollwood to the regional bike trail.
- More apartments are under construction down Philips Parkway, adding trail users.
- An Aldi is under construction next to Target, bike lanes on W 36th would create a short safe connection from the affordable apartments by the school 4 blocks to the north and the shopping at Target and Aldi.
- Buffered bike lanes on W 36th Street will effectively narrow the trail crossing making any crossing by trail users safer because they will have better visibility to oncoming traffic and it will be much shorter to cross.
- Filling this bike lane gap goes a very long way to creating a superior Cedar Lake Trail detour than Minnetonka Blvd!
So I went and spent an evening doing some amateur sketching how we could just use paint and reconfigure W 36th Street for a safer North Cedar Lake Trail crossing and fill in the bike lane gap on W 36th.
If I wanted to expand the just-paint-it concept to make better use of Aquila Avenue I’d make the southeast bound lane on Aquila into a two-way bike lake as far as W 37th Street. It would take a bit more engineering to complete a bike connection to the new Blake Road multi use trails. But 6,200 vehicles on Aquila Avenue is far below needing 4 lanes anymore.
Just paint. Let’s test it.
We have a multi-year major trail detour right now. How long will trail users have to wait for process to happen to make them safe?
We can start with paint. There are other next steps we can add when we decide it is worth making it more established, like planters in the buffer or bolting in parking curbs.