Safety and the Power of Public Works

Sometimes I bike commute to work. It’s a 10 mile ride. Part of it on the greenway, which is like a dream (when it is open).

But the bulk of my ride is on the streets of St. Paul. I’m not really up for that five days a week; I just don’t need my safety threatened that often. (I ride with cameras now because of other safety compromises that the City of St. Paul has made.)

On my ride this year, I have been experiencing a golden example of how St. Paul’s Public Works department has the power to create or destroy my feeling of safety on the city’s streets all on their own. It’s right there for everyone to see. And every time I see it, it frustrates me again.

So here’s a video of the segment of the trip I’m talking about:

This is Mississippi River Boulevard just south of Marshall, as it curves east to eventually meet with Cretin.

As the video plays, you can see that the bike lane has been repainted, and you can see the old paint lines. Let me highlight for you what happened this year.

River Road Curve 1

see the old paint peek out?

As this car approaches, I am heading into the curve. The curve is fairly narrow, and the car has to be going well below the speed limit to make a safe turn with me there. In the above image you can start to see where the new coat of paint has ceded more of the road to the automobile and less to me.

Keep watching that line.

River Road Curve 2


The car is just out of the frame of this next still, but look how much narrower my lane has gotten! The paint has shoved me well into the gutter, when in previous years that wasn’t necessary. Here, let me make it really clear:

River Road Curve 3

don’t need to be a calculus expert to understand this math

Where did my share of the road surface go!? The distance from the old paint line to the new paint line is exactly how much more unsafe this curve makes me feel when I ride on it. That car wants to crawl up my butt, and St. Paul Public Works seems to be giving them the green light with this paint job. The wider lane for drivers encourages them to take the curve at a higher speed, exactly as I am crammed into a crumbling, uneven seam between the asphalt and curb. Also, notice: this driver is able to safely take the curve outside of the OLD paint line.

Now I know, this was almost certainly not a deliberate or malicious choice on the part of whoever painted the road this year. But it is negligent, and from this road user’s perspective, inexcusable. They had the old line staring them in the face to work off of! It’s very tangible reminder of a culture that doesn’t adequately consider the safety and comfort of cyclists, even when maintaining the facilities specifically intended for their use. And based on my experience on many other streets in St. Paul, this is demonstrated over and over again in ways large and small.

I didn’t get flattened by the driver that day, but they were uncomfortably close, as I was uncomfortably close to being pinned into the gutter and falling into the car’s path. My safety was diminished for no apparent reason besides—if I’m being charitable—sloppiness. That driver took the curve at a responsible speed and distance. The next one might not.

My point is that the people that go out to maintain the roads every year aren’t just guided by policy that the City Council votes on; they are delegated substantial independent responsibility to make decisions and choices that don’t rise to the level of getting addressed by elected officials. They have the power to make all sorts of places in the city more or less safe for sustainable transportation with their implementation decisions. And at least in this one place, this year, my commute is less safe because of one of those decisions.

Christa M

About Christa M

Attorney. I do law stuff, ride bikes, and paint murals. Member of Hourcar & Nice Ride, and customer of Freewheel Bike and The Hub Bike Co-op.

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8 thoughts on “Safety and the Power of Public Works

  1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    Wow, that’s horrible. The repainting around town has been horrible this year. Public Works didn’t put out signage to restrict parking so Summit’s lanes are sporadic bcs they wouldn’t paint near parked cars. They haven’t come back and filled in the gaps either. Also, this is now the 2nd year gone after buffered lanes were discussed for Summit and they just keep repainting the status quo.

    Thank you for sharing though. We need to point this out and hold SPPW accountable.

    1. Christa MChrista Moseng Post author

      Seconded on Summit. There are parts of the ostensible bike lane now that are like… one line. That’s not a lane, that’s… I don’t know what.

      They’re not trying very hard at all, and it shows.

  2. scott

    The street painting in St. Paul is horrible. The lines are frequently wavy and uneven and the paint they use has very low reflectivity and lasts about 6 months max before it is completely worn away in any area that sees traffic. As mentioned above, no parking signs aren’t placed before a scheduled repaint which leaves gaps in the striping anywhere where a vehicle was parked. Even with newly constructed streets, I’m not sure they put signs out. There was a milll and overlay project on a street near me recently that added bike lanes. There are these little 20’ gaps along the entire length of the project where a vehicle was parked when they decided to stripe the road. If signs were placed before painting, whatever vehicles were parked there needed to be towed so the job could be completed.

  3. Pete Barrett

    There are streets in Saint Paul where the pavement near the curb is badly deteriorated relative to the main road. For example, the expansion joints on concrete roads can be pock marked, and when potholes are patched, these areas get skipped. Or if they do get patched, they are often over-filled, so it makes for a bump.

    I have become more comfortable “taking the lane”, but having a decent road from curb to curb is still desirable.

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Do St Paul crews have that much autonomy? The paint crews I’ve talked with were all working from spec’d engineering drawings for exactly how the lines should be painted and several were GPS based so the crew had zero control over where the lines were.

    Measuring on Google Maps it looks like the vehicle lanes are already under 10′ which is narrow by U.S. standards (I think Dutch and many other EU countries would be either 9′ (2.75m) or 8.2′ (2.5m) for a road like this.

    There is a separated bikeway along there, why not use it?

    1. Ben

      Pretty sure that separate bike path is one-way going to opposite direction and shared with pedestrians. So the road is the path for bikes going the direction the author is heading.

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