A Minor Miracle in St. Paul

I have been known to harshly criticize St. Paul for its consistent—one could say unconscious, institutional—prioritization of car speed and convenience over the safety and comfort of people traveling sustainably.

But this past fall St. Paul did something incredible, illuminating how different things could be with nothing more than a change in mindset.

Detour route

A two block detour onto Grand via Syndicate and Dunlap, or a new paradigm for sustainable transportation infrastructure improvement?

In October, St. Paul implemented what I believe to be the city’s most luxurious on-street separated bike infrastructure on a two block stretch of Grand Avenue, seemingly overnight. It did it without years of public sentiment testing about the exact alignment, implementation, or color of the pavement; handwringing about car convenience; or the seemingly inevitable scaling back based on unfounded fears from loud voices.

This bike infrastructure virtually has it all: parking protected AND buffered, clear signage for bikeway connections (such as they are: back to Summit once the detour ends), and maybe most importantly, a sense while riding on it that the City actually cares about your comfort and well-being as a road user. It installed it with a minimum of inconvenience to automobile traffic, and even maintained Grand’s publicly-subsidized street parking. St. Paul seems to have accomplished the impossible.

Bikeway image

An image of the new, hopefully permanent and soon to be improved and extended, Grand Avenue Bikeway

With this detour, St. Paul has inadvertently demonstrated that Grand Ave. can support this bike infrastructure. Instead of this bikeway disappearing when the construction on Summit ends, the City should be planning to give more of Grand Avenue this treatment. This bikeway is a proof of concept, and there is no evidence the concept should be abandoned.

Certainly there are ways it can be improved from the perspective of a variety of road users. For example, Kowalski’s shouldn’t have two curb cuts on Grand—its vehicle entrance and exits should be routed to and from Syndicate. And the physical separation between car lanes and bike lanes could be upgraded (anecdotally it seems St. Paul has decided not even to replace bollards destroyed by cars—a re-emergence of the malign neglect cycling road users are more accustomed to from the City).

But in implementing this detour, St. Paul demonstrated a different model for transportation infrastructure reprioritization that our cities need to meet their climate goals and to promote and prioritize sustainable transportation choices. Implement and iterate; don’t let what should be policy-driven engineering choices instead be driven by speculation and reflexive public clamor arising from dependency on the status quo. Actually prioritize cyclist safety and comfort, rather than just paint a stripe and call it infrastructure.

This bikeway, and the method of its implementation, are both ideas that should be improved on and more fully realized, not erased and forgotten in favor of a self-fulfilling story of history that Grand Avenue and other St. Paul roadways can’t accommodate quality bike infrastructure. Either you make a policy decision to escape the car-dependent status quo and you resolve to find a meaningful path away from it by not being perpetually dragged back to it by the comfort of familiarity, or you effectively have a pro-status-quo policy with feel-good aspirations.

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28 Responses to A Minor Miracle in St. Paul

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 24, 2020 at 1:03 pm #

    This design, maybe tweaked a bit, would be a solid improvement for all of Grand Avenue. It would decrease car speeds, make it easier to cross the street (if you did it right), make it a great bike corridor (unlike Summit), and if you add metered parking (as common sense and climate change demand), would not greatly impact convenience for shoppers/visitors to the street.

    • Nicole Salica
      Nicole Salica January 24, 2020 at 1:15 pm #

      [extremely That Streets Dot MN Poster Voice] ahem it would improve convenience greatly for this shopper slash visitor who bikes, Bill

      • Jenny Werness
        Jenny Werness January 24, 2020 at 2:01 pm #

        and has already greatly improved the convenience of my trips to Grand by bike! I would love being able to get to more places along Grand safely.

    • Tim January 25, 2020 at 11:58 am #

      How about those that live in Apartments on Grand? Where are they going to park? Should they have to pay the metered parking rates? I don’t think so.

      • Nicole Salica
        Nicole Salica January 25, 2020 at 12:29 pm #

        car storage is not a human right. pay for it just like any other luxury.

        • Bill January 25, 2020 at 2:33 pm #

          How are bicyclists paying for this? There should be a toll to ride on these lanes and bicycle license fees.

          • Pete Barrett January 25, 2020 at 9:41 pm #

            Cyclists pay property taxes, which is how we fund local streets.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke January 27, 2020 at 9:26 am #

        Yes.

  2. Jenny Werness
    Jenny Werness January 24, 2020 at 1:58 pm #

    I bike this several times a week, and am grateful that I don’t have to cross Grand to get back to Summit.

    Thanks for writing this post – I am so glad the city created this detour for people bicycling.

    My wish list would include better protection (drivers keep running over the bollards, as you noted), and that they had kept the actual closure for car drivers at Syndicate/Summit (it was blocked with construction signs for a while, only letting bikes through). Currently drivers disobey their detour signs and end up on the bike detour route.

    For anyone who’s planning to visit this lovely bike infrastructure this weekend, it was a bit rough today – hasn’t been cleared of the last couple inches of snow. But I sent a request to the city, so hopefully they’ll get it cleared!

  3. Pat Thompson
    Pat Thompson January 24, 2020 at 3:07 pm #

    “Implement and iterate; don’t let what should be policy-driven engineering choices instead be driven by speculation and reflexive public clamor arising from dependency on the status quo.”

    This for so many changes we need to infrastructure.

  4. Keith Morris January 24, 2020 at 3:21 pm #

    I’m not crazy about riding long distances on Grand, but if this were along the entire stretch I would bike on that street a lot more when I’m in the area. However, I doubt the city of St Paul will do it. Maybe have Minneapolis take a look at this as something we could implement on a major business district like Lyndale or even our own Grand Ave which is peppered with businesses.

  5. Lee January 25, 2020 at 8:43 am #

    I’ve lived in this area for fifteen years. It’s only great for bikers. I have already seen numerous cars nearly get into accidents because they think the bike lane is a pull over parking space and realize the car in front of them they are about to collide into is a parked car. I also see them turn more of a blind eye to pedestrians who are crossing from the bike lane side. The same thing with cars coming in and out of Kowalski’s – people are nearly hitting each other and are terribly confused about their left hand turn lane on syndicate/right have your lane into K’s being taken away and the only thing stopping them from using the bike lane accidentally anymore are the cones that they had put up. It’s been awful to watch how it impacts the traffic area by Kowalski’s and The Wedding Shoppe (which is also a terribly congested area). We don’t need something like this on all of Grand because we don’t need it to turn into uptown. We also already have a Summit.

    What the city should have put in and what we have needed is a stoplight on Grand and Syndicate. That would actually slow traffic down. The best we have ever gotten is a cross walk for pedestrians that most people (bikers included) ignore. I walk to Kowalski”s several times a day and all it has done is cause more chaos and added to an area that has already become crowded.

    Oh, and as a biker I also dislike it. I like the Summit layout much more.

    • Christa Moseng
      Christa Moseng January 25, 2020 at 9:28 am #

      Respectfully, Lee, uptown doesn’t have a lot of dedicated bike infrastructure, so your fear of turning into uptown is a non sequitur.

      Cars behaving badly isn’t a reason not to make more safe, separated bike infrastructure. It’s a reason for motorists to be more careful and slow down. And if you had read what I wrote, I suggested moving the car entry and egress off Grand, which would address many of your concerns.

      In general, the cars on Grand need to slow down. That will benefit pedestrians crossing at syndicate. An elevated crosswalk would also help. You know pedestrian infrastructure, not car infrastructure.

      Waiting at a light to cross Syndicate would be a step backwards for pedestrians. Slow cars in a way that improves the pedestrian experience, not in a way that gives them priority most of the time.

  6. Kyle Constalie January 25, 2020 at 9:19 am #

    What a smartly written perspective! Thanks for the great write-up. Here’s to safe and happy biking out there!

  7. Grant January 25, 2020 at 10:29 am #

    The biggest problem with this temporary detour for the Summit Ave bridge is the removal of the center turn lane. For anyone that has to travel Grand Ave during rush and lunch hours they have to be prepared for a possible long wait sitting behind a long line of cars waiting for one to turn off Grand Ave to a side street. I will be happy when the summit construction is complete and they put the center turn lane back in this stretch. I agree that too many drivers don’t pay attention to cross walks; there have been a number of times a car almost hits me from behind when I stop for pedestrians.

    • Christa Moseng
      Christa Moseng January 25, 2020 at 12:32 pm #

      This is a good insight. Which would you say you would prefer to have removed for safe, quality bike infrastructure on Grand: the center turn lane or one parking lane?

  8. Micah Davison January 25, 2020 at 10:33 am #

    I’m a fairly new resident of the Twin Cities, but it’s become clear in short order that bicycle infrastructure in St. Paul lags behind that of its neighbor to the west, both in the actual presence of safe bike lanes and in their maintenance. Minneapolis still has lots of room for improvement, but the lanes in St. Paul are sparser, chintzier, more ridden with potholes and, in the winter, more likely to be impassable due to failure to plow (or, more comically, due to plowed snow actually being deposited onto them).

    I mention this on your post about a separated bike lane because I wonder if the City of St. Paul recognizes – correctly – that while it may be fairly low-cost to roll out separated bike lanes with plastic bollards, once you do that, you’re committing to actually plowing the bike lane in the winter, which usually means a separate pass with a Bobcat-sized plow. Theoretically, they could opt to not plow it, as they currently seem to do with the striped shoulders, but I would think having your dedicated bike lane turn into a snowbank each winter while the main roadbed remains passable would be such an embarrassing look for the city that they won’t install dedicated lanes until they know they have the budget to plow them semi-regularly.

  9. oneTOU3 January 25, 2020 at 12:20 pm #

    Wow, imagine having to wait for all those cars taking a left. And the few that bikes during the winter months so it gonna sit idle and special plows to plow it. A great way to ruin Grand Avenue.

    • Christa Moseng
      Christa Moseng January 25, 2020 at 12:33 pm #

      So if you had to choose between the center turn lane and one parking lane, which would you say is more important for “not ruining” Grand?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 27, 2020 at 9:27 am #

      Grand Avenue should be for accessing businesses, not for getting quickly east and west thorugh the city. A street where people drive slowly and carefully and it’s simple to cross the street on foot is one that works great for businesses.

      If you want to see how this would work in practice, go a few blocks north to Selby Avenue, where businesses and restaurants are thriving despite the lack of a center turn lane.

  10. Paul Nelson January 26, 2020 at 1:07 pm #

    Interestingly, this location on Grand has two traffic lanes for cars and two parking lanes on each side with a two lane bicycle roadway and the buffered space. I do not know how much of that width of space is the same on most of the length of Grand Avenue.

    • Paul Nelson January 26, 2020 at 1:21 pm #

      So, OK do we really need a large left hand turn lane in the middle of the street on Grand? Perhaps not. This bike space serves as a very good test for many reasons.

  11. William Moyers January 26, 2020 at 6:19 pm #

    I like to bike. In the warm-weather months. Why in the world did the city install this bike lane along Grand Avenue on the eve of another long winter? When all but the most hardy bikers have stored theirs for the season. And on that note, has anyone witnessed what is now required to plow this all-but-unused stretch of pavement? A small pick-up truck with a plow on front that drives in the opposite direction of traffic. Plus an army of city workers armed with shovels to move the snow that is pushed between the rubber/plastic poles and cannot be reached by the smaller truck. I find it ironic that the city invested so much time, energy and taxpayer money on this project, At at time when the city seems utterly disinterested in addressing the horrific condition of our streets this winter. Lastly, perhaps this experiment in overkill is justified (I doubt it). But the aesthetics of it are pretty ugly too.

    • Mike Sonn
      Mike Sonn January 27, 2020 at 6:34 am #

      The timing of this detour aligned with the timing of the bridge project, as every detour tends to do.

    • Mike Bishop January 27, 2020 at 8:03 am #

      William, be realistic. The winter maintenance costs are less with this change.

      It was poorly plowed before since it was parking (not all people move their personal property). The parking has shifted inward (no loss of parking). A single pass from a truck plow will now significantly remove the snow (no cars packing it down).

      Also… No city official removes snow from between the bollards. It becomes a place to put that snow and I personally welcome it. The bike lane becomes protected with the snow.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller January 27, 2020 at 10:44 am #

      The primary reason I don’t bike in the winter (and I do, when possible) is that there is no space to bike in. Either snow or cars, or both, have taken over the bike spaces. The casual bike spaces – the basic, non-protected bike lanes and shoulder space.

      Quality, protected bike spaces like this one are where you can bike in the winter. We need more of them, especially in winter, not less.

  12. Christa Moseng
    Christa Moseng January 26, 2020 at 6:54 pm #

    I suppose if you don’t think cyclists should have a safe detour while the city’s premiere east-west bike route is impassible, the aesthetics and logistics of safe bike infrastructure are always going to seem frivolous.

    But as always, separated bike infrastructure means those bikes aren’t riding with the flow of traffic, which no doubt you would also criticize.

    The city did the safe and responsible thing, whether or not everyone fully appreciates it.

    But I agree about one thing: the city should also do a better job clearing on other streets. Specifically: Summit, by forcing people to move their parked cars so the street can be cleared to the curb.

  13. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker January 27, 2020 at 10:59 am #

    I dream someday of a Summit Avenue bike lane protected by curbed BMPs.

    I also dream someday of a Grand Avenue where it is safe to bicycle and walk to shops. When I went to Macalester, I rarely shopped on Grand east of Snelling because it wasn’t safe or convenient or safe if you didn’t own a car.

    Hopefully that “someday” will be soon. With enough political courage, it can happen. Start by extending this detour bikeway west (where there are few businesses to complain) all the way to Mac. Then extend it to UST (there aren’t many businesses on the north side of the street anyway). Then once that is done, you’ll be ready to make the case for the street east of AMR.

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