The St. Paul City Council recently approved the 9th and 10th Street portions of the Capital City Bikeway (CCB), and those are expected to be installed this summer during the city’s Pavement & Sidewalk Improvement Project. Those opposed to this project have gotten coverage from various local media outlets (Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, WCCO, City Pages). The most vocal criticisms have come from businesses along 10th Street between Robert and Jackson streets. Business owners are concerned primarily about the loss of on-street parking. I frequent several of these businesses, so I was bummed to see their opposition (one was a frequent takeout spot for me during the stay-at-home order).
Parking in downtown St. Paul can be difficult in some spots, but downtown overall has a surplus of parking (and did even before the current pandemic). The surplus is tied to off-street parking lots and ramps, since some aren’t used much outside of regular weekdays before 5 p.m. and for events. On-street parking tends to be the cheapest and most convenient option for short-term trips, which is one reason why those businesses were concerned with the loss of on-street parking spaces. Given the overall surplus of parking, I believe we could create a compromise between cyclists and small-business owners in the area by encouraging more usage of the off-street parking lots and ramps.
Here’s a statement from the opposing business owners: Being in an active downtown also means making sure there are a variety of transportation options for residents and our customers. We support a robust transit system and have watched and supported the planning for future projects and transportation investment. The challenge is making sure all of this work is done in coordination to create the best plan and take fully into account how these projects will impact all stakeholders.
Though I differ with their stance, they have a right to be concerned. This project adds more uncertainty about their future, though the Rossmor building’s survey showed that most of their patrons parked on Robert or 9th Street. Robert Street isn’t losing parking due to the CCB, and 9th Street is not losing parking west of Jackson (where the Rossmor is located). The impacts from the Rush Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) are years away, and I question whether that project will actually get funded (that’s another story). While acknowledging their concerns, I still support the 9th and 10th street bikeways.
Biking Downtown Can Be Dangerous and Uncomfortable
I’ve biked in downtown St. Paul only a few times, mainly because it feels unsafe to do so on most streets. It’s awkward, and leaves many to bike on sidewalks (which technically is illegal) that are often narrow and laden with obstacles such as light poles, signs and benches. Bicyclists are supposed to stay on the street, which angers drivers and puts cyclists at risk of harassment (drivers have honked at me on Wabasha) and injury or death. When I did bike once to Kelly’s Depot (R.I.P.) for lunch from the Capitol area, I enjoyed biking on the Jackson Street bikeway.
Extending the CCB will be a good first step toward a proper west-east bikeway within downtown. The bikeway on 10th Street would make it easier to access Marshall and Summit avenues (despite the odd route through the History Center parking lot). The 9th Street bike lanes will make accessing Lafayette Park easier and safer from downtown.
Downtown Is More Than a Small Town
People often describe St. Paul as having a “small-town” feel, which I admire. I don’t mind that the city feels like a sleepy town and is less busy than Minneapolis, though St. Paul is not a small town (especially downtown). People claim that no one will walk two or three blocks to park, but people often do so without realizing it.
Even small towns have parking issues at times. When I have visited relatives in Hibbing, I have had to park a couple of blocks away from my destination when I’ve gone to downtown. The same goes for White Bear Lake. Even when I park in suburban shopping centers, I often walk a greater distance than I originally expected. At Rosedale and other shopping malls, it’s easy to walk the equivalent of a few downtown blocks or more round trip between your parked car and the stores you visit.
A major difference is that you usually have to pay to park downtown. This is less of a problem now that customers are doing curbside pickup; those traveling by car aren’t occupying parking spaces for long, and likely aren’t paying to do so. The city may need to designate more parking spaces to make curbside pickup more convenient. Curbside pickup isn’t just for drivers, though. If it’s convenient enough to bike to their businesses, people may bike to pick up their food. Since I live downtown, I sometimes walk to pick up food.
For people who do dine-in/shop inside, most parking lots and ramps have discounted rates on nights and weekends (usually $4 to $5 at the surface parking lots) and are less time-restrictive than on-street parking meters (which usually have a two-hour limit until 10 p.m., except on Sundays). The area around 10th Street has multiple parking lots that will likely see reduced demand throughout the year, which might mean even cheaper rates. Many office workers will keep teleworking, and big events have been canceled for the next few months. A few years from now, we might see more parking ramps after the surface parking lots in this area get developed, but for the time being these lots could be available options for inexpensive parking.
Public Rights of Way Downtown Cater to Vehicles
The streets within downtown St. Paul cater to cars, leaving narrow room for sidewalks and bike infrastructure. Jackson Street appears to be an exception, given that two lanes of car traffic per direction were retained even with an off-street bikeway. Whenever we reallocate spaces for walking and biking throughout the city, it usually improves the appearance of the overall area. I prefer driving and walking on Jackson Street now than when it was an excessively wide roadway. Biking on it is very nice, though the specialized signal system for the CCB seems odd (I’d rather be able to rely on the pedestrian signal).
10th Street is fairly wide, but not as wide as Jackson Street, where it was easier to make compromises in the layout. Still, traffic engineers retained on-street parking spots on some blocks by making 10th Street a one-way layout between Cedar and Jackson streets. After years of extensive planning and outreach, I look forward to biking on safer downtown streets later this year.