A Street Not for People

Like many transit riders, I have been riding much less since the pandemic, mostly because I have been sticking closer to my home and neighborhood. (Though note: there is starting to be evidence that transit-riding is not a big contributor to COVID-19 rates.) That decrease is a personal sadness because of the lost human connections I make while riding, and a societal danger because of the possible long-term consequences for Metro Transit and therefore our area’s commitment to climate-change mitigation.

But all that aside, I recently needed to take the bus and make a connection at University and Raymond near Saint Paul’s western border. Stop 15799 to be specific, on the south side of University where you can transfer between the Green Line and four different bus routes going eastbound. It’s a highly used stop, in my experience.

This was the first time I’ve been at that stop since the pandemic and the first thing I noticed was that there was no longer a bench anywhere in sight.

It being a Sunday, I had a 15-minute wait for my connection, so I sighed a bit and wandered around to look at the inhuman University Avenue streetscape.

This stop is adjacent to the patio of Caffe Biaggio, an Italian restaurant. Their patio fronts right on the University Avenue sidewalk, with a black metal fence to separate it, but the owners have also felt the need to screen the fence with a double layer of white lattice to make it extra opaque.

Patio at Caffe Biaggio, black chairs and tables, double layer of white lattice covering metal fence to hide the adjacent bus stop from view. Wooden billboard legs in the midst of tables.
Because it was Sunday, the restaurant wasn’t open. | Photo: Author

I don’t think the white lattice prevents the diners from hearing the 100 heavy trucks that go past each hour during weekday lunch times, however (yes, I’ve counted them). It also doesn’t prevent diners from having to look at the billboard erected right in the middle of the patio area. I assume that’s owned by the building’s owners, since it promotes another one of the building’s tenants, a self-storage operation. Maybe they could grow some vines up the legs.

The building where the restaurant is located, which is known as the Specialty Building, is part of the University and Raymond Commercial Historic District. It’s three stories, made of brick, with a lot of interesting architectural features, including lots of windows, a curved corner at Raymond, and two stoops that protrude into the sidewalk.

The Specialty Building on University Ave. in Saint Paul, early 20th century brick commercial 3 story building with many windows, arched doorway, shallow brick stoop, Colonial lintel over arch.
This stoop, while an interesting element, narrows the usable sidewalk area and interferes with safe pedestrian access along the street, especially in winter, when snow is piled on the pavers at right. | Photo: Author

Unfortunately, neither stoop has a door that allows public access to the building: every door that faces University Avenue is locked or leads only to a single business. For building access, you have to go to the parking lot in back. Even the restaurant, which has a prominent door right on University, is accessed from around the corner in the parking lot.

After I finished contemplating all of this, I returned to the bus stop. While I had been gone for about five minutes, a man had arrived there. With a strong accent, he asked me when the 87 bus was due. I realized at that point that there were no longer any schedules posted on the bus shelter—I assume because the schedules have been in upheaval over the past six months.

I told him that it would be close to a half hour, because I had just gotten off the 87 bus, and that was only about 5 minutes ago. He didn’t seem to understand my complicated logic, though, so I used my phone to look up the schedule and told him the exact time.

Then, over the constant traffic noise that made it hard to hear since we were standing six feet apart, he told me more about his life. He said he’s 70 and he needs a place to sit down while he waits. He bemoaned the lost bench. He’s an immigrant from Ethiopia who’s been here for five years. He wants to become a citizen. Sometimes he catches one of the other buses that comes first for a few stops just to have a seat, then gets off at a stop before that bus turns so he can still catch the 87.

After close to 10 minutes, he got on a 67 bus to get a seat for a little while as it made its way down the street and I got on the 63 I was waiting for.

The next day I sent a message to Metro Transit asking about the missing bench at that bus shelter. I know they’re under tremendous strain during the pandemic, from many directions, but this little glimpse shows how much the loss of infrastructure and information at the bus stops right now affects the most vulnerable users: immigrants, the elderly, people without smart phones.

The answer I received a day later from Metro Transit Customer Relations was that there had been complaints of anti-social behavior and criminal gatherings at the shelter, so the bench was removed to mitigate that activity, and that the situation would be reviewed to see if it could be brought back.

I don’t know if such incidents have been more common since the pandemic, with its decrease in bus frequency and ridership, but it stands to reason that they are related. The general abandonment of the University Avenue streetscape to loud, fast-moving traffic (which existed long before the pandemic) doesn’t help, since it discourages people from using the street as a public place for all of us just to be together.

All of the places that could be public or public-private parklets are fenced off so only people from the adjacent building can use them (as at the Carleton Lofts) or no one at all can use them (as at the Post Office).

South St. Anthony Park post office, brick building with green lawn, enclosed by a black metal fence.
The fenced-off lawn area adjacent to the South St. Anthony Park post office. As far as I know, it’s used only by the person who mows the grass or raises and lowers the flag on the pole. | Photo: Author
Carleton Lofts, brick apartment building with green lawn and some trees next door, enclosed by a black chain-link fence.
The fenced-off lawn between two of the Carleton Lofts buildings. Both of these lawn areas are right next to the Raymond Avenue Green Line station. | Photo: Author

Obviously, this post is not only about a missing bus stop bench or a restaurant trying to have a pleasant place for a patio, despite the adjacent street conditions. It’s about the larger problem of the unintended, but also unrecognized and uncared-about victims of our motorized vehicle culture. The high-volume street, University Avenue, is the primary problem, creating a place where almost no one wants to spend time, and leading to a downward spiral of locked doors, gates, and policed spaces.

We need to do better.  

Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the streets.mn Climate Committee.