St. Paul made tremendous strides in connecting and constructing bike infrastructure this year. The Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition recently released its updated 2021 bike map, highlighting the extensive network.
And it is impressive. My Strava feed, in a year that saw my highest mileage total in a single calendar year ever, has a lot of route maps that follow the broad outlines of the overall dark green “flow” of the map that circumnavigates large portion of St. Paul and provides for pleasant, meandering rides around the city.
There is, however, a corner of St. Paul that I studiously avoid on my rides. It’s the corner where I live, and when I depart on my rides, I take the shortest and quickest route out, which often involves at least one sidewalk and a cut through a liquor store parking lot.
With all sincere appreciation and respect for St. Paul’s extensive and growing bicycle network, a network that has provided me with thousands of miles of enjoyable cycling, arguably what makes a town bike-friendly is the ability to conduct daily life by bike, from mundane and routine tasks to recreation and entertainment. The meandering and lovely trails have provided a cycling experience not dissimilar to low-traffic county roads in rural Kansas or Oklahoma. In fact, the trail system often provides the safest way to egress St. Paul to the suburbs for a safer cycling experience. That’s because within parts of St. Paul, off the trails, drivers and cars have been given priority, and few parts of St. Paul have given the car the place of preeminence like Highland has. In fact, studying the SPBC map for potential new routes, I was stunned to see a route running through Highland Village, or as I refer to it, the Great Strip Mall.
The map appears to show a viable bike route between the end of the bike lanes on Ford Parkway near Howell, and the Ford Parkway Bridge. In fact, no cyclist should ever ride that stretch of Ford Parkway. I made the mistake of doing so – once – an experience involving multiple lanes of speeding cars, all with drivers honking and even attempting to force me off the road. To be fair to St. Paul, no cyclist should ride the corresponding 46th Street on the Minneapolis side of the bridge either; the bridge itself is only useful to cyclists because of the separated sidewalk that connects to the river path. This map, however, would lead an unfamiliar cyclist to believe that there is a viable route here after the bike lane ends. There is not. Cyclists should exit Ford Parkway immediately and utilize side-streets, alleys, or even sidewalks to reach the bridge. Staying on Ford Parkway is asking for death.
Cleveland Avenue where it enters the Great Strip Mall isn’t much better. This is the realm of drivers and cars, to the extent that I won’t even cross some of the controlled intersections on foot with my children after multiple incidents involving drivers attempting to muscle us out of the way. Even going to the grocery store by bike involves vehicle activated signals, the use of sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure, and navigating the spacious parking lots which are the central feature of any strip mall. (By the way, parking lots like these are the most dangerous places for cyclists and pedestrians because drivers in them behave unpredictably, and often with an added quotient of aggression as they search for their goal of Close Parking. The most egregious incident this past year was when a driver physically contacted my bike with her vehicle in an attempt to force me to move while yelling about right-of-way.) My aversion to the Great Strip Mall has reached the point where I prefer to ride further, into other areas of the city.
The SPBC map would provide a real service for cyclists if, instead of displaying a viable route, it marked active hazards like this:
In fact, if the SPBC bike map showed hazards to cyclists as well as safe and preferred routes, Highland as a whole would look more like this:
Any honest look at cycling in Highland needs to acknowledge that no cyclist should ever ride on West Seventh Street or on Sheppard Road if they value their lives, something I once pointed out on a group ride to a Minneapolis ride leader who tried to take us on Sheppard in the early morning (my comment was, “Oh my god, we’re all going to die. Please get on the path!”) Furthermore, the path next to Sheppard has very few crossings, and in many locations is inaccessible from the apartments on the opposite side, and conversely provides limited access for cyclists to exit the path for access to streets…not that a cyclist would want to brave most of those crossings for any reason. Highland Parkway, despite its designation on the map, is also risky. The attractive center median has narrowed lanes and slowed drivers – a positive thing – but also angered those same drivers. The long blocks give them room to accelerate, and they never hesitate to make a close high-speed pass while squeezing a cyclist between them and the cars parked on the right. Nearly the entire length of Randolph Avenue is exceptionally risky, and Snelling Avenue is, without question, a no-go for cyclists. St. Paul Avenue and Edgcumbe Road to the south are also inadvisable for cycling, as they function as a single, continuous, multi-lane highway feeder for the Great Strip Mall and for the drivers who live near the river. Cretin Avenue is also hazardous, a highway feeder for driving residents to I-94, as well as vehicle feed from the north for the Great Strip Mall. Finally, Hamline Avenue north of Edgcumbe is less than ideal.
A bike map of Highland displaying red danger zones and barriers as well as viable routes also displays a part of St. Paul that cyclists are better off avoiding. All the primary roads have been built for cars to the point where they are dangerous, and those roads completely segregate the landscape. Furthermore, the spaces and streets between have enough discontinuities to make bike navigation challenging for the unfamiliar, and frustrating even for someone who possesses “the knowledge”.
It is no coincidence that the annual “Tour de Highland” leaves Highland by the most direct route. Highland, most notably its businesses, is not only inaccessible, but insurance underwriters are reluctant to cover the event if it stays in Highland. A cycling friendly community, as previously mentioned, is one that facilitates daily life and commerce by bicycle. Adding the primary retail and dining real estate in Highland to the map, it is obvious that the area is built around the primacy of car access to these spots. From the western edge of Highland, the safest trip to Trader Joe’s on the neighborhood’s eastern edge by bike involves a detour into Macalester-Groveland, or a circuitous southerly route, but never, ever straight through with the priority granted to drivers. And, no matter which route is taken, there is the dangerous final segment that prioritizes car access. Drivers in Highland never have to make these kinds of choices.
This is a situation that is likely to be exacerbated in Highland with the upcoming Highland Bridge development. While it is marketed as being walkable and bikeable, the map raises the question of how pedestrians and cyclists will safely reach it. The design priorities of the Great Strip Mall are what have made the area so dangerous, and the City of St. Paul, along with the developer, Ryan Companies (Ryan Co.), have similarly prioritized retail parking in Highland Bridge, which makes it unlikely that the streets nearby will be made less car-centric in the years to come. Ryan Co. even stated that without priority given to retail parking, they would have to abandon the project because it wouldn’t be financially feasible. The point of addressing the Highland Bridge development in the context of Highland’s car-centrism isn’t an effort to (yet again) keep arguing over the site design, but rather to say that it is safe to assume that Ryan Co. has done due diligence in studying the commercial patterns of this part of St. Paul, and they know the truth about it, no matter who might claim otherwise: St. Paul, or at least this part of it, is a car town. Everything else is secondary. Highland, with its central location and as the home to what will be a retail and residential “destination”, will continue to exert a car-centric gravity over the priorities of city planning that are likely to be felt even beyond its borders, and Highland will likely remain the empty hole in my Strava route maps.