Saint Paul’s Charles Avenue Bikeway and the Unfinished Promise of Bicycle Boulevards

Editor’s note: during the week of January 31st – February 6th, the author conducted interviews with residents and stakeholders for the Charles Avenue Bikeway in St. Paul. All quotes in this article are from those interviews, unless otherwise noted.

Ten years ago, the Friendly Streets Initiative began organizing neighbors along Saint Paul’s Charles Avenue, which runs two blocks north of University Avenue through the Hamline-Midway and Frogtown neighborhoods. Hosting a series of block parties, they asked residents how Charles could be made a safer and better street to live on.

Lars Christiansen, director of Urban Studies at Augsburg College and one of the founders of the Friendly Streets Initiative, said the goal of the block parties was to create a festive atmosphere, complete with food, art, and entertainment; “a party atmosphere married to a potential question.” The goal was “helping people to rethink streets, to rethink what political discourse is supposed to look like and sound like…It’s impossible to maintain an affect of anger in the context of a block party.”

At the time, construction of the Central Light Rail Corridor was around the corner and the Midway was entering its greatest period of change since the construction of Interstate 94. Residents attending the block parties reported their top concerns were “automobiles driv[ing] too fast down the street,” and “expecting automobile traffic to increase with the coming of the light rail.” Building on these responses, the Friendly Streets Initiative was able to build a consensus for converting Charles into a bicycle boulevard.

My daughter biking to school on Charles in 2019.
My daughter biking to school on Charles in 2019. Photo: author.

What is a bicycle boulevard? To start, it should be a lot more than mere sharrows painted on pavement. It’s supposed to be a low-traffic side street fully optimized for bicyclists by slowing or diverting cars without impacting parking or access for residents. Features like traffic circles at minor intersections and median island refuges at major ones keep cyclists moving and reduce car traffic volume and speed. They’re potentially less disruptive and more palatable to local residents because they cost less than a separated trail and don’t take away parking.

In the past decade or so, Saint Paul has implemented several bicycle boulevards with varying degrees of success: Margaret Street, Griggs Street, Jefferson Avenue, and Charles. (Four blocks of Idaho Avenue east of Lake Phalen are also technically a bicycle boulevard, but it’s so short it hardly bears mention.)

Of these, Margaret Street on the east side is by far the most complete, with a full complement of five traffic circles, three curb bump outs, signage, and safe crossings of arterial streets. Indeed, Margaret Street’s 2 ¾ miles is now arguably the best example of a bicycle boulevard in the entire Twin Cities.

Griggs Street is also well built, with a full complement of traffic circles and a modern pedestrian bridge over I-94. Griggs runs for just a couple of miles from Pierce Butler to Summit Avenue.

Jefferson Avenue, on the other hand, has all but failed due to a small number of vocal neighborhood opponents who objected to a traffic diverter at Cleveland Avenue and driving delays on their route to Ayd Mill Road and 35E.

A holiday display takes up every inch of a small lot along Charles Avenue in Frogtown
A holiday display takes up every inch of a small lot along Charles Avenue in Frogtown. November, 2020. Photo: author.

Depending on who you ask, the Charles Bikeway has either succeeded or failed since construction began in 2012. Despite strong neighborhood support along its 3 ½ mile long run, only some of the features of a proper bicycle boulevard have actually been built.

So far, the best features of the Chuckway (to coin a term of endearment) are the median island refuges at Snelling, Hamline, Lexington, Dale and Western, which divert car traffic and make bicycle and pedestrian crossings much safer. Drivers will often (but certainly not always) yield to cyclists crossing at these intersections.

But traffic circles, which slow cars and speed cyclists, have failed to materialize. Indeed, like Jefferson Avenue, the Chuckway has only one traffic circle (at Albert Street) along its entire route and cyclists are repeatedly forced to stop at stop signs. Because of this, many bike commuters choose to ride instead on Pierce Butler Route or Minnehaha Avenue despite their much higher car traffic volumes.

Frogtown Charles Avenue resident AJ Zozulin describes the issue this way:

My main issues with the bikeway are the two-way stop signs, which are the worst option for bikers who don’t want to be constantly slowing down and stopping…In order to make a bike friendly city, or even just a single functional bikeway, we will need to actively inconvenience drivers and dissuade them from using the designated bikeway street while also enticing bikers.

Saint Paul Police assemble on Charles Avenue during the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. May 28, 2020.
Charles Avenue was a center of activity during protests in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On May 28, 2020, Saint Paul Police used it as a staging area while streets were clogged with cars from outside the neighborhood whose drivers mostly held stop signs in abeyance while looking for places to park. Photo: author.

But Frogtown resident Cosandra Lloyd sees it differently. When she first heard about the planned bike boulevard on her block ten years ago, she knew the neighborhood couldn’t stop it. But, she said, “we wanted to make sure that it was built right.” Speeding traffic had always been a concern on Charles, and her highest priority was reducing and slowing car traffic.

Presented with proposed features like traffic diverters, traffic circles, and speed bumps, Lloyd and her neighbors liked the diverters but opposed traffic circles and speed bumps, fearing they would slow emergency vehicle response time. The Saint Paul Fire Department agreed that these features would indeed make it more difficult to reach Charles Avenue residents and traffic circles and speed bumps were dropped from the project.

The diverters led to a marked decrease in car traffic, although at first the gap in the diverters’ curbs was too wide. “Cars were still squeezing through. It was mindboggling,” said Lloyd. “We had to go back to the city to make them narrower.”

In effect, the neighborhood gained the benefit of reduced traffic but the promise of a proper east-west bikeway never materialized. Considering that the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition and other advocates had pushed for a dedicated bike lane on University Avenue but were asked to accept Charles Avenue instead, the fact it’s still unfinished is unfortunate.

“In the broader sense, the whole Charles project was a partial success,” said Christiansen. “A success in process, but not in the execution of the plan. The plan approved by the city council had four to five traffic circles and a raised intersection at Syndicate,” which were never built. “There wasn’t funding to do the full plan…it just sort of faded away”.

Urban geographer and blogger Bill Lindeke recently moved to Charles Avenue in Frogtown in large part because of the bike boulevard. “It’s really lovely during the warm time to see people biking past. Friends will ring bells, stop by and chat.” He said the reduced traffic does seem to foster more street life than on neighboring streets, but drivers still speed by. If Charles got upgraded with traffic circles, it would be a lot better, he said. “One of the challenges on a bicycle boulevard is there’s a slippery slope of how you add design details. If you do it right, drivers feel like it’s a different kind of place and drive differently.”

Lloyd agrees that the bikeway has helped build community on her block, which is 40% homeowners and 60% renters. “On my block, it encourages us during the summer months to get out and see everyone.” National Night Out is particularly important, she said, because it’s a chance to close the street entirely and meet new people. She said she loves sitting outside on warm days, waving to strangers walking or biking past.

Indeed, even without traffic circles, Charles is a pleasant route and I often bike its length. Even though it won’t get you as far west as Minneapolis or as further east than the Capitol, it connects nicely with existing bike routes at Hamline, Griggs, and Western. And, if you happen to know where they are, it’s fairly safe and simple to follow sidestreets south to cross I-94.

Winter and Bicycle Boulevards

Rutted ice and snow on the Charles Ave bikeway
Chuckway, Chunkystyle! January, 2021. Photo: author.

By design, Charles and every other bicycle boulevard takes advantage of relatively low automobile traffic. In winter, though, low traffic on side streets often results in dangerous ice ruts. Without enough car traffic to wear ice away down to the pavement, successive snowfalls turn into compacted ice and every fresh snowfall creates a layer of slippery “mashed potato” snow floating on top. Even an experienced rider with studded tires will get thrown by these ruts.

Traffic circles actually make the problem worse because the ruts change course unpredictably where cars drive around the circles. The only way to avoid this hazard is to bike on sidewalks or to ride on busier roads, both of which are hazardous in their own way.

While Saint Paul has been doing an excellent job clearing separated bike trails, it so far hasn’t invested in equipment or adjusted plowing schedules to better clear designated bike boulevards. There’s reason to hope, though. A recent twitter thread by Sean Kershaw, the newly appointed director of Saint Paul Public Works, expressed an unprecedented willingness to work on the issue.

The Future of Bicycle Boulevards

Ten years ago, bicycle boulevards seemed to be an infrastructure solution for the future, a design that calms streets and creates safe routes for biking without building expensive trails or eliminating car parking.

A curbside collection of car tires at Charles and Galtier, August 2018.
A curbside collection of car tires at Charles and Galtier, August 2018. Photo: author.

Notably, the concept hit snags when proposed for wealthier neighborhoods. Jefferson Avenue, as previously noted, was attempted and then abandoned as a bike boulevard at a cost to the city of over $1 million. And way back in 2008, Highland Parkway was proposed for a wealthy neighborhood almost totally lacking in bicycle infrastructure, but the proposal died on the vine. This isn’t because residents of wealthier neighborhoods don’t bike or want safer streets. But, it does seem that their more conservative and car-centric residents carry more political clout.

Process does make a difference, though. While the Charles Avenue process began with The Friendly Streets Initiative’s community building, that process was lacking in Mac-Groveland and Highland, where the city’s plans for bike infrastructure were presented with relatively little community input. The result, said Lindeke, was “more like the angry streets initiative.”

There’s also a need to address the fire department’s equipment and its ability to adapt to safe walkable and bikeable infrastructure. If the SPFD used smaller, more nimble trucks, they may have been able to alleviate Frogtown residents’ concerns about traffic circles and speed bumps. Indeed, this is a complicated and evolving issue throughout the country. Fire codes continue to dictate street width and design in most American cities. As Christiansen stressed, safe streets advocates need “a willingness to be open to the fact that every issue is tied to so many other issues”. 

Hopefully, our existing bicycle boulevards will slowly improve. In Minneapolis, the city will soon be rebuilding the Bryant Avenue bikeway, winner of Lindeke’s coveted Half Ass award in 2014, to include proper diverters and traffic circles. Like many bike and pedestrian safety projects, Bryant had to wait until it was time to rebuild the entire street. Charles Avenue will also hopefully be receiving upgrades bit by bit as it and its cross streets are scheduled for rebuilding.

Margaret Avenue traffic circle under construction, May 2019. Photo: author.

Understandably, many bicycle advocates have turned away from advocating for bicycle boulevards, preferring more comprehensive solutions such as the plastic bollard separated lane on Pelham Street or the new grade separated trail along Como Avenue, part of Saint Paul’s Grand Rounds trail system, over 100 years in the making.

Great as they are, though, separated trails don’t do much to calm car traffic or promote street life. But bicycle boulevards, when built complete with traffic circles and diverters, offer the opportunity to create safe streets for people aged eight to 80 doing all kinds of activities. As a community, do we want more miles of trails for cyclists to ride away from cars, or do we want a network of calmer, safer streets? Should Saint Paul be adding more infrastructure for bikes or taking away some of the 869 miles of roads we’ve built for cars?

To my mind, fully built bicycle boulevards should be a key component to addressing traffic violence and climate change. I’d encourage anyone with doubts to ride Margaret Street to experience a bicycle boulevard in its truest form. Or just ride down Charles on a warm summer day, ringing your bell and waving to people on sidewalks and front yards.

Dan Marshall

About Dan Marshall

Pronouns: he/him

Dan Marshall lives in Hamline-Midway, is the father of four kids, owns a retail shop in Saint Paul with his wife and daughter, bikes all around town, and holds a history degree from the U of M. He aspires to create mildly interesting local content for readers. @DanMarStP

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