Rethinking Summit Ave with the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition

The problem of Summit

Summit Avenue is St. Paul’s OG bikeway, and continues to be the route that sees the highest bicycle traffic in the city. However, it is also a route that sees a lot of traffic violence due to the poor design of the street. At the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, we believe the city can and must do better. A portion of Summit is coming up for reconstruction soon, so we took a survey of the community to find out what improvements can make people feel safe biking on Summit year-round. I encourage you to read our full report, but here are the broad takeaways:

When asked about how safe they felt biking on Summit, there was a stark contrast between warm months and cold months. And this, of course, correlated with a large shift in how often people choose to bike on Summit in cold months vs warm months.

Charts of how often people bike and how safe they feel biking on Summit in warms months and cold months. In warm months, 68% of respondents bike on Summit a few times a month or more often, and respondents feel somewhat safe. In cold months, 28% of respondents bike on Summit a few times a month or more often, and most feel not safe at all.

We asked respondents about how important it is for them to be separated from cars, and how safe they would feel riding on several different types of bike infrastructure on Summit.

Chart of responses. How important is it for you to have physical separation from cars? Plurality of answers were "very important" with the majority ranging from "somewhat important" to "very important."
How safe would you feel on a trail? Majority answered "very safe."
How safe would you feel on a parking-protected bike lane? Plurality answered "mostly safe."
How safe would you feel in a buffered bike lane? Majority of answers range from "mostly unsafe" to "mostly safe."

The clear winner for making people feel safe biking on Summit is to put a trail in the median. So what would that look like?

The sections of Summit

Sections with center median

From Mississippi River Boulevard to Wheeler Street and from just east of Snelling to Lexington, Summit has a broad landscaped median in the middle of the right of way, with one-way traffic on either side of the median.

This section connects the regional trail on Mississippi River Boulevard to a variety of major destinations including the University of St. Thomas as well as numerous existing and planned north/south bikeways. The existing wide ornamental median generally features two rows of mature trees near the roadways with a wide grassy area running down the middle, occasionally interrupted by trees or other plantings. The median is interrupted by street crossings as frequently as every 375′. Although the median does not have facilities for biking or walking, a well-defined “desire path” has been worn into the grass. On the roadways, buffered bike lanes provide bicycle access for confident or high-speed cyclists.

We propose constructing a 12-15′ shared use path in the center of the median that provides a safe facility for slower and/or less confident people biking as well as people walking. In-street bike lanes would be retained for users who feel most comfortable in the street. The City should explore closing selected intersections through the median as well to reduce conflict points for people biking and walking, and to increase the amount of green space and room for tree planting. Where necessary, the path can shift from the center of the median to preserve existing trees.

Intersection of Summit and Wilder St. Left: current alignment. Right: proposed alignment.

Section with two smaller medians

From Wheeler to just east of Snelling, Summit has two-way traffic in the center, with narrower landscaped medians on either side, and outside those medians are one-way carriageways.

This section connects to major destinations including Macalester College and the Grand/Snelling business district. The two existing narrow ornamental medians generally feature two rows of mature trees near the roadways with a narrow grassy area running down the middle, occasionally interrupted by trees or other plantings. The medians are interrupted by street crossings as frequently as every 200′. Although the medians do not have facilities for biking or walking, both feature well-defined “desire paths” worn into the grass. On the central roadway, buffered bike lanes provide bicycle access for confident or high-speed cyclists.

We propose constructing a 10-12′ shared use path in the center of the south median that provides a safe facility for slower and/or less confident people biking as well as people walking. In-street bike lanes would be retained for users who feel most comfortable in the street. The City should explore closing selected intersections through the median as well to reduce conflict points for people biking and walking, and to increase the amount of green space and room for tree planting. Where necessary, the path can shift from the center of the median to preserve existing trees.

Intersection of Summit and Cambridge St. Left: current alignment. Right: proposed alignment.

Section with no median

Summit Avenue narrows dramatically east of Lexington Parkway, from 200′ to 100′. The road through this section is a typical Saint Paul 46′ roadway, with two-way traffic, parking lanes, and on-street bike lanes. All features are at substandard widths according to Saint Paul’s Street Design Guide, and this section has the highest concentration of serious crashes. This section is a critical route for residents commuting by bike to downtown, and connects to planned protected bikeways on Kellogg Boulevard and St. Peter Street as well as numerous existing and planned north/south bikeways.

We propose narrowing the existing roadway to remove the substandard, unsafe on-street bike lanes and repurpose the space to provide a 10′ off-street bike trail on either the north or south side of Summit Avenue (south side rendered below). Because this trail will not be shared with people walking (there are wide sidewalks which will be significantly buffered from the trail), it can serve people biking at a variety of speeds and comfort levels.

Intersection of Summit and Milton St. Left: current alignment. Right: proposed alignment (trail on south side of the street).

How this will affect various street uses

Cycling is, of course, the initial lens that we approached this through. This design will make Summit much more safe and inviting for cyclists of all ability levels and ages. The framing that I try to keep in mind when evaluating biking infrastructure is: would I feel comfortable taking an 8-year-old on a bike ride on it? Off-street trails are one of the few types of infrastructure that meet that standard.

People walking or rolling will also stand to gain a lot with this design. Currently the medians on Summit are simply large boulevards, with no accessible facilities to allow everyone to enjoy this amenity. Adding a paved multi-use path with curb cuts will allow everyone to enjoy the space.

Currently runners are the heaviest users of the medians. I, myself, was on the cross country team at Central High School, and most of our practices were runs up and down Summit. Runners often prefer traveling on unpaved surfaces because it is easier on the feet, which is what makes the Summit medians such a popular choice. Fortunately, there is plenty of space on the medians for runners to continue traveling on the grass alongside the new trail if they do so desire.

Another possible use of the medians would be for picnics or small yard games. I have not personally witnessed the space being used that way, and I am not sure why. This proposal does not preclude those uses. On sections with a center median, it is plenty wide enough to accomodate picnics on the grass beside the trail. And on sections with two smaller medians, the trail will only exist on one of the medians, allowing the other to serve as lounging space. It may be desirable for the park board to explore placing picnic tables or park benches periodically to encourage people to spend time in that space.

Drivers are minimally impacted by this design. None of the vehicle travel lanes are impacted, and no parking is being removed. Some low-volume cross streets will no longer be able to continue straight or make left turns onto Summit, but as we have seen with recent projects (more on that below) this has minimal impacts on traffic flow.

And finally, let’s not forget the trees. There are many mature trees along this corridor, and there should be enough space to place a trail without needing to remove any of the trees.

The broader context

It is essential to keep in mind that Summit Avenue was the original bike route in the city. First built in 1896, the dedicated bicycle path predates Summit being used for motor vehicle traffic. It was once the envy of the region. If we want to honor and preserve the historic status of this street, building a dedicated bike trail is a fine way of doing so.

St. Paul has been putting in some seriously world-class bike facilities in recent years; in particular, this proposal is similar to the Grand Round segments on Wheelock and Johnson Parkways. We have the staff expertise and the political will to do awesome projects like this. They are an enormous safety improvement, separating cyclists and pedestrians from cars. And as Johnson Parkway demonstrated, it is possible to further enhance that safety by closing low-traffic street crossings (thus reducing the number of conflict points) without significantly impacting traffic flow.

Bikeways like this form the backbone of St Paul’s bicycle network, and we have a shortage of them west of downtown. As e-bike James suggests, a great place to begin would be to build off-street trails on Summit and Lexington, thus dividing the area into quadrants. Then, in each of those quadrants, we can identify corridors that will divide it into sixteenths, and keep going down the fractal until everywhere in the city is no more than a couple of blocks from protected bike facilities.

A hypothetical order of building out a network of protected bike lanes west of downtown. This is in no way comprehensive.

About Ian R Buck

Pronouns: he/him

Podcaster and teacher. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation. "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"

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