Summer of Detours for City Cyclists

2020, as horrible as it was, had at least one silver lining. More people than ever before discovered bicycling, creating a new “bike boom” that’s exploding right into 2021.

Unfortunately, this record numbers of cyclists is being met with a record number of Twin Cities trail closures. Taken individually, many of these closures may seem reasonable, but when viewed as a network of transportation infrastructure, they’re incredibly disruptive. Commutes are detoured and errands are waylaid in ways that we would never impose on motorists.

These disruptions are imposed by multiple government entities: the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the Metropolitan Council, counties and cities — none of which is responsible for the health of the overall network. Trail users are forced to determine who owns any given route before they can learn the length of a closure or even suggested detours, which often are unmarked. Simple measures like temporary trails are seldom used and detours often send vulnerable trail users onto unsafe routes on busy highways. And, of course, construction occurs mostly in the summer months, the peak of the cycling season.

To illustrate how cyclists and pedestrians should be treated better during construction season, here’s a summary of all the major closures this summer throughout the Twin Cities.

Big Rivers Regional Trail

Perhaps the most frustrating closure is Dakota County’s Big Rivers Trail, which runs along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers from Lilydale to Eagan. With connections to downtown Saint Paul via the Water Street and Bloomington via the 494 bridge, Big Rivers is the only safe route connecting the east and west metro south of the MSP airport.

The first strike against Big Rivers occurred last fall, when a rock slide in Lilydale dropped a couple of boulders the size of box trucks unto the trail.

A landslide blocking the Big Rivers Trail in Lilydale
A landslide blocking the Big Rivers Trail in Lilydale. October 29, 2020.

Instead of working to clear the trail, Dakota County has closed it completely and has published no timeline on when it will reopen.

Through the winter, the trail wasn’t fully closed and it was easy enough to carry a bike up and over the obstruction. I even witnessed crews clearing snow on the closed trail. This spring, crews added chain link fences along with warnings about camera surveillance, offering no choice but to detour along the shoulder of Highway 13.

A landslide is one thing, but just a mile or so west Big Rivers is closed for the rest of 2021 for “trailhead improvements“: building restrooms and more parking at the Mendota Heights trailhead. Instead of creating a temporary trail a hundred yards through the construction, Dakota County has closed Big Rivers for half a mile, again forcing cyclists and pedestrians unto the shoulder of Sibley Memorial Highway.

Needless to say, closing a bike trail and endangering users for an entire season to build infrastructure for cars and drivers is pretty terrible.

Southwest LRT Trail Closures

2021 will be our third summer of Southwest LRT trail closures. The Greenway is still closed west of Minneapolis, the Kenilworth Trail is a trench of spiraling cost overruns, the North Cedar Lake Trail remains closed between Target Field and Van White Memorial Boulevard, and the Minnesota River Bluffs Trail through Hopkins is still missing in action. The absence of these trails, once touted as “America’s First Bicycle Freeway,” has greatly diminished Minneapolis’ green transportation credibility and cast a pall over its cycling community.

A view of the Kenilworth Trail, September 2020.
A view of the Kenilworth Trail, September 28, 2020.

It is still possible to bike from Minneapolis to the western suburbs, but it takes a considerable amount of ingenuity and a willingness to ride surface streets with cars.

Midtown Greenway

The Sabo Bridge was closed on May 13th, 2021, forcing pedestrians and cyclists to cross nine lane of traffic on Highway 55.
The Sabo Bridge was closed on May 13th, 2021, forcing pedestrians and cyclists to cross nine lane of traffic on Highway 55. May 13, 2021.

Again this summer, Hennepin County will be closing multiple sections of the Midtown Greenway for trail safety improvements. When I visited on May 13, the entire Sabo Bridge was closed so that crews could install new sidewalks and curbs at 28th Street East. Instead of allowing trail users to cut through a patch of grass next to the construction, pedestrians and cyclists were forced to cross Highway 55, a chaotic crossing with multiple turn lanes and merging traffic from Lake Street. No timeframe was posted onsite for the length of the closure, but the project website says two to three weeks per intersection.

Trail safety improvements are great, but sending trail users into harm’s way is indefensible, especially when a little extra effort could have created a safer detour.

Battle Creek Park

On St. Paul’s Eastside, the Met Council has closed the trail through Battle Creek Park for sewer replacement work. The trail is an important link between the Highwood neighborhood and downtown St. Paul via the Fish Hatchery Trail. In this case, the Met Council preserved access by blocking off a protected lane all along Point Douglas Road from Lower Afton Road to the Highway 61 underpass. The signage is a little confusing, but this level of foresight and accommodation should be the gold standard for all construction projects.

A protected detour around sewer construction at Battle Creek Park.
A protected detour around sewer construction at Battle Creek Park. May 5, 2021.

Mississippi River Boulevard

The parkways on both sides of the Mississippi though Minneapolis and St. Paul are arguably the most popular biking destinations in the Twin Cities. Both sides will be dealt closures this summer.

Mississippi River Boulevard is closed through the summer in Saint Paul.
Mississippi River Boulevard is closed through the summer in Saint Paul. May 13, 2021.

In Saint Paul, the section of MRB south of Ford Parkway is closed this summer to install a tunnel between the new Highland Bridge development at the old Ford site and Hidden Falls. A terrible detour takes cyclists up Ford Parkway (a route unsafe for bicycles) and down Cleveland Avenue (where the city recently decided to forgo bike lanes).

The tunnel will be a great addition to Hidden Falls park and the new Highland Bridge neighborhood. Sadly, though, the city’s failure to build safe routes through Highland means that cyclists should avoid the entire area this summer.

West River Parkway

Bridge over troubled trails. West River Parkway closed at the 3rd Avenue bridge.
Bridge over troubled trails. West River Parkway closed at the 3rd Avenue bridge. May 13, 2021

Not to be outdone, Minneapolis is also closing West River Parkway and its trails just west of the iconic Stone Arch Bridge because of MnDOT’s reconstruction of the 3rd Avenue Bridge. The trail is closed May 3-17 and is projected to close again July 5-19. The posted detour takes cyclists and pedestrians up into downtown traffic and then back to the river at Hennepin Avenue.

Somehow, the city’s rebuilding project of the 10th Avenue SE bridge, a very similar project, has been able to keep the river trail open, even through the winter. With the 3rd Avenue bridge, MnDOT seems not to have bothered.

Of course, 10th Avenue SE and 3rd Avenue are both important river crossings for cyclists and pedestrians between downtown and Southeast and Northeast Minneapolis. Both will be closed this summer.

Cedar Avenue Bridge

Cedar Avenue Bridge trail closure on May 10, 2021.
Cedar Avenue Bridge trail closure on May 10, 2021.

In the south metro, only a few routes are available to bike across the Minnesota River. Imagine biking down the river bluffs to a crossing on your way to work and discovering the trail is inexplicably closed. That was what I encountered on May 10 when attempting to cross the river at Cedar Avenue. No notice was posted online, no explanation was posted about the length or purpose of the closure. If I had to guess, the trail was closed in order to repave the bridge approaches on the south side.

With a bit of extra effort, trail access could have been maintained during this work. Instead, trail users were faced with three bad choices: Detour 20 miles to cross at 494 or 35W, ignore the closure signs and attempt to cross anyway, or give up and go home.

Bloomington Ferry Road

Might as well jump! The Bloomington Ferry trail closure at Highway 169. May 10, 2021

The situation is even worse at the Bloomington Ferry Bridge Trail next to Highway 169. The Army Corps of Engineers has been building flood gates across the trail since last December. The gates seem to be mostly completed, but workers have not yet installed a bridge over an 8-foot gap they made across the trail. Surely, the Corps has numerous devices to temporarily bridge such a gap, but they have instead chosen to erect 80 feet of fencing in an attempt to prevent scofflaw cyclists from crossing.

To make matters worse, the closure is marked only by easily missed tiny brown signs at either end of the trail, nearly a mile from the closure. No one could be blamed for missing it. The trail is scheduled to reopen by the end of May.

Bonus: Half a paved trail in the river bottoms is worse than none

Thou shall not pass. The end of the paved River Bottoms Trail between 35W and Cedar Avenue. April 7, 2021.

If you’re going to spend a couple million dollars paving a trail in an active flood plain, you should probably make sure it connects to other infrastructure. But if you’re going to build just half a trail that dead ends in the middle of nowhere, you should probably put up a big sign at the entrance to let everybody know. Because if you don’t do that, some biker from St. Paul with skinny road tires will just assume a trail that starts at 35W will connect to Cedar Avenue, foolishly won’t turn around when the trail disappears a couple of miles in, and will end up walking their skinny tired bike through several miles of sand until they finally reach Cedar Avenue. Possibly this has happened only to me.

We should do better

This summer’s closures illustrate many of the ways governmental agencies could better serve pedestrians and cyclists.

  • First, we need something like a Metropolitan Cycling Council — an agency whose job it is to set standards for construction projects and communicate closures to the public. This would ideally be managed by the Met Council with the goal of treating cyclists the same way we do motorists (or even sewage), keeping routes accessible and traffic flowing. Such an agency should also maintain a metro-wide trail status website with alerts that people could subscribe to.
  • Trails should be viewed and treated as part of our transportation infrastructure. Project managers should ask themselves: Would we subject motorists to this level of inconvenience? What options will commuters have if this route is closed?
  • Temporary routes should be installed and maintained throughout construction. These can be in the form of asphalt or gravel trails, a portable bridge, or (and here we’re asking a lot!) a dedicated lane taken from a car traffic lane. These accommodations should be specified in work contracts and included in the bidding process.
  • Closures should be well communicated in advance both online and via well-marked signage at the beginnings of trails, not at the closure itself. Signs should include detour maps and dates of the expected closures.
  • Trails should be reopened as soon as possible, even if other work like laying sod or installing fences is incomplete. Trail users can be trusted not to interfere with workers.
  • Important connections require redundancy. Deciding not to build bike lanes on streets near existing trails creates a fragile network.
  • When landslides or other natural disasters occur, funds should be allocated and repairs made immediately, the same as we do for roads.

All photos by the author

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