Months before St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter announced in April that the city would close one lane of four city parkways to vehicular traffic this spring and summer — giving cyclists, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs and people pushing strollers a rare opportunity to spread out on the street — Union Park District Council (UPDC) was aggressively seeking input from neighbors of Mississippi River Boulevard (MRB) about the merits of closing one traffic lane permanently.
The mayor’s stated reason for the mid-April to mid-July closure of driving lanes at Cherokee, Como and Phalen regional parks and along MRB was public health — specifically, physical distancing at a time when only a fraction of Minnesotans had received a vaccine against COVID-19. UPDC’s Transportation Committee was asking both a broader and a more specific question — permanent lane closure but along only a portion of MRB — and it received plentiful and passionate answers on both sides of the debate.
- Pro-closure: “My wife and I loved taking the trail when it was closed for COVID. We are Merriam Park residents and access the trail either through Marshall or through Pelham. I’d also be for the compromise position of closing it between spring and fall.”
- Anti-closure: “I live in Desnoyer Park and work in Minneapolis. Because of the river, the freeway, the railroad yards and the golf course, access to our neighborhood is limited on good days. Our neighborhood is currently doing more than its fair share to support city biking.”
- Alternate solutions: “I use the MRB daily for recreation, fitness and driving. There seems to be great confusion on where to walk, where to bike, which side to pass, the need to give audible warnings when passing, as well as signage for motorists on the road to share the road with bikes. Maybe widening the bike lane, adding a north and south bike lane on the road, and adding some barriers could help as well.”
As I’ve heard our Ward 4 City Councilmember Mitra Jalali say: We’re all just trying to live together in the city.
“I was surprised by how many people responded to the survey, sent an email and attended the Transportation Committee meeting” in February, when initial results were presented, said committee co-chair Barb Thoman, co-founder and former executive director of what is now Move Minnesota. “Neighbors expressed appreciation about being asked their opinion.”
The board of Macalester-Groveland Community Council, which sits south of Union Park, had voted last September to recommend that the city make the COVID-related lane closures from the summer of 2020 permanent on MRB, “making it a one-way, northbound roadway” and enabling cyclists and pedestrians “to better access the Boulevard from the bridges on Ford Parkway and Marshall Avenue.” The MGCC Transportation Committee first had invited residents to two public meetings, and one board member started a community poll on NextDoor.com, according to MGCC Executive Director Alexa Golemo.
The Union Park Transportation Committee (on which I serve) also opted for widespread community engagement — launching a SurveyMonkey, dropping flyers at 300 homes and using Facebook posts — before deciding when or whether to recommend that the city permanently close one lane of the popular river boulevard. “When a decision affects a major section of the neighborhood, I think it’s necessary to make a bigger effort to inform residents and seek their opinion,” Thoman said.
Rules of engagement
If you’re going to ask people for their opinion, then be prepared to listen: If that isn’t the first rule of community engagement, then it ought to be — as our committee learned.
Several residents who use MRB as a commuting route said our flyer discounted drivers because it referenced only the views of cyclists and pedestrians, whom we said “have expressed concerns about safety and access on the current, shared narrow trail.” We also noted that “not all cyclists feel safe riding in the street.” A couple of other anti-closure respondents said we were trying to influence opinion by citing Mac-Groveland’s vote for lane conversion (point taken, though as a former journalist, I saw it as stating a simple fact).
More than 200 people responded to our survey; another 52 responded via email, and we got detailed responses from the Desnoyer Park Improvement Association (DPIA) and the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition. We gave preference to respondents who live within the boundaries of Union Park — which stretches from the Mississippi River east to Lexington Avenue and from Summit Avenue north to University Avenue — but we reviewed and catalogued every piece of feedback.
- 56.6 percent of SurveyMonkey respondents favored lane conversion.
- 33.7 percent opposed, and 9.6 percent said “maybe” or had another idea.
- 47.5 percent of flyer recipients opposed lane conversion (and all these people live on or within blocks of MRB).
- 40 percent favored lane conversion, and 12.5 percent said “maybe” or had another idea, such as retrofitting the city-owned boulevards on the east side of MRB for public use.
The Desnoyer Park Improvement Association supported lane conversion, though some residents of the neighborhood (which dubs itself “Saint Paul’s hidden community”) were strongly opposed, saying they’re already a “cut-through” neighborhood for cars. No surprise, the Bicycle Coalition supported lane conversion, too.
Co-chair Andy Singer, who has been studying this issue for years, brought up a number of compelling points: “Opponents have focused on how the new Ford site development will be generating lots of new car traffic, so we can’t reduce road capacity,” he said. “But the development is also going to generate hundreds of new people who are going to want to walk and bike along the MRB corridor, either for recreation or to get places, and we have to plan for those folks as well.”
Equity and access
Whether “pro” or “anti” conversion, many of our respondents agreed that the current mixed-use paths are overcrowded. Dogs get in the way. Walkers often are two-abreast. Solo walkers wear headphones or earbuds. Cyclists go too fast.
Equity and access were key themes of our responses, raising questions about the ability of delivery trucks and emergency vehicles to get to their destinations, as well as drivers’ ability also to use this scenic route. “I feel like cars are being pushed out of this city,” one Merriam Park neighbor said.
One MRB resident urged all parties to take a step back, collect some data first and then move toward a recommendation. “Like all issues which affect home and hearth, this one will be highly sensitive and charged for folks,” he said. “My advocacy will rest with the process, resisting the loudest voices in the room in favor of diligently procured ground-truth facts and full inclusion of all voices.”
Others — most others — plowed forward with their opinion, a surprising number of which disparaged bikers. “Cycling is an 8-month-a-year activity, at most,” one resident wrote. “Why privilege cyclists?” Another homeowner referenced “Tour de France wannabes” in complaining about cyclists’ high speeds. And one resident noted: “The bikers complain about everything.”
The committee co-chairs and I expected Mississippi River Boulevard residents to uniformly oppose the change; instead, they were almost evenly divided. SurveyMonkey respondents who live on MRB favored a multimodal lane conversion 2 to 1, while more than twice the number of flyer recipients who live on the boulevard said they opposed the lane conversion.
- A longtime MRB property owner said she would not have bought her home had it had a bike lane in front of it back then. “People like bike lanes as long as they are not in front of their homes,” she said.
- A newer MRB resident, also a woman, counterbalanced that point of view: “Since I live on MRB, I would love to have less traffic and more people enjoying the area.”
Although the three of us who conducted the research all are multimodal enthusiasts who bike, walk or ride transit daily, our committee has stopped short of recommending permanent lane closure to the city. Still, it seems only fair to give airtime to a long-term resident — a walker, cyclist and driver — who took the time to attend meetings, to call me and other committee organizers, and to write a lengthy letter in opposition. Despite his disparagement of our work as “monumentally misguided,” he did raise two strong pro-driver points.
MRB is a “crucial commuter pathway,” he said, “a critical link for motorists to efficiently get from one end of town to the other.” When the Twin Cities Marathon and other events close the road (“one of the most beautiful roads in the Twin Cities to drive upon”), it sends traffic into local neighborhoods, which this resident contends is dangerous.
Another resident defused the man’s well-honed, articulate argument in two breezy sentences: “Cars have plenty of roads to drive on. MRB is more pleasant with less traffic.”