St. Paul Announces Sweeping Transportation Policy Changes

In a surprise joint press conference, today, April 1, Mayor Allcity, flanked by Public Works Director Carskill, all seven city council members, Jim Stitchesray, and Ramsey County commissioners announced sweeping changes to city transportation policy. The attendees all arrived together leading a bike train of elementary school students along Wheelock Parkway to Como Park Elementary. Mayor Allcity announced that in light of our declared climate emergency, degrading city and resident finances, and public safety and health challenges brought about by car dependency, our streets and transportation systems will no longer prioritize private car drivers above all other transportation modes. Instead, people walking, biking, and rolling (hereafter simply referred to as “people”) will no longer be treated mostly as an afterthought by city planners and engineers and the safety and convenience of low-carbon, active transportation modes will be prioritized. This announcement is in keeping with multiple policies already enacted by the city and county (see here, or here), which public works has too often continued to either ignore or creatively interpret up to this point.

Mayor Allcity arrived at the press conference fresh off back-to-back interviews. In the first, he was a panelist with fellow mayors of Emeryville, CA and Paris to chat with hosts of the War on Cars podcast about the role of mayors in freeing us from car dependency. Following that, he sat down with Stitchesray, a longtime opponent of transportation freedom and advocate for car dependency, who has recently become one of the most outspoken and influential safe streets advocates after learning the conservative case for cycling. The mayor started his remarks with a riff on Thomas Jefferson’s words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that for too long, prioritization of cars has resulted in extensive damage to our environment, ourselves, and our economy. Decades of poor planning, though sometimes well-intentioned, has resulted in too many places that are degraded husks of their former glory. Today, we begin a committed and lasting program to reverse those damages and begin to strengthen and rebuild the public spaces of our city while giving people true freedom of transportation choice. While St. Paul is truly a special and uniquely livable snowflake, our transportation challenges and the means to solve them are not and have often been studied and tested elsewhere. Instead of reinventing the wheel, St. Paul will look to the many existing examples of street safety improvements and get to work!”

He then passed the microphone to Director Carskill who continued, “Mayor Allcity is correct. For decades, we at public works have designed and built streets that we now know to be dangerous for all users, but especially those outside cars. The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem – today we finally admit the colossal problem we have created and commit to taking immediate, tangible steps to fixing that problem.” Director Carskill then outlined changes aimed at catapulting St. Paul to the forefront of people-centered transportation policy, which include:

No new car lanes. It was emphasized that for too long, St. Paul has added space and capacity for cars alone, which has only served to hollow out our city, hurt the tax base, while adding massive infrastructure liabilities. This will start with portions of Kellogg currently slated to see expensive new bridge construction projects, which will instead see existing street space repurposed for other modes while shoring up the integrity of the existing bridges. This will save the city millions of dollars and easily cover the costs of the other projects.

Design for safety first. Instead of prioritizing “level of service” and high-speed throughput exclusively for those driving, public works will design streets in accordance with the number one priority of residents, safety. Planners and engineers who continue to design projects that demonstrably put people in danger from moving cars (such as adding unprotected bike lanes next to 40+ mph car traffic) will be given two options: be fired or resign in disgrace

Snow will no longer be an excuse. Too often, winter and the need for “specialized equipment” have been cited as an excuse for why we can’t have protected bike lanes. It was finally acknowledged that we live in a northern climate where it snows and “specialized equipment” for a narrower protected bike lane costs a fraction of what our fleet of full-sized plow costs (as with most bike infrastructure) so this was a lame excuse all along. As Jason Slaughter says, “Winter is a lazy excuse, used by ignorant people, to make the discussion of safe road infrastructure go away.” That discussion will no longer be ignored and will instead be the primary focus.

Raised crosswalks with tight corners incorporated into every new project, with prioritized retrofits along existing trails. As demonstrated in places with civilized transportation networks, these small changes have an outsized impact on the safety of vulnerable road users and will now be the standard design, unless it can be demonstrated that using another design can be done without jeopardizing safety. Raised crossings will also help to reduce the incidence of puddles and icy messes that can frequently be found at crossings during winter and spring snow melts.

Trails need drainage and raised crossings

Beg buttons eliminated. Especially at locations where trails cross major streets, people walking and rolling will no longer be forced to find and push a button to be able to cross the street. Crossing signals for people will turn automatically and will feature a leading pedestrian interval. At locations that currently claim to have pavement detectors for cyclists but fail to reliably function (looking at you, University and Griggs), updated technology will be added to ensure people on bikes are detected. 

Traffic calming elements installed anywhere design speeds exceed posted speeds. It was acknowledged that many St. Paul streets represent a failure of engineering and feature design speeds in excess of what is even remotely safe for their location and context, despite new 20 mph citywide speed limits. Public works will look to the thousands of successful examples of car traffic calming and diversion throughout the world and start prioritizing safety through low-cost, effective projects that will drastically improve safety and comfort. No longer will projects like the E 6th Street traffic diversion languish through multiple trials and uncertain futures. Community concerns for safe streets will be quickly and competently addressed.

Eliminate right turns on red. Anyone who walks or rolls knows that drivers routinely fail to look to their right before aiming their multi-ton death machines in that direction, if they even stop at all. Therefore, right turns on red will be eliminated in any places that feature crosswalks or other walking or cycling infrastructure.

Slip lanes removed. Similar to the no right on red, but in some ways even worse, because they are designed for the sole purpose of enabling fast, dangerous turns by drivers. In several cases like at Lexington and Energy Park and East Shore Drive and Wheelock, these channel drivers directly across shared use trails without a care in the world. The danger of this design feature will be acknowledged and they will be eliminated except where their safety can be incontrovertibly demonstrated.

Slip lanes lead to fast, dangerous turns by drivers

Priority replacement of people-scaled lighting. “Lantern style lighting” poles will cease to be used in their current iteration due to the obvious ease with which they are broken into and copper wiring stolen. Current lighting will be fixed and retrofitted in a way that actually prevents theft.

Handmade signs shouldn’t be required to get infrastructure fixed

Priority maintenance and repair of bike lanes and routes. Bollards, faded paint, potholes, etc. will no longer be fixed primarily in response to reports by residents and instead will be proactively inspected and repaired on a regular basis. Similarly, street sweeping and snow clearance will be focused on biking and walking infrastructure first, with quick follow-up after crews have cleared remaining streets, since this often leads to snow and ice being thrown back onto sidewalks and paths. In addition to a focus on maintaining existing facilities, they will also be “hardened” and existing flimsy plastic posts will be replaced and/or supplemented with concrete and other materials to provide robust protection.

Public fleet replacement with electric cargo bikes. Too often across St. Paul, city trips occur by fossil fuel powered cars or large trucks that could easily be accomplished by bike, be it acoustic or electric, “regular” or cargo. This is most evident where cars and trucks are used in daily inspections of area trails. Instead of large trucks, staff will utilize electric cargo bikes for such tasks. The advantages of this are several. Staff will be more prone to see issues such as broken glass that need addressing. The use of cargo bikes will also create a safer environment for other trail users, as well as avoiding damage to trails and medians that often results when trucks and other vehicles drive over them.

Trails and greenspaces are routinely dirtied and damaged by the use of large vehicles

Shared electric cargo bike program. To complement existing Evie and HourCar systems, shared fleets of electric cargo bikes will be distributed throughout the city, housed primarily at schools and libraries. These will consist of secured, covered parking facilities with spaces for personal bikes to be left during use and will be accessible through the same app as Evie and HourCar, as well as the option to link with GoTo cards. Since schools and libraries already have outdoor outlets, this will cost only a fraction of the recently activated Evie system and can quickly be added. The covered nature of the hubs helps ensure minimal maintenance requirements during winter months.

Adequate detours provided when facilities are closed. Starting this month, construction projects will no longer be allowed to block and close down paths, sidewalks, and other bike routes without adequate detours being provided. The hospital parking garage construction that has been blocking the Gateway Trail extension for over a year was noted as just one example of the flagrant and neglectful treatment of safe bike routes that have put people walking and biking in danger on a regular basis.

Blocking a bike lane with a sign is not a closure, let alone a detour

Increased quality and quantity of bike parking citywide. This will be added in consultation with the parking experts at Dero Bike Racks as well as actual cyclists. An easy online request form will be developed, as well as a streamlined application process for businesses to add bike parking. No longer will racks be added in a manner that sets them too close to the roadway or perpendicular to it, which leaves parked bikes vulnerable to damage from cars and also blocks sidewalk space for people walking. Schools and parks, such as Como Park Elementary and Hidden Falls, that are located on corridors with safe and high-quality routes for people, but currently lack any bike parking, will be identified and prioritized.

Bicycle storage areas need to be plentiful, well-placed, and maintained

Replace “Share the Road” with “May Use Full Lane”. All instances of signs currently using the “share the road” phrase, which is known to be unclear and problematic, will be replaced with the much clearer “May Use Full Lane” signage.

By the end of the press conference, Twitter was aflutter with enthusiastic support from a bipartisan group of legislators statewide. In their typically nuanced and thoughtful tones, they praised Mayor Allcity for his commonsense leadership and vowed to work toward setting funding and policy priorities at MnDOT that match the proposals outlined by Director Carskill. In person, whoops and cries of glee could be heard most noticeably during the announcements from Council Members Downtown, Frogtown, and Highland, staunch progressives who unabashedly support low-carbon transportation options such as the addition of the Ayd Mill Road multi-use path. As the conference wound down, they could be seen walking back to their shared Urban Arrow electric cargo bike parked nearby. Council Member Downtown climbed in the saddle while Council Members Highland and Frogtown hopped in the box facing each other and waved enthusiastically at the crowd and reporters as the three rode away together down Wheelock to another event celebrating the re-opening of a car-free East Como Lake Drive. Council Member Midway, well-known for opposition to people-oriented projects, seemed skeptical of the new policy changes. As she tossed her bike into the back of her bright pink chauffeured stretch Hummer idling and blocking the Wheelock Grand Round path nearby, she was asked for comment and grumbled, “I mean, we have those discontinuous, door-zone, painted bike gutters on Hamline and Minnehaha, isn’t that enough already? I never even see anyone using them anyway.” As she rolled coal while driving away, a toxic plume of exhaust and tire microplastics drifted over Mayor Allcity, who stayed to talk to reporters about his upcoming announcements next week to present simple new plans to fix a host of other challenges facing the city, such as homelessness, affordable housing, and gun violence.