On June 6, the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department presented some rough ideas to the public for a Summit Avenue Master Plan. It wasn’t the best presentation and some aspects of the various proposals were vague or unclear, but the core ideas that were presented deserve our attention and support.
Summit Avenue is one of St. Paul’s oldest bikeways. Based on bike count data, Summit is also the second most popular place for people to bike in St. Paul, averaging around 1,100 cyclists per day. It provides the best east-west bike route in the city, running directly from the Mississippi River to John Ireland Boulevard, the State Capitol and downtown.
As good and popular as the Summit bike lanes are, however, they have some deficiencies. In winter, parking cars drive back and forth across the bike lanes, compacting even small amounts of snow into ice sheets. These can grow into small berms that are difficult to ride on, even with studded tires. Also, snow melts and refreezes in curb gutters, forming larger ice berms. As these build up and combine with plowed snow, they can cause cars to park farther into the bike lanes. This is particularly true east of Lexington Parkway, where the whole street narrows and the bike lanes go from being 9 feet wide to just 5 feet. In these narrower areas, cyclists have to swerve into the motor vehicle lanes to avoid ice or parked cars.
For at least two decades, cyclists have wanted a few east-west routes and at least one north-south route that are maintained throughout the winter. Back in 2010, the city tried a “snow-plowing pilot project” on Marshall Avenue but was unable to keep the on-street bike lanes free of ice and snow or keep the parked cars out of them. The only places where the city has been successful at maintaining bikeways in winter are off-street paths like Mississippi River Boulevard, Como Avenue, Wheelock Parkway, Johnson Parkway and the Ayd Mill Trail.
Even in warmer months, the narrowness of the Summit bikeway east of Lexington is uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. At just 5 feet wide, the bikeway forces cyclists to ride in the door-zone of parked cars on one side. On the other side, large volumes of motor vehicle traffic often speed past with less than 3 feet of distance between cars and bikes. If a cyclist makes a wrong move they can end up dead or badly injured. This is a big deterrent for younger or less confident riders. In addition to the deaths of Virginia Heuer and Alan Grahn, many other Summit cyclists have been hit by cars.
Here’s a sampling of crashes from local newspapers:
“Sunday, 5:56pm, a female bicyclist was taken to the hospital with minor injuries after being struck by a vehicle on the 400 block of Summit Avenue.”(Highland Villager, October 27, 2021, page 16)
“A 31-year-old man was cited for careless driving after striking a bicyclist at 7:36 a.m. Monday, August 22, on Kent Street and Summit Avenue. The bicyclist was taken to the hospital.”(Highland Villager, September 14, 2016, page 20)
“A St. Paul woman has been charged with felony criminal vehicular operation after police said she veered into a bike lane on Summit Avenue and hit a bicyclist from behind. …The 52-year-old male victim was not identified. A criminal complaint said he spent a week at Regions Hospital and suffered substantial bodily harm. … Witnesses told police that Johnson was driving her GMC Yukon west on Summit Avenue near Dale Street when she drifted into the right bicycle lane. She hit the man on the bicycle, and threw him into the middle of the intersection.”(Pioneer Press, October 29, 2014)
Lastly, many pedestrians also get hit by cars on Summit, particularly east of Lexington, where current street-crossing distances are over 48 feet and traffic volumes are higher. Here are more random examples from local media:
“Tuesday, March 14, 6:23pm, a pedestrian was injured after being struck by a vehicle on Lexington Parkway and Summit Avenue.”(Highland Villager, March 29, 2017)
“A 78-year-old woman was cited for failing to yield after hitting a pedestrian in the crosswalk at 4:44 p.m. Friday, September 20, on Chatsworth Street and Summit Avenue.”(Highland Villager, October 26, 2016, page 19)
“A pedestrian was struck while crossing a street in St. Paul’s Summit Hill neighborhood late Wednesday afternoon. The 72-year-old St. Paul woman, who was not immediately identified, was taken to Regions Hospital, where police said she was in critical condition with multiple broken bones. …Witnesses told police the woman, who was walking her dog, was crossing Summit Avenue near Chatsworth Street about 5:15 p.m. when she was hit by a westbound vehicle”(Pioneer Press, November 3, 2015)
Slowing traffic on Summit Avenue and reducing crossing distances could greatly reduce the frequency, number and severity of pedestrian crashes. For all the above reasons, bike and pedestrian advocates have urged the city to improve the Summit Avenue bike lanes and pedestrian crossings.
Next year, a section of Summit Avenue from Lexington to Victoria Street is scheduled for reconstruction. The street is over a hundred years old and is falling apart. So this is a full reconstruction that will replace sewer and water lines, construct a new roadbed, and repair or replace sidewalks. This seemed like the perfect time to revisit the Summit Avenue bike lanes and consider converting them to off-street, parking-protected bike paths that would be maintainable in winter and would shorten crossing distances for pedestrians.
The core idea is simple. The parking lanes and bike lanes would be swapped, with bike lanes placed near the trees on the outside of the street, and the parking lanes (and the curbs) moved inward, next to the road. The goal would be to work within the existing road width so as not to impact any trees and avoid adding any extra asphalt to the corridor.
West of Lexington
West of Lexington, the motor vehicle driving lanes are 11.5 feet wide. The parking lanes (where they exist) are 8 feet wide. And the bike lanes are 6 feet wide with a 3-foot painted buffer for a total of 9 feet in width (see diagram below).
The most viable proposal is to move the bike lanes to the outside, on a curb-protected path, with a small grass buffer for snow storage.
The curbed area of the road would be narrowed and the bike paths would be just 8 feet on each side, instead of their current 9 feet. So the entire corridor would lose 2 feet of asphalt. Even with a 4-foot grass snow-storage buffer, paved surfaces would be just 1.25 feet closer to the trees, plenty of distance away to avoid any impact. So this proposal would result in no tree loss, no parking loss and a sizable gain in unpaved green space: 2.6 miles multiplied times 2 square feet or 27,456 square feet of asphalt would be removed from the avenue.
Right turn lanes and existing parking bans near intersections would ensure that cyclists are visible to drivers, and there would be “Tabled” or “Raised Crosswalks” at all unsignalized intersections. These raised, marked crosswalks make the bike path smooth, avoiding dips and rises at every intersection, something that also benefits walkers and wheelchair users. Additionally, raised crosswalks mean that drivers crossing the bike path have to drive over a slight, marked hump, slowing them down and further alerting them to the presence of cyclists and pedestrians.
St. Paul has used raised crosswalks to good effect on multi-use pathways on Como Avenue, Wheelock Parkway and Johnson Parkway. Being raised up, tabled crosswalks also keep snow and ice from forming in crosswalk gutters and benefit both cyclists and pedestrians in winter. Because of these benefits, parking-protected, off-street bike paths with tabled crosswalks are used in cities throughout the United States, including cities with huge motor vehicle traffic volumes like New York.
East of Lexington
Summit Avenue narrows east of Lexington Parkway. The driving lanes are a half-foot narrower and the bike lanes are only 5 feet wide with no buffer (see diagram below).
Two options could work within the existing width of the roadway and avoid impacting trees.
The first option is to merge the two 5-foot bike lanes into a single 2-way, 10-foot, off-street bike path and place it outside one of the parking lanes, narrowing the curbs and adding a small snow-storage buffer between the parked cars and the new path.
This option would have the exact same amount of paved surface as exists now and would move paved surfaces just 1.5 or 2 feet closer to trees (depending on the width of the grass buffer). It would not destroy trees or eliminate any parking. It would require some kind of intersection transition at Lexington Parkway to get cyclists from one of the one-way paths across Summit to the two-way path. There are simple solutions and more elaborate ones, like a “barnes dance,” but it would require some research and engineering.
The second option would be to take away a lane of parking east of Lexington. The 8-feet of the removed parking lane would be divided between the two 5-foot bike lanes to make 9 feet of bike space on each side, similar to what currently exists west of Lexington. Those 9-foot spaces would then be moved outside the parked cars, on curb-separated paths with a small snow-storage buffer, nearly identical to the paths west of Lexington.
It would narrow pedestrian crossing distances on Summit from the current 48 feet to just 30 feet. Even with 8-foot bike paths and 3-foot grass buffers, this configuration would, like the paths west of Lexington, remove 2 feet of asphalt from the entire corridor. It would move the paved surfaces (the paths) about 2 feet closer to the trees. For 95 percent of the corridor this would have no impact on trees. For the few trees that are closer to the street, the path or its buffer could be narrowed to give them the exact same amount of space they currently have.
To avoid completely removing parking from one side of Summit, the Parks Department proposed having the driving lanes “chicane” or gently curve from side to side, allowing some parking on both sides of every block. The city currently does this on parts of University Avenue, Western Avenue (between Marshall and I-94) and several other streets. It allows parking on both sides of the street and tends to slow drivers down, another safety goal for Summit Avenue. (See the street diagram below, depicting chicaned driving lanes, from the Parks Department presentation on June 6.)
Removing some parking east of Lexington is a sacrifice, but the city conducted a parking study and found that, with the exception of the area around Dale Street, parking on Summit is very under-utilized. So plenty of parking capacity exists.
Here is a page from the parking study that the Parks Department presented on June 6:
Debunking Some Myths
Some members of the Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association (SARPA) have organized opposition to any of the aforementioned proposals. They’ve created a petition, website, lawn signs and a paranoid group called “Save Summit Avenue.”
They claim hundreds of trees will be destroyed by changing the bike lanes to off-street paths. As I’ve demonstrated, however, this is bogus. No trees need be harmed, anywhere. City replacement of aging water or sewer lines might impact trees, but converting the bike lanes to off-street paths will not.
SARPA claims that under the bikeway proposals, Summit will lose “considerable parking (50 percent or more).” But, as I have demonstrated, this is also untrue. No parking would be lost west of Lexington. East of Lexington, at most, half the parking would be lost (if the One-Way Bike Paths option is chosen). This would result in a maximum total avenue parking loss of just 25 percent. If a two-way bike path is chosen, no parking would be lost at all.
SARPA claims off-street paths will be dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians. But the city has numerous off-street paths: on Mississippi River Boulevard, Como Avenue, Wheelock Parkway, Johnson Parkway, Cherokee Avenue, and around Lake Como and Lake Phalen. They are among the safest, most popular places to walk and bike in the entire city. Bicycle and pedestrian count and crash data prove this, as do national and international data.
Some people, including SARPA members, repeatedly argue that an off-street bike path will cost too much and “we should be spending the money elsewhere.” But the street is getting reconstructed no matter what happens, down to its sewers, curbs and roadbed. The cost to put bike lanes back in a different position as part of that reconstruction is little or nothing. The only real cost is the planning process itself.
Finally, SARPA claims that off-street bike paths will “destroy the historical character of Summit Avenue.” But this is also bogus. Summit Avenue has undergone many changes in its history. It was originally just a dirt road.
- In 1880, the League of American Wheelmen, a bicycling organization, started the “Good Roads” movement. Sixteen years later they persuaded the City Council to approve a protected bike path down the middle of Summit from Lexington Avenue to the Mississippi River, splitting the cost with the city. It opened on June 13, 1896 to much fanfare. In April 1897, over 4,000 cyclists used the new path in a single day.
- As with much of the United States, automobiles eventually overwhelmed Summit Avenue, and by the 1960s some portions of it had four lanes of traffic.
- When the current on-street, striped bike lanes were proposed in the early 1990s, many of the same bogus arguments were leveled against them that SARPA is using now: “They’ll be dangerous”; “They’ll destroy the historical character of the avenue”; “They’ll cost too much.”
The current proposals do not widen the street or increase the amount of asphalt. They merely switch the position of the driving, parking and bike lanes. On-street parking is not part of Summit Avenue’s “historical character.” Cars themselves are not “historically accurate” to Summit Avenue. When the avenue was built, people got around by horse and carriage. So it is a selective reading of history to assert that off-street bike paths would destroy the historical character of the street.
The Best Option
Of the options presented by the city, I favor one-way, off-street bike paths on each side of the street for the entire length of the avenue. I have two reasons for this: Safety and ease of implementation.
Single-direction protected bikeways have a somewhat better safety record than two-way bike paths in situations with a lot of cross streets. This is because bikes are traveling in the same direction as car traffic. Drivers entering or crossing a street reflexively look for oncoming traffic and are, therefore, more apt to see bikes. On a two-way bike path, bikes traveling in the opposite direction of traffic may go unnoticed. Mitigation is possible with raised crosswalks, bike lane markings, no-right-on-red signage and special signals. But absent these, one-way bike paths are much safer.
This leads to ease of implementation. While the safety deficiencies of two-way paths can be adequately mitigated, this assumes that the city would construct any bike paths all at once. In reality, they would probably construct paths in stages as funding becomes available, much as they’ve done with Wheelock Parkway and other streets.
In this manner, it could take five to 10 years to do the entire length of Summit. If the upcoming stretch from Lexington to Victoria was done as a two-way bike path, it would present difficulties transitioning to and from the current one-way, on-street bike lanes at each end. The city could put in an “interim” two-way path treatment east of Victoria, like we see downtown on 9th and 10th streets or on Pelham Avenue, but it would lack the raised crosswalks and other mitigation measures that enable two-way bike paths to be as safe as one-way bike paths — and it could languish in this interim state for years until street reconstruction funds were secured.
By contrast, one-way off-street paths would fit nicely with the one-way on-street bike lanes that are on Summit now. Transitioning between the two would be easy, and the city could do a section at a time without any major disruptions to bike traffic (or car traffic). It also fits with more recent one-way, on-street bike lanes in front of the Cathedral or the one-way bike lanes on the new Summit Avenue Bridge or over Ayd Mill Road.
As I have stated, west of Lexington for 2.6 miles, one-way bike paths wouldn’t require any parking removal. East of Lexington, one-way paths would require removing half the on-street parking. But it would narrow crossing distances and increase safety for pedestrians and would be safer for cyclists. Plus, in the few places were parking is fully used (like near Dale), parking loss could be mitigated for residents by implementing some permit or timed parking areas on Summit itself or on side streets. Overall, the one-way, protected bike path option east of Lexington is a bigger political lift, but I think it’s worth it for safety.
SARPA and its “Save Summit Avenue” campaign have already generated several hundred emails to City Council members. If you favor any of the off-street bike path proposals, write to your City Council members and let them know. Otherwise a big opportunity will be lost.
If you’ve never experienced a protected off-street bikeway, here’s a short video of one on St. Paul’s Wheelock Parkway, with raised crosswalks and other amenities.