St. Paul Can Embrace One-way Protected Bike Lanes

Tl;dr – Build out protected one-way bikeways in St. Paul now, be open and honest that you aren’t going to fully maintain them in winter, YET, but plan for and invest in the capacity to do so soon.

As a person who gets around St. Paul by bike, its lack of transportation-focused protected bikeways, especially compared to neighboring Minneapolis, is extremely apparent. I’m using the term “protected bikeways” to encompass both on-street and off-street facilities, though really, one-way, on-street facilities are my main target for expansion. Protected lanes are generally preferable because they discourage illegal car parking, provide a physical barrier between cyclists and faster moving traffic, offer opportunities for safer intersection designs, and can be more easily cleared of snow, because heavy car traffic doesn’t pack the snow down into ice. They should be used on any street with high car traffic volumes and/or fast mean vehicle speeds, which includes just about all of St. Paul’s arterial streets.

Figure 1, left: An example of a one-way protected bike lane along 11th Avenue in Minneapolis. In this case, concrete curbs to fortify the plastic bollards help dissuade incorrect/illegal car parking in the bike lane. In the righthand image, just around the corner from the 11th Ave. protected lane is an unprotected lane on 2nd Street. A Loomis truck can be seen illegally parked in the bike lane while also idling illegally.

Minneapolis’ network of protected options seems to continually grow compared to St. Paul. While not everyone is sold on changes in Minneapolis like those on Washington or Blaisdell Avenues, I’ll take them literally any day of the week over the narrow, rutted, door-zone lanes on Minnehaha Avenue or unprotected bicycle gutters next to 40+ mph tractor trailers on Pierce Butler Route by my house in St. Paul. While St. Paul has added some great off-street facilities as well, such as paths along Johnson Parkway, Como Avenue, Wheelock Parkway, and Plato Boulevard, much of that growth has been centered on the Grand Round and park areas. While fantastic resources and investments, these paths have limited utility beyond recreation for most people due to their locations on the periphery of the city. From a transportation perspective, these routes often require longer trips with limited connections to destinations other than parks. While some year-round transportation cyclists such as myself use parts of this system (Como in particular because it connects to the University of Minnesota transitway) because it is the most reliably cleared of snow and they’re often highly pleasant routes, most people either aren’t willing or able to go so far out of their way on a regular basis.

Even ignoring any comparisons to Minneapolis, St. Paul’s transportation-focused protected bikeway system – excluding those trails above that are more recreationally targeted – is tiny at less than two miles. Basically, there’s Jackson and 10th Streets in downtown, which are being discontinuously joined by Wabasha and Kellogg in the next couple years as parts of the Capital City Bikeway, and St. Anthony Avenue from Pierce Butler to Dewey Avenue. If you want to include the Ayd Mill Road trail, which while totally comfortable, is excessively loud and connects to few destinations in a straightforward manner, there’s another 1.5 miles, so we’re up to a whopping 3.3 miles or 0.176% of the 1,874 street miles in the city. I’m not including others like the Little Bohemia Trail because while it can be useful, it’s in terrible shape and discontinuous. So, that’s it – 3.3 miles of comfortable protected bikeways that aren’t largely geared toward recreation in the entire city. These limited options are great, but are largely disconnected from the rest of the bike network, especially similarly protected and comfortable options, so they offer little in the way of a dependable, connected network for people to get around currently. And it shows when you look at St. Paul’s ridership percentages compared to Minneapolis (less than half, or 2.1% vs 5% as of 2015). It’s not hills, it’s not weather, it’s the infrastructure, stupid. If St. Paul wants to achieve its Vehicle Miles Traveled reduction targets, we’ll need a better, more continuous network of safe, comfortable routes so people feel empowered to choose low-carbon and active travel modes instead of forced car dependency.

With that in mind, how can St. Paul grow its protected bikeway network, which respondents overwhelmingly said they want in surveys about the updated bike plan and Summit Avenue? Well, if you listen to Public Works and others, basically we can’t. We don’t have any money, writ large, unless it’s $120 million for replacing and widening bridges on Kellogg. But when it comes to paint, bollards, or concrete curbs, we can’t afford those. According to City staff, bollards are only replaced twice a year if knocked over, which a stiff breeze can do with current mounting methods. Many have been missing on St. Anthony for over a year, so even the twice-yearly number seems overly optimistic. However, as any advocate and many policymakers like our own mayor will tell you, budgets reflect your values.

And in this regard, the budgets, and resultant inaction, speak loud and clear that anyone outside a car is still a relative afterthought in St. Paul. This is particularly evident when even options that require virtually no cost, like giving automatic crossing signals to trail users at intersections when car traffic triggers a signal change, aren’t being adopted because it might slow down cars by five to 10 seconds. And while protected bikeways cost a fraction of what auto infrastructure costs, recent expensive projects like street reconstructions on Fairview and Prior Avenues have failed to incorporate protected bike infrastructure, instead opting to largely preserve the status quo with only slightly wider or inconsistently buffered lanes. While these are improvements, they aren’t the kind of forward thinking change one would hope for during something as infrequent as a full street reconstruction.

So, let’s pretend we have enough leaders and staff with the determination to replace our current car-centric liabilities with these investments (as should be the case in any city that correctly claims that we have a climate emergency or generally wants a more financially viable and healthy community) and who want to stop decades of failing residents who would like to break free from car dependency (recent Grand Avenue outreach showed that 7% of respondents bike to Grand but 26% would prefer to). After sufficiently budgeting for adding safe, protected bikeways, the biggest change we need to see is a willingness on the part of Public Works to build one-way protected bike lanes, which are not uncommon just across the river in Minneapolis, but are unicorns or yetis in St. Paul, i.e. they don’t exist. All the St. Paul facilities I referenced above are two-way, which is extremely limiting from a space, money, and safety perspective. Many corridors won’t have space for a two-way facility without requiring expensive changes to the streetscape that only happen during full reconstructions, while one-way facilities could more easily be achieved during mill and overlays. Studies also generally show that one-way facilities are safer, especially in busy areas where modal conflicts arise at intersections from drivers turning without looking for people walking and rolling.

After funding and building them, certainly an important part of these new one-way lanes will be maintaining them. And right on cue, we get told time and again we don’t have the equipment to clear these lanes in the winter either. After yet another recent experience of hearing the excuse that there isn’t money for equipment (or staff) to plow one-way protected bike lanes, I got to thinking creatively. First, I remembered that there’s always money in the banana stand, but unfortunately that burned down a while ago. So, back to the drawing board. Then it dawned on me – and I know not all people who cycle will agree with this take – I think the City should start adding one-way protected bike lanes even if they can’t maintain them in the winter yet, and just be honest and upfront about that and commit in good faith to finding a winter maintenance solution. I think this works as a starting point for several reasons.

1) These lanes would still offer an improvement for the vast majority of the year. For eight to nine months or more each year, they’ll be fine and functional. And as forced car dependency continues to bake the planet, especially Minnesota, they’re going to be useable for even longer.

2) Most of the current unprotected lanes are functionally unusable for much of the winter anyway. Because cars pack down snow before it’s plowed and/or plowing doesn’t usually reach all the way to the curb, most unprotected lanes slowly disappear as winter progresses and snow and ice accumulate. For example, the lanes on Minnehaha, Marshall and Summit Avenues are usually completely gone by late February, because cars just keep parking farther and farther out in the bike lane. Figure 2 shows disappearing “bike lanes” on the Wabasha Bridge and where Summit crosses Ayd Mill. In my opinion, a protected lane that isn’t maintained is still better for nine months out of the year than an unprotected lane that is “maintained”, but in reality just functions as snow storage.

Figure 2: The left image shows the “bike lane” on the Wabasha Bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota. The right image shows the narrowed bike lane on Summit Ave. crossing over Ayd Mill Road, with a foot for size reference.

3) Going with on-street, but still solidly protected one-way bike lanes will be much cheaper than facilities like those along Como or Wheelock, which while great, are space- and cost-prohibitive to be added everywhere they’re needed.

4) This approach should enable many more one-way protected facilities, which are generally found to be safer than two-way facilities in most city environments.

5) Once the lanes are actually on the ground, it should accelerate the search for a solution to clearing them. Right now, we don’t have to bother prioritizing this because the situation is hypothetical and City staff can just say, “there isn’t any money for snow clearance equipment” to shut down any discussion. Once the lanes are there and people are used to using them the rest of the year, they’ll want the freedom to use them year-round.

6) Existing equipment should already be able to clear much of this network in the case of lighter snows. The City already has smaller equipment for things like sidewalks that could be used for much of this network in all but the heaviest snows, so it would likely be just the largest storms that block the routes.

Implicit in this idea is the assumption that we preemptively decide roughly what equipment would work best to clear these lanes in the future and ensure new lanes are built wide enough to accommodate that equipment for when we get around to finding an extra drop in the street budget bucket for a vehicle capable of clearing them (quick searching puts that cost starting at about $50,000 for skid steer and utility vehicle type solutions).

In the meantime, yes, those of us who ride in the winter will complain about the lanes not being plowed, as we already justifiably do, because it will still be a reflection of misplaced priorities that subsidize and enforce car dependency over all other modes. But at least for the majority of the rest of the year, we’ll have much more safe and comfortable facilities on which to ride that will actually reflect what residents (and existing City policy in many cases!) say they want to see on the streets, not just what City leaders are currently willing to prioritize. These lanes will be ready for the time in the future that we have this equipment and will be much easier to clear than existing unprotected lanes because the protection will prevent cars from packing down the snow in them, just as they will help protect cyclists from those same errant drivers.

Top image courtesy of Flickr/City of Toronto.