The St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department presented its first real draft of a Summit Avenue master plan at a meeting October 27 at Hidden River Middle School. The in-person, open-house-style format, with large printed displays, highlighted different aspects of the proposal. A staff person station at each display answered questions and engaged with the public. The city also created a nice, seven-page “Document Summary” handout that was clear and well thought out. Some of the displays were crowded, and I had the sensation of waiting my turn at a museum to get a closer look at the Mona Lisa.
To my relief, the city opted to go with a proposal to create one-way bike paths on each side of Summit, ideally 8 feet in width but narrower in places to avoid impacting trees. Although this presentation was very broad-brush, I liked what I saw and can now wholeheartedly support this process going forward.
Why One-Way Bike Paths Are So Important
Although I discussed these at length in a previous post, let’s review the arguments in favor of converting Summit Avenue’s on-street bike lanes to off-street paths.
Putting the bike lanes on off-street paths would:
- Make them easier to maintain in winter and create one good east-west route for winter cyclists through the heart of St. Paul.
- Eliminate the threat of “dooring” (getting hit when the door of a parked car opens without the occupant looking) and the threat of “overtake crashes,” the most lethal type of bike crash, where a driver veers into the bike lane and hits a cyclist from behind.
- Narrow the street because the curbs and parked cars would be moved inward and the bikeways moved outward, up onto the curbs. This would slow traffic and reduce crossing distances for pedestrians.
So, other than winter access, the primary argument for converting bike lanes to off-street paths is safety. They would also feel more comfortable but — first and foremost — the goal is to make the lanes safer for users of all ages and skill levels.
Two-way bike paths can be comfortable and safe when they have few cross streets. Mississippi River Road, the new Ayd Mill Trail or the new Robert Piram Trail are good examples of this. When they are constructed on a two-way street with a lot of cross streets, however, two-way bike paths become much more dangerous. Drivers turning across the path tend to look only in the direction of oncoming traffic.
As this diagram shows, cyclist “A,” riding in the opposite direction of street traffic on a two-way path, is invisible to cars “A” and “B,” which are turning across the bike path.
The result is that two-way bike paths with lots of cross streets have much higher incidents of so-called “left-hook” and “right-hook” crashes. Numerous studies have shown this but here are two examples: Attention and expectation problems in bicycle–car collisions: an in-depth study 1998 and Bicycle accidents and drivers’ visual search at left and right turns 1996.
Bottom line: When there are a lot of unsignalized intersections, one-way cycle paths are safer then two-way cycle paths.
The Problems With Two-Way Paths
Special signaling can mitigate the problems with two-way bike paths, and St. Paul did this on Jackson Street downtown, but most of the intersections on Summit are unsignalized so this is not an option for the city’s grand street.
St. Paul has constructed numerous two-way bike paths, but designers attempted to limit cross streets with most of these:
- The Mississippi River trail has almost no cross streets as it runs along the river.
- The new path on Como Avenue from Raymond to Snelling has just two intersections, both of which are signalized, and just three low-traffic, unsignalized intersections before it connects with Como Park.
- Wheelock has the most intersections but there was no space for one-way bike paths and, where possible, the trail runs along the bluff or adjacent to parks and schools to minimize cross streets.
- On Johnson Parkway, the city eliminated every other cross street to make it safer. Even then, cyclists traveling southbound (against the normal flow of traffic) occasionally get hit by turning motorists who don’t notice them, like this woman who was recently hit at Johnson and 6th Street.
So, if our goal is to improve safety, we shouldn’t be building a two-way bike path on Summit. One-way, off-street bike paths down each side of the street are much safer.
The other issue, which I raised in my previous post, is that any off-street bike path would be constructed in sections over a period of many years as funding becomes available and as sections of Summit come up for repaving or reconstruction. A two-way bike path would be much harder to safely implement because cyclists would have to transition from the existing one-way, on-street bike lanes to completed two-way path segments and back again, exposing them to car traffic at transition points. Also the city just put in a new bridge over Ayd Mill with one-way bike lanes and a fairly new one-way bike facility in front of the Cathedral. A two-way path wouldn’t fit with these and would require they be partially reconstructed.
For all these reasons, it is a great relief that the Parks Department has opted to go with one-way paths down each side of the street.
One-Way Paths Won’t Hurt Trees
The key thing to understand about this project is that, where need be, it can be done within the existing width of the road and thus shouldn’t impact trees. If the city takes half the parking east of Lexington (as it proposes to do), that’s 8 feet of parking space divided between the two 5-foot bike lanes, which would create 9 feet of bike space on each side of the street. That’s plenty of space to create a parking-protected, off-street bikeway without widening the street at all. You could have 7.5-foot, one-way paths with 1.5-foot buffers on each side of the street without widening the street or impacting trees.
West of Lexington, you have an additional half foot on each side from wider driving lanes and 9 feet of already existing bike space on each side. So you could have 8-foot paths with 1.5-foot buffers on each side of the street, without widening it at all.
These are the minimum hypothetical widths, and the Parks Department proposal didn’t get down to this level of detail. But, In places where trees are set farther back, the buffer size could be increased by a few feet and the width of the trail itself could vary depending on the proximity of trees.
Eight or 9 foot, one-way, parking-protected bikeways are the backbone of urban bike networks in most U.S. cities. Most don’t have the money to put the bikeways up on curbs the way we are proposing. So they just run them in the street, like these protected bike lanes in New York City.
They have proven to be safer than on-street bike lanes of the type we currently have on Summit Avenue. Similar configurations exist in Chicago, Boston and plenty of other places that have snow and ice. In all these places, cities are able to do a good job of clearing them in winter. Note that many of them have no curbs and no buffers at all but are safe and maintainable.
In the Twin Cities, you can see examples of 8-foot paths with narrower 1.5-foot buffers or no buffers at all. Mississippi River Road from Pelham Boulevard to the Minneapolis border has only 1.5-foot buffers, and it’s a two-way path. Summit paths would be one-way.
From the CP Rail Bridge over the Mississippi all the way to Franklin Avenue, Mississippi River Road has no buffer at all. Yet, as in the previous segment, the City of Minneapolis does an excellent job of maintaining it in the winter.
The multi-use path on Otto Avenue has no buffer (other than a painted line) and gets cleared in the winter.
Washington Avenue in Minneapolis has one-way, off-street paths on each side of the street that are only 6 feet wide in places and have no buffers, but they get maintained in winter.
Summit’s paths could be 1.5 or 2 feet wider, have small buffers and be largely parking-protected, yet still fit within the width of the existing street.
Clearly, it’s possible to design one-way bike paths with smaller buffers that wouldn’t impact trees but would still be maintainable in winter. The Parks Department did a good job of conveying this at their open house on October 27. They also discussed costs, historical issues and intersection treatments, like bump-outs, tabled or raised crosswalks and other amenities.
Conclusion: If we want to attract less experienced cyclists and make cycling a year-round transportation option, we need to design facilities that are safer and better than what we have now. For this reason, I support one-way, off-street bike paths on Summit Avenue. All of the material from the Parks Department presentation will be put on the Engage Saint Paul website, hopefully by the time you read this column.
Check it out and send your comments and preferences to city staff and your City Councilmembers. Let’s make this happen!