Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan Sports 21st-Century Design

Quite a lot has been written on in recent months about the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, which is now at 90% completion. Media coverage abounds, and the plan’s chief opponent, the PR-savvy Save our Street (SOS) group, continues to disseminate misinformation.

That was in evidence at an SOS meeting at the University of St Thomas on March 21, where presenters advanced the outdated idea that an in-street painted bike lane is safer than an off-street, grade-separated surface for the bicycle. They referenced the late John Forester, a strong advocate for the bicycle being positioned with the flow of motor vehicle traffic in the street and a vocal critic of in-street painted bike lanes and separate off-street cycleways as were being built in the Netherlands and Denmark during his time.

Opponents of the proposed trail also claimed that driveways and intersection crossings would be a safety hazard for cyclists, and this too has been debunked in real-world examples by Dutch cycling advocate Mark Wagenbuur.

SOS folks continue to elevate concern about tree loss, which is distorted given that the 90% version of the Summit trail plan realigns the street so that the cycleway space is on the outside edges of the construction envelope the entire length of Summit. By design, the cycleway space will require less material and cost per unit of space and will be easier to maintain due to the lower impact of the weight of the bicycle compared with motor vehicles. In addition, there are no large curbs to build for the hard-surface bicycle trail.

SOS members hold up NOT TRUE signs at public meeting
Save Our Street members “voiced” their displeasure at a public meeting on February 27 about the city’s Summit Avenue trail plan (photo by Ed Steinhauer).

After the meeting, a woman shared drawings that illustrated her high concern about backing out of driveways on Summit. A man asked why I was holding up a sign that read “NOT TRUE” — a nod to the SOS tactic at a city-sponsored meeting in late February at House of Hope church — and we had a friendly, constructive conversation, the likes of which have been in short supply around this topic.

The 90% concept affects the overall street system of Summit Avenue in St. Paul. This change is about more than the bicycle. Summit functions and hosts activities for many people, throughout the Twin Cities, all along the corridor. The 90% plan will benefit all of us who live nearby or who use Summit Avenue.

The most basic change in street design is the exchange of the on-street bicycle lane with the parking space, thus positioning the non-motorized space on one side of the street and the auto carriageway on the other side of the street. By extending the boulevard width farther into the street space and repositioning the curb line, the actual width of the street is decreased from 28 to 20 feet wide. The boulevard and green space are wider, and the cycleway space is positioned on the boulevard level where the parking space was previously.

The proposed Summit 90% plan is a 21st-century design concept, and we must urge city planners to apply these elements of design to many other streets, whether we are rebuilding that street or not.

Image from Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, City of St. Paul

The image above from page 121 of the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan is a rendering of what sections A & C of Summit would look like with the proposed redesign of the street system. This concept is the same alignment of travel lanes as a parking-protected bike lane system displayed in the image below.

Note that the parking lane is floated out from the sidewalk/boulevard to create a space for the bicycle and a buffer space to access the car. This alignment of space sections is a much better system than Summit Avenue now. This element has been applied to street design for many years in Denmark and the Netherlands; the first evidence of it in the United States was in New York City in 2009.

The photo below shows the current Summit Avenue street design (28 feet) with the parking lane on the right side next to the curb boulevard and the in-street “door zone bike lane” in the middle of the street, on the left side of the parking space. This configuration and placement of the in-street bike lane was the best-known design practice when the Summit Avenue bike lane was originally implemented around 1993; it is now outdated.

Summit Avenue’s on-street lanes were the design standard when the city implemented them in the early 1990s (photo by author).

The concept of the parking-protected bike lane alignment shown in the proposed Summit Avenue 90% plan is critically important. Among the most important benefits is easier maintenance of the entire street throughout the year, especially during the winter.

Winter Maintenance

Winter in St. Paul means snowbanks progressively move out into the street, narrowing the roadways. This only gets worse as city crews plow the streets. Despite the best efforts of our Twin Cities public works departments, maintaining the bike lanes has not always been easy or effective.

One problem is that a parked car will cross the bike lane after a few inches of snowfall, and with any thawing or freezing the bike lane surface develops into a rutted, frozen and bumpy surface, making it difficult — if not dangerous — to use by bike.

On Marshall Avenue, the city forbids parking on alternating sides of the street two nights each week, between 2 and 7 a.m., to help keep space clear for both parking and cycling. Beginning in 2009, this system has rarely worked well to maintain the bike lanes in winter. Varying temperatures within a week’s time can cause a thaw and re-freeze that makes the snowbanks harder if not impossible to plow.

A parked van on Marshall Avenue renders the bike lane unusable, and note the snowbank protruding into the street (photo by author).

Plus, even with visible signage, drivers don’t always comply with moving their cars. Earlier this winter I counted 14 vehicles still parked on Marshall between Cleveland and Prior on the south side of the street on a Tuesday morning at 4:30 a.m.

Cars are visible on a wintry Tuesday morning at 4:30 a.m., despite signage saying cars can’t park on Marshall (photo by author).

By contrast, the Summit Avenue off-street cycleway space between the sidewalk and parking lanes would be open 24/7 for crews to clear the space. This makes it possible to minimize or eliminate the development of large snowbanks expanding into the street, thus maintaining the width of the entire street more effectively throughout the winter. In addition, the bicycle space itself would be far easier to clear and maintain throughout the winter than any of our in-street, “door zone” bike lanes today.

These maintenance elements represent a huge benefit to the street system for Summit Avenue and could be applied to Marshall and other streets.

Additional Benefits and Considerations

The alignment for the cycleway provides much better sight lines for a person on a bicycle and someone backing a car out of a driveway. The cycleway should have the right of way by design.

Image from Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, City of St. Paul

The 7-foot width of the cycleway will provide adequate space for different users, including two people on bicycles traveling next to each other. A person on a bicycle commuting will be able to easily pass someone with disabilities using a hand-crank bicycle, for example. This would be a much safer space for the elderly and people with disabilities than the bicycle lane in the street on Summit now.

The carriageway for the auto space will be smaller, decreased from 28 to 20 feet wide, and the green space and space for people will be widened together on one side of the street. Summit still will have sidewalk space for pedestrians.

The 12-foot width of the auto traffic lane (compared with the current 11 feet) should be adequate for Summit Avenue traffic and still narrow enough to calm the movement of motorized vehicles. Although Summit is not a truck route, tour buses and other large vehicles do use it. The traffic lane in the street would be functionally narrower than the current width because there is no bike lane and the parking space will be aligned next to the motor vehicles. The engineering standards (reaction space, for example) would be applied differently than the current street design now. In addition, if someone using a bicycle really wanted to bike in the street, the 12-foot width is adequate with the movement of motor vehicle traffic.

In my view, this new design concept preserves and reclaims the historic concept much better than the current wide street the way it is now.

We should consider the feasibility of applying the basic elements and alignment of the 90% Summit concept to other streets and places: Ford Parkway in Highland, Marshall and Prior avenue and Minnehaha West. Extending the boulevard farther into the street, and making the street narrower to provide space on the boulevard for a cycleway surface, is an elegant form of street design.

We can even color the asphalt of the cycleway red, like the cycleway infrastructure in the Netherlands.

Editor’s note: Voice your support for the 90% Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan at the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on Thursday, April 13, 6:30 to 8 p.m., at Palace Community Center, 781 Palace Ave. Commissioners need to hear your POV! Email your comments by noon on Wednesday, April 12. Put PRC Public Comments in the subject line and send to: Then plan to attend the meeting wearing blue or purple (to counteract the SOS members being asked to wear green) and bring along a bike helmet, per Sustain Saint Paul.

About Paul Nelson

Pronouns: he/him/his

Car free adult for 39 years of life Early volunteer sweeping glass off Midtown Greenway Involvement and volunteer work for walk/bike and public transit issues since 1970s