Rethinking Mississippi River Boulevard

Prior to widely available vaccines, the terrible situation during the peak of COVID-19 prompted many cities to repurpose street space for people — many of which have now become permanent changes. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul made such moves on a temporary basis. Minneapolis repurposed space on park roads, creating some of the most enjoyable urban cycling routes I’ve ever experienced, as well as creating neighborhood slow streets. St. Paul’s efforts were more sparse, but still created some really pleasant spaces.

One of these was Mississippi River Boulevard (MRB), where the increased space available to active users (terminology which I’ll use to include basically anyone not in a car, truck, motorcycle, etc.) alleviated the often overcrowded conditions along the river and limited car movement to one direction, significantly increasing the overall active user experience and safety. Every time I visited this stretch (which was a lot, because it was great), active users far exceeded those in cars. Unfortunately, these changes have not been made permanent, despite being one of the lowest-hanging, highest-impact fruits on the active transportation tree in the entire city.

Repurposing space for people strolling and rolling created a quieter, calmer, more enjoyable Mississippi River Boulevard for people outside a car. Those driving still had the option of every single other street in the city.

Others have written nice pieces about this topic, but I feel an update is warranted. As Amy Gage more recently reported, there was widespread support for the proposal to repurpose space on MRB. While you will always hear from entitled drivers who believe they should have the right to drive anywhere at any speed at any time, their views and concerns often run counter to reality. While I’m a strong proponent of listening to the community, there are also examples of feedback that shouldn’t be considered in policy discussions, several of which were brought up in Gage’s piece. 

Discerning between Signal and Noise

First, discount any type of ad hominem attacks. For example, any feedback that addresses cyclists instead of cycling isn’t valid. It doesn’t matter if some cyclists are “Tour de France wannabees” (a common trope that applies to almost no one), what matters is that devoting more space to cycling increases transportation safety and supports other city policy goals. It would be inappropriate to make policy and planning decisions based on the prejudiced views of one small group of people.

Second, comments implying that cars or drivers are being pushed out of the city are hard to take seriously, because they’re demonstrably false. A full third of our city’s area has been given over to cars and the addition of a few paltry miles of bike-specific infrastructure hasn’t shifted that number. In a car, you can drive anywhere you want and find abundant parking once you get there. Both St. Paul and Ramsey County are still expanding space for drivers in multiple areas, and even the places where things like road diets or small amounts of parking removal have repurposed space, cars are still the primary focus of virtually all transportation planning and policy. The comic of the billionaire taking 99 cookies, then telling one “regular” person that the other is trying to take their one cookie comes to mind. Basically every street and road in the city is primarily devoted to cars, whether or not it contains multi-modal components. 

Third, we and our elected officials have an obligation to do what is right, not what is popular (though adding safe, accessible bike infrastructure is also very popular). Making spaces that are safe and inviting for low-carbon, active modes is the right thing to do in a time of climate and health emergencies and economic stress. Cars are polluting our environment, are bad for our health, and are huge drain on community and personal wealth. 

With this last point in mind, the following are five reasons (in no particular order and not meant to be exhaustive) why we should more broadly be looking to repurpose space from cars in St. Paul.

Five Reasons for Repurposing Streets

First, there isn’t space for everyone to drive everywhere all the time. Cars and cities boil down to a geometry problem. Cars are an extremely inefficient use of transportation space, to which we have already given away far too much space that could otherwise be used for parks, housing, or other non-polluting forms of transportation that don’t destroy health and wealth. 

Second, cars and their infrastructure are expensive for the city and its people. Cars are heavy and do lots of damage to roads, something that will only get worse with heavier electric cars. The space they take up is expensive to pave and maintain. We can’t afford to maintain our current car-centric maintenance liabilities and should be doing what we can to decrease them and make investments in more economically and environmentally sustainable forms of transportation. And because other transportation modes cost individuals so much less to use, the more we support and enable people to choose modes other than driving, the more money those people can personally save.

Third, cars are loud and polluting. Their omnipresence degrades the experience of our city, in this case the beautiful river setting, for everyone else. While sharing space between cyclists and people walking or running can also lead to issues, this is ultimately traced back to cars, which take up a disproportionate amount of space on MRB and force people walking and biking to share the crumbs of space that remain. By repurposing some road space for cycling, we could upgrade the experience for all active modes.

Fourth, cars are dangerous. The primary danger to current active users of MRB is cars (directly, or through everyone else being forced to share a too-congested space). This is especially the case at intersections, but is also the case for any people cycling on the road in the narrow, unprotected bike lane. 

Fifth, climate change is real. The St. Paul City Council rightfully declared a climate emergency. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gasses in Minnesota. We need to give people the freedom to choose low-carbon transportation modes.

Now Is the Time

With recently completed mill and overlay projects along most of the length of MRB, the time to make changes is now. The entire 4.6-mile stretch from Marshall to Prior has now been repaved, so if we act soon we can minimize the damage cars do to this new surface and maximize the time this side will last after devoting it to less destructive and polluting uses. Realistically, the best time would have been during the mill and overlay, so that lane striping could have reflected the new alignment, but that ship has already sailed like too many others here in St. Paul (such as adding an off-street bikeway along Griggs as part of the Midway Peace Park project or making any improvements during a reconstruction like the recent one on Prior Avenue). 

The current trail needs a major reworking. Multiple sections have extensive cracking and are sloping toward the river gorge with a 10% or greater grade at some points as the river slowly claims the walls of the gorge through entropic erosion. So while it would have been better to complete such a project during the mill and overlay, today is still better than tomorrow and certainly better than in 20 years when the current path is falling into the river gorge.

Many sections of the shared-use path along Mississippi River Boulevard are sinking into the Mississippi River Gorge already.

City staff have too often shown themselves unable or unwilling to find low-cost and efficient ways to complete projects (a less-than-one-block gap in off-street paths between the US-52 bridge and Robert Piram Regional Trail was recently proposed to be connected at a cost of $500,000!), and the eventual needs of the current path will almost certainly cost many millions of dollars we don’t have to address. This means it would most likely languish until funds could be found.

Repurposing the existing space by separating car and bike spaces on the boulevard with a concrete curb that could be added by borrowing Minneapolis’s curb machine would provide a low-cost solution to addressing existing issues with overcrowding, poor conditions and other policy aims of the city. While the trail will still need to be fixed, repurposing space on MRB would also improve the user experience for everyone strolling and rolling along MRB today, something that wouldn’t be accomplished with a much more expensive repaving and regrading of the existing path alone, because in many spots there isn’t space for wider or separate paths for biking and walking. Given the sheer number of people using this space, separate spaces for people walking and biking should be a strong priority. Saving money while getting better outcomes is a clear win-win.

All of this amounts to what should be a slam dunk for the city. We could save millions of dollars, improve safety and experience for active users, expand freedom of transportation choice and lower emissions. Such a repurposing of space would strongly support existing city policy and addresses issues that generally have broad community support, if polled at a ward or city-wide level. And perhaps best of all, we’ve already done a test case of these changes and the world didn’t end. We simply got a quieter, safer and more spacious facility for people walking and rolling.

Will our leaders take the opportunity to act and harvest this low-hanging fruit, backing up existing solid policy with excellent practice? Council President Brendmoen mentioned “turning it up to 11” during her final year on the council. A change like this would certainly speak volumes about the commitment of the city to active transportation. Come to think of it, “Amy Brendmoen Bikeway” sure has a nice ring to it!

Photo at top by Tony Webster (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0); all other photos by the author.