A Suburban New Yorker Develops a St. Paul State of Mind

I am a rising junior at Macalester College in St. Paul but am originally from Mount Kisco, New York, a town of 11,000 people 37 miles north of New York City. Not many people from my high school ended up migrating to the Midwest, and even fewer came to small colleges in this part of the country. For me, coming here was a conscious, countercultural decision.

Primarily, I wanted to live in a city. This was partially for career reasons and networking opportunities, but also because confining myself to a hamlet with a small college sounded boring and maddening. I knew I was not going to have a car, so I needed to be somewhere walkable, eliminating most of the Sun Belt cities. Coastal cities (LA, New York, Boston) and Chicago have a prohibitive cost of living, knocking them out of consideration. The Minneapolis–St. Paul region perfectly fit the bill, and so two years ago I packed up my stuff and moved thousands of miles to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Ever since, I’ve been enamored with the amenities and sense of community in the Twin Cities. Freedom summarizes my experiences with St. Paul — the urbanist-oriented freedom to go where I please, and the opportunities that this freedom brings.

St. Paul supports the multimodality that allows me to get to a location via cycling, walking, taking transit or some combination of all three. I am from a car-dependent suburb; the car was how I got to all my functions. Driving turned into a detestable chore, especially through my commutes to work. The sheer monotony of freeway driving for 20 minutes each way never failed to put me in a sleepy and sour mood. I resented how the built infrastructure of my town forced me to drive for everything, a task that was unproductive, isolating and dangerous. I cast away my motorist roots, and wholeheartedly embraced multimodality and active transportation once I got to St. Paul.

An Invigorating Commute

Biking is usually my transportation of choice. I revel in the satisfaction and independence of powering my movement with my own two legs. Simply doing daily tasks — traveling to the grocery store, to the pharmacy, to work — is invigorating exercise, as opposed to the stagnation and atrophy of driving. I arrive at my destination feeling refreshed and inspired instead of slow and lazy, and cycling home after a meal out makes me feel like I earned the food.

Cycling can even feel mystical; it puts me in relationship with my environment. I see pedestrians and hear birds chirping, and get time to think and ponder, freed from the unrelenting stress of driving and stimulated by the blood flow of a light workout. Through its bike lanes and trails, St. Paul liberates me from the drudgery of the car toward the pure joy of the bicycle.

Minneapolis skyline, as seen from the Luce Line mixed-use trail. Photo: Adam Schwalbe

To be clear, I speak from a position of extreme privilege. I am able-bodied, young and affluent enough to afford a 1989 Trek (called a “Cadillac” by a friend), giving me access to these experiences and this sheer joy. Other people (including many of my friends) can’t partake in bicycle-transportation because of disabilities and different comfort levels for danger. Society and government engineer this exclusivity. Given more accommodation, more people could use cycling and walking infrastructure. However, we prioritize the cost of infrastructure over its accessibility, leaving us with miles of unprotected cycling lanes and cracked, uneven sidewalks. This is active-mobility infrastructure at its most basic, but a substantial portion of the population can’t use it. The freedom that I experience is exclusive, rooted in how St. Paul constructs its built environment.

Even among people who do use bicycle lanes and paths, plenty of factors degrade the experience. There is danger in the relatively limited reach of the bike network and the condition of many of the city’s roads. I live adjacent to Summit Avenue, which — despite the controversy over its painted bike lanes — is a mostly smooth, paved biking street, but this luxury is unavailable for many of the city’s citizens. Improvement is in the air with the City Council’s recent ratification of the bike plan, promising 160 miles of new separated bicycle paths and a truly city-spanning network. Once actualized, this will bring us closer to the active mobility ideal, by extending bike lanes and separated trails to more people, giving them the freedom to cycle instead of drive.

Uneven streets are more treacherous for cyclists, who have thinner tires and less cushioned seats. Photo: Wolfie Browender

Liberation and the Bus

Cycling for transportation faces one massive drawback in Minnesota: It is fundamentally limited to the eight months of non-brutal weather. Cycling in the dead of winter is unpleasant and can be dangerous, despite what diehard cycling advocates might say, and so relying on the cycling network year-round is not always an option. Metro Transit is a good non-car option to fill these gaps, and the two combined mean that car-free living is certainly feasible for some in the Twin Cities.

Public transit, though, is not just for the times when cycling gets too difficult. The joy of riding the bus has already been discussed at length by Katie Nicholson in their article that charts their development from “car-brained” suburbanite to Metro Transit enthusiast. I agree with Katie’s premise and would add that public transit is the best way to travel socially.

This is partly because the alternatives to transit face large problems of their own. Driving with a group stifles the social atmosphere; the driver’s eyes are constantly on the road, diminishing the conversation and experience, a stressor that rush hour or other traffic only augments. Bicycling with friends is also fun but relies on compatible physical ability and fitness. Public transportation is both accessible and relaxing, freeing concentration to be allocated toward conversation and giving a shared sense of adventure as you weave through Metro Transit’s web of schedules and transfers.

It is true that traveling by transit alone is not always relaxing; on public transportation, one is confronted by the public. Crimes on Metro Transit counted at 2,232 for the first three months of the year (an average of around 25 per day), a frighteningly high number despite the 8% drop from the same period in 2023. People’s experiences of others threatening or harassing them are valid, and it is understandable why someone would not want to take transit alone. Similarly, though, its safety varies depending on which type of transit you use. Local and BRT buses tend to feel safer than the cities’ two light-rail train lines, due to the conspicuous presence of the bus driver creating an “eyes on the street” effect. Whatever one’s comfort level with public transportation, having the option to take the bus liberates people from the ubiquitous tyranny of cars and gives them more choices in how they get around.

Furthermore, buses create places of socialization (so-called social infrastructure) and create interactions among people of all walks of life. I, and my fellow riders, can appreciate the diversity of the city when interacting with folks on a bus or train. I was once on the A Line, a few stops away from my college, when a gentleman (an elderly Ethiopian) offered me a Payday candy bar. Being an ever-suspicious New Yorker, I declined — but we ended up chatting about his experiences as an older immigrant and his opinion on the current Tigrayan war, which I had been thinking about. These are perspectives and stories I would have never gotten elsewhere, and I am grateful for the intergenerational, cross-class, race-mixing pot that the bus creates. Public transit, on a very human level, liberates you from narrow and regressive ways of thinking, beyond the literal freedom of transportation it creates.

Some might be surprised to hear that I sometimes do drive (through the Evie carshare service) in the Twin Cities. I made this switch because of time pressures — the cycling and transit network are not always quick enough. Most of my car trips have been to places otherwise not easily accessible by bike or transit (i.e., Richfield or Bloomington or western Minneapolis), but it has also been useful for hauling and moving things. To deny the utility of cars would be absurd; our infrastructure and transportation investments highly prioritize them, and thus a car trip often consume only one-third of the time of a comparable trip using a bicycle or transit.

However, the ease of transportation of an automobile is a proverbial deal with the devil. Cars are expensive to own (verging on $12,000 per year according to some estimates), which consumes over a quarter of the area median income. Further, most expenses are fixed or sunk costs (i.e., depreciation, maintenance, insurance), meaning once one owns a car, there are few costs to making the marginal trip. This obfuscates the damage to one’s pocketbook and means that cars snatch up trips that might have otherwise been made using active transportation. Ultimately, living in a place which is unimodal and paying a great deal of one’s income to Big Auto is the antithesis of freedom. You are freer to move around quickly, but you pay such a large, unwarranted price for it — a price that the built environment often requires. Car-centricity shackles one to a transportation mode that atrophies the muscles, shortens the lifespan and bleeds money to Detroit and Middle Eastern petrol dictatorships.

Car ownership in the Twin Cities is a necessity for some, but completely optional for others. I have the great fortune of being young and able-bodied, living amid bus lines and cycling infrastructure, and having no children or elderly relatives to shuttle around. For the rest of us in the second category, we can find abundant freedom in St. Paul and its alternative forms of transportation — namely cycling and public transit.

Freedom to Get Out and About

St. Paul also facilitates access to simple joys. I have found exercise, and especially running and bicycling, to be one of these delights. St. Paul has a plethora of multi-use paths and quiet neighborhood streets, which are wonderful for stretching one’s legs and getting a break from the daily monotony. Chief among them in my experience has been the Mississippi River trail, between the Lake Street bridge and the Ford bridge, containing flat terrain and wonderful views of the river. With 93 miles of off-road trails, St. Paul makes it possible to find a spot to run or cycle without having to drive to get there. The Trust for Public Land recently named us third in the nation for our park quality (swapping our second place with Minneapolis, which last year was No. 3). St. Paul is truly world-class in its use of public land, facilitating folks to get out and move around.

A viewpoint over the Mississippi River, along Mississippi River Boulevard just north of Ford Parkway in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The view along Mississippi River Boulevard, north of Ford Parkway in St. Paul. Photo by Tony Webster (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Every time I go back and forth between St. Paul and my hometown, I am struck by this exceptionality. My hometown is typical for an American town, containing a plethora of hiking and running trails — which are accessible only by car. There is a special irony in driving to go for a walk, which diminishes the availability of exercise and the experience of doing so. The freedom to get out and move around is one of our fundamental liberties, and St. Paul facilitates that freedom  to exercise to a wonderful extent.

The Twin Cities also have an unusually inclusive attitude toward exercise and cycling. People usually perceive road biking as a sport reserved for midlife crisis-era men with too much time and money, and as such it retains a haughty, exclusive air. Contrast this with an experience I had just a few months ago, during a group ride for the organization Our Streets. About 200 people of all backgrounds gathered and meandered on a slow bike ride around Minneapolis, through the Midtown Greenway, downtown and back to Venture Bikes. No one got dropped from the ride, and very few people were there in “cycling kit“; the ride had a casual atmosphere. They even had bikes to use for free; the barriers to entry were virtually nonexistent. The Twin Cities has its fair share of adrenaline junkies and competitive racers, to be sure, but we also have groups that host slow rolls and noncompetitive rides. This diversity of philosophies and practices gives more choice to the individual about the style of exercising in which to participate, and fosters inclusion, allowing more people to experience the joys of cycling and conversation.

From the simple joy of inclusive exercise to the more principal issues of transportation and association, the Twin Cities does a remarkable job at fostering freedom and opportunity. There exist ways of being in St. Paul which are not possible in the vast suburban oceans making up our Republic. Not everyone wishes to pursue freedom to the degree that I, a hippie college student, do. However, everyone deserves to actualize their desired lifestyle, and to this end, the Twin Cities does remarkably well. These places give us the chance to move around, to meet people, to foster connections, to find freedom and purpose — in short, to build the foundations of a healthy, well-lived life.

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash