St. Paul’s ambitious new bike plan has a few holes to fill

17 July 2023

When the St. Paul City Council adopted the St. Paul Bike Plan in 2015, jubilant cheers erupted from the assembled crowd of helmet-toting bikers in City Hall. For the first time in the city’s history, there was an actual roadmap for how and where to build bike routes on the city’s streets. It set a course that would, in theory, transform St. Paul car-choked streets into places that allowed more people to get around without having to drive. 

Though the pace of change has been pedestrian, having the plan on the books meant that, little by little, bike lanes appeared on streets like Cleveland Avenue and a dozen other main drags. The 2015 plan was a turning point for bicycling in the city, which was recently ranked as the seventh best large city for bicycling in the US. (Minneapolis ranked No. 1.) 

Eight years later, the city’s public works department is updating the plan to reflect greater aspirations. The update is driven by the fact that a lot has changed in the world of bike planning over the last decade. Notably, many cities have focused more on protected bike lanes, more popular with cyclists than stripes of paint. These are spaces where cyclists are separated from vehicle traffic by concrete curbs, bollards, or something more substantial than paint or flimsy plastic.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The temporary design for the 10th Street Capital City Bikeway, which peters out at an onramp.

The new plan reflects these greater ambitions, outlining a set of connections that could double ridership throughout the city. But the bike plan also reveals a tradeoff between expediency and quality. One open question, raised by long-time bike advocates, centers on the tradeoff between expensive, high-quality bike infrastructure that takes a long time to build, and more compromised, cheaper projects that might happen more quickly. It’s a tough call because mediocre bike infrastructure can often serve nobody well. On the other hand, nobody wants to wait 10 long years to safely cross a busy street.

An ambitious plan

For the most part, St. Paul’s new plan is relentlessly ambitious. Off-street protected trails are the clear focus of city efforts this time around. Eight years ago, these green “protected lane” lines were a rarity on the plan map. More often, the 2015 map offered a spectrum of design approaches ranging from (useless) “sharrows” to bicycle boulevards to on-street bike lanes. 

City of St. Paul

This time, protected lanes are everywhere. It’s a big deal for a city that might see a lot more investment in the near future. This spring the state legislature gave St. Paul permission to put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot in November. If passed, the new money would double the pace of capital construction projects. 

That vote has big implications for the bike plan because, while not directly linked to bike infrastructure, the new investments would quickly lead to bicycle investments. As Senior City Planner, Jimmy Shoemaker, explained, it’s not a coincidence that many of the proposed routes selected as “priorities”  in the bike plan are also identified by the sales tax funding. Much of the new money would go to reconstructing main streets, and almost all of the new designs include high-quality bikeways.

City of St. Paul
The proposed bike plan has one key map that features “priorities,” proposed lanes that are circled on the map and would be first in line for funding.

“If you were to overlay the sales tax streets proposal you’d see many of those streets part of the sales tax are also shown on the bike network,” said Shoemaker. “This is especially true for the planned bike network priorities; the one that comes to mind is Hamline Avenue.”

Other highlights of the priority list include:

The Summit Avenue regional trail (much discussed)
A bikeway on St. Anthony or Concordia, next to I-94, which poses major challenges due to dangerous onramps, but could transform a often deadly situation by the interstate
A five-mile-long protected Bikeway along East 7th and Minnehaha Avenue, on the East Side
A two-mile long protected bikeway along Cesar Chavez, on the West Side
A four-mile long protected bikeway on Hamline Avenue, from Pierce Butler Route to Montreal Avenue.

(The last three projects all appear on the city’s sales tax list.)

The downtown challenge

Back in 2015, the first of two centerpieces of the bike plan was the Grand Rounds, an off-street loop around the city linking up as many parks as possible. That portion of the plan has proved a rousing success. Three large segments along Como Avenue, Wheelock, and Johnson Parkways opened up in the spring of 2021. The Grand Rounds, as it’s called, is now 99% complete and in great shape for recreational riders.

The other big leap forward was the Capital City Bikeway, an ambitious network of off-street trails through downtown, long a place where bike lanes go to die. Beginning with a key stretch of Jackson Street, the off-street protected lane was unveiled in 2016. Since then, the city has added another (technically temporary) design running 9th and 10th streets. Just this spring, staff unveiled a four-block curb-protected segment along Wabasha Street, running from City Hall to the Children’s Museum.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The Jackson Street Capital City Bikeway opened in 2016.

The resulting series of two-way protected bikeways look great, and set a high bar for downtown bike infrastructure. But there’s one big caveat: they don’t connect to anything. For example, the 10th Street connection ends abruptly at an onramp next to the History Center parking lot; on the other end, it peters out at the bridge over I-35. The new Wabasha Street section throws cyclists into chaotic intersections at either 7th Street or Kellogg Boulevard. Neither interchange offers guidance, and make the new bikeways largely useless for less-experienced cyclists.

At one level, it’s an understandable problem. Construction downtown is expensive thanks to high density and old streets full of infrastructure. That’s why the Capital City Bikeway was always intended to be built in stages, links that one-by-one would eventually cohere. The updated bike plan includes dates for the next parts of the Capital City Bikeway: a key Kellogg Boulevard segment is planned for 2025-2027; the other key link, a two-block segment along St. Peter and 12th Streets, is currently marked as “UNKNOWN CONSTRUCTION DATE.”

City of St. Paul

That’s not good enough. Talk to struggling business owners downtown, they’re peeved about bike lanes that seem unused, compared to the parking spaces that they replaced. Having fancy bike lanes through downtown that don’t link up to the trails and paths in the surrounding neighborhoods is like buying a fancy new appliance for your kitchen, but placing it where it can’t plug into an electric outlet. It might look good, but it’s functionally useless. Today’s Capital City Bikeway fails to accomplish its primary task of bringing people comfortably to and from downtown and the surrounding city. 

Bike plan tensions

That’s a key tension around the bike plan. Lofty ambitions about new off-street paths and bridges over the railroad barriers plans are great, but how long will it take to build them? When it comes to spending city resources on short-term, interim and less refined bike infrastructure, is the perfect the enemy of the good? How should St. Paul allocate scarce funding? 

It’s a tough question, and city planners are generally mum on the subject. Still, the plan’s format holds out the possibility of tactical approaches that could change streets more quickly. A lot of it has to do with money, and how to allocate resources in a city dealing with endless pothole triage.

“While those [temporary designs] are less expensive than full street reconstructions, they’re not free,” Shoemaker told me. “They come with challenges with maintenance and upkeep. Those are not necessarily things we can’t overcome, but it is a funding issue. Sometimes pursuing funding for capital reconstructions can be easier than finding money for ongoing maintenance, even of temporary low cost Jersey barriers and flexible delineators.”

My personal take on it, as someone who has biked in and out of downtown St. Paul hundreds of times, is a that few small projects could make a big difference. The goal should be to activate and connect the existing bike loop to popular bike routes, as quickly as possible.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The current St. Anthony Bike lane could be extended for another five miles along I-94.

I’d love to see some interim treatments from John Ireland Boulevard to 10th Street connecting the existing Capital City Bikeway to to the state capitol, or something to fill the three-block gap between Phalen Boulevard and the Capital City Bikeway on Ninth Street. Using whatever creativity city engineers can muster, connecting these links should be a priority. 

City staff are still accepting comments from the public on the new plan, still in draft form. The draft should go before the City Council in early Fall. 

All in all, there’s a lot of promise in the new bike plan document. Especially if the sales tax passes in November, expect to see a lot of road construction projects in the next few years. As the potholes disappear, bike lanes and quality sidewalks will start to take their place. Once everything starts to connect, St. Paul might one day challenge Minneapolis for its “Best U.S. Bike City” crown. 

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