We have the bikes, here come the trails
With more paths and a conference Wednesday, St. Paul aims to become state's bicycling capital
BY JASON HOPPIN
As bicycle commuters go, Steve Scholl is among the hardest of the hard core.
Nothing stops him from biking from his home in St. Paul's Highland Park to his job downtown at the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Nothing. Not traffic, not even the most daunting of Minnesota obstacles — winter.
"Ten years ago, 15 years ago, it was really difficult," Scholl said. "Today, I think it's really easy."
With varying levels of success, St. Paul has tried to become more bicycle-friendly.
But in the next few years, an unprecedented level of public investment — millions of dollars, much of it from federal funds — in bicycle infrastructure will at least bring St. Paul's reputation closer to that of Minneapolis, widely regarded as a national leader.
For Scholl, it means something as simple as the city plowing his bike route, the Shepard Road trail, during winter. But a vast expansion of the city's trail networks now under way would eventually allow bicyclists to cross town without sharing so much as an inch of pavement with automobiles.
The developments come as the city prepares for its first Bicycling Summit on Wednesday at Dunning Recreation Center. Together with an online survey, the conference will form the basis of a bicycle transportation plan that will be added to the city's overall plans.
"Mayor (Chris) Coleman is trying to make the city of St. Paul one of the most livable cities in America, and having trails and opportunities for cyclists is critical to making the city more livable," said Anne Hunt, Coleman's deputy policy director.
"What makes a great urban city is that you have opportunities to bike or walk or get in your automobile or use mass transit," Hunt said. "You want to provide residents and business people a variety of transportation options."
NOT JUST FOR HEALTH
The Twin Cities have a reputation as a bicycling mecca, but St. Paul has always lagged behind its neighbor. In the 2000 census, 2 percent of Minneapolis residents reported commuting to work by bicycle, third highest in the country for a city of that size. St. Paul came in at a third of that rate, 0.7 percent.
But the census is taken in March, typically a miserable month for weather in Minnesota. And the top two finishers, Tucson, Ariz., and San Francisco, are fair-weather cities year-round.
"It says something about the activity level here — a lot about the activity level here," said Bob Works, who heads the bicycle and pedestrian program for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Demonstrating the area's love for biking was this weekend's 12th annual St. Paul Classic Bike Tour, for which 7,000 cyclists registered to ride, including Coleman. It is the biggest bike tour in the state.
And there are anecdotal reports that many more people are hitting the roads on their bikes daily, driven largely by health-awareness campaigns and the cost of gasoline.
"It sure seems like there's been an increase in the number of cyclists in Minneapolis and St. Paul," said Steve Clark, bicycle- and pedestrian-program manager for Transit for Livable Communities, a nonprofit organization that oversees a $25 million pilot project to improve bicycle infrastructure and awareness, one of four such federally funded projects in the country.
"It's not just gas prices and climate change, but also health consciousness," Clark said.
And that may be one of the factors pushing St. Paul trail projects — more people than ever are using them.
One of the biggest projects is the extension of the Midtown Greenway into St. Paul. By putting a dedicated bike lane alongside the railroad bridge near St. Anthony Avenue, the project would create the second Twin Cities Mississippi River crossing exclusive to bikes and pedestrians (the Stone Arch Bridge is the first).
Eventually, the Greenway extension would connect to a new trail along Ayd Mill Road, which connects to the Interstate 35E bike route, which connects to the Dakota County Big River Trail.
And that's the point — connectivity. Once a series of interconnected projects is completed, cyclists will be able to:
• Pedal from an afternoon concert on Harriet Island to Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood for dinner while staying off streets altogether.
• Travel from the University of Minnesota to the Capitol, helped by new trails in Como Park and a bike lane along Como Avenue.
• Bike from Lowertown to, well, Duluth, if you're motivated enough, via an extension of the Bruce Vento Regional Trail in the works that will connect downtown to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and a series of regional and state trails.
Furthermore, while Summit Avenue was one of the first streets in the metro area with a bike lane, Minnehaha, Como, Marshall and Fairview avenues and others now have striped bike lanes. And more are coming.
It's a far cry from St. Paul's ill-fated 1995 foray into bicycle utopia. With much fanfare, the city introduced dozens of communal yellow bikes for the citizenry to jaunt about town.
It was a harsh lesson for idealists pushing alternative modes of transportation. Within days, they started showing up mangled and vandalized. Others just disappeared.
Other ideas have emerged since then. In mid-2004, Metro Transit finished putting bike racks on every bus. Trains on the Hiawatha light-rail line also have racks, as will trains planned for the Central Corridor. Metro Transit's Bob Gibbons said they've helped people get out of their cars, especially with the recent spike in gas prices.
"Anecdotally, our bus drivers tell us they've seen a big increase" in the number of bikes, Gibbons said.
Bicycle backers say it has taken a major change in mind-set to get street engineers, for example, to think beyond the automobile. But it is happening. The city's parks department and its public works department now work bikes into their plans. When Marshall Avenue was recently repaved, for example, a bike lane was added.
St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Bob Bierscheid said the health and welfare of residents are part of his responsibilities, and biking opportunities are one way to address that.
"We've got this obesity issue that we're dealing with, and it's getting worse, not better," said Bierscheid, an avid cyclist. "We've got to get people out and active."
People who have toiled in grass-roots efforts to see these kinds of improvements say things have changed since the old days. Political leaders are more willing to back the projects as assets — not only to residents, but also to business leaders looking to locate a new shop or factory.
"I think the opportunities have gotten better and the climate has gotten better," said Richard Arey, a founder of both St. Paul's bicycle advisory board and the St. Paul Classic. "It does take a certain amount of self-enlightenment, but it does work."
Jason Hoppin can be reached at email@example.com or 651-292-1892.
If you go:
What: St. Paul Bicycling Summit
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Dunning Recreation Center, 1221 Marshall Ave.
If you have an interest in cycling in Saint Paul, it would be good to go this meeting. I expect to be there and am even skipping choir practice to do so!