Thursday, September 14, 2006

Saint Paul Bike Summit Report

I went to the Saint Paul Bike Summit last night at the Dunning Community Center on Marshall. This was hosted by the Saint Paul Bicycle Advisory Board (I'd put a link but the information is very ancient so I won't bother) and was a forum to present accomplishments, discuss plans, solicit comments and prioritize items brought up by the audience. About 50-60 people attended, including me.

[Note: this entry is likely to be boring enough for everyone, but is going to especially tedious if you are not familiar with Saint Paul and riding here. Sorry!]

As a bit of background, I have no history of bicycle advocacy other than just riding the damn things, and, for the last year and a bit, writing this blog. I did wonder last year while riding the Midtown Greenway (Phase III of which just opened September 8th, by the way, congratulations!), who put this together? I like many of the rails to trails ideas, the Greenway is unlike most paths in that it is fast, direct, useful and non-scenic, and I'd wonder who worked within the system to get this stuff done, especially with my vague awareness of the long timeframes, competing constituencies, funding issues, planning requirements, etc. I have no direct knowlegde of these issues, but know they exist and am glad that people have worked and are working on our behalf within the system.

The meeting started with some reviews of things getting done. Many of these I've noticed; the bike lanes painted on Como Avenue from Dale to Rice (my usual route downtown, e.g., to the Saturday Farmer's Market), the lanes newly-painted on Marshall towards the river (not my usual route, and the lanes stop early, but from where they stop to the Lake/Marshall bridge is two lanes wide and down a hill so I have no problem taking the right lane and zooming down), the newly-painted lanes on Como west of the Intercampus Transitway and the ones on Concord down by Boca Chica.

The longest part of the meeting was the comments section. You may not be surprised to know that practical cyclists are an opinionated bunch. Without taking minutes, the comments included these things:
  • The lack of decent north/south routes through the western part of the city was a recurring theme. There are two sets of railway tracks and Interstate 94 that present really big obstacles, and smaller ones like the Ayd Mill road cutout. North/South, I like the Chatsworth route (or Chatsworth/Victoria if you want to cross University on a light) but it requires carrying your bike across an "informal" railway crossing when there's no train there. I speculate that if the City asks BNSF for a crossing the rail guys will fence the damn thing off. The only other level crossings on these fast main lines in the city are at Black Bear Crossings (Como Avenue, SE side of Como Park and heavily-controlled, not that that prevented a 7-year-old on a bike from getting clipped and killed a few years back), and Talmage Avenue which actually is in Minneapolis now that I look at it, not that anybody knows where it is. Adding a new uncontrolled level crossing may not be what they want to do.

  • Others complained about Snelling south of Como across the railways. This probably does suck, but I never ride it, partly because it sucks so bad. Cranky we may be but we are nothing if not persistent; one guy said he'd been commuting on that route for 25 years and the bridge is due for a rebuild.

  • Some of it was poor sidewalk thresholds that dump you into traffic. The older thresholds, or ramps (there is some name for them) went down at the apex of the sidewalk corner, which dumps cyclists or wheelchair-bound people into traffic. The new ones go straight across, two apexes or a continuous radius on the corner. Old ones will be replaced in the normal course of events but no time frame was mentioned, there are bound to be some around after I'm dead.

  • There is another feature for traffic calming where the curb for the parking lane comes out and narrows the street down to one lane. We have this on Victoria south of Larpenteur near our house. I know neighbours liked this idea to slow down traffic (I went to a couple of planning meetings back in the mid-90s on this); from a cyclist point of view, it forces us out into the traffic lane. People proposed a jutout that doesn't stick out so far.

  • Various complaints. Poor bad paving on older trails, bad snow removal, debris on trails, cars in bike lanes, etc.

  • Specific street complaints; Snelling was the worst, no surprise, I prefer not to drive on it, followed probably by Lexington (my Chatsworth route is a parallel alternative to Lexington), Hamline and University. Ford Parkway was repainted but no bike lane added. Lanes suddenly ending. Lexington, for instance, is excellent north from about Roselawn to County E (just about exactly where I ride) in Roseville and north. In Saint Paul, south of Larpenteur and particularly south of Como Park it's narrow and too fast and there's not much they can do about it. One guy said Hamline and Marshall is the most-run red light he knows in the city. I don't like Hamline south of University and this is no surprise to me.

  • Some people like the recent improvements on Selby including some sort of structure in the middle of the street, if I understood correctly, which I may not have. I'll have to go take a look.

  • A couple of comments struck me as odd. One person said we need to integrate with the Minneapolis trail system. For the most part, there's a river between us and the opportunities to connect are extremely limited (Highway 5 bridge, Ford Parkway/46th Street bridge, Marshall/Lake bridge, hopefully the Short Line bridge, and the Franklin Avenue bridge). The Intercampus Transitway and Como Avenue, both on land borders, are already hooked up. How can we not connect with them? Also, one woman was very concerned about changing the laws to allow bicycles on sidewalks in some business districts. Is that a worthy undertaking? Has anyone ever gotten ticketed for sidewalk riding?

  • Some things are more complicated. This was the City of Saint Paul, not Ramsey County, not the Met Council, not even Falcon Heights or Lauderdale. The plans end at the city limits. One guy, who says he commutes from Hudson to Minneapolis each day, would like Larpentuer made more bike-friendly. Larpenteur, at least from Dale to Highway 280, is actually pretty good, wide with a big wide shoulder/parking lane. It narrows a bit between Lexington and Hamline, but stays useful and direct to Hwy 280, where Minneapolis starts, the street changes its name to Hennepin and it gets busy, narrow, broken up and often obstructed by trucks and commercial traffic. I normally take Eustis down a sharp little hill to Como right before this happens and ride the rest of the way west on Como. [at the moment, BNSF is rebuilding a cruddy old steel railway bridge on Como and you'll get detoured on weekdays. Go north to Talmage and you can try out the other mainline level crossing. On weekends, you can ride your bike under the bridge. I think it's done in October.]

    The complication with Larpenteur is that it is the Saint Paul and Roseville city border. I once called 911 on a car crash on Larpenteur. The operator asked me which direction the car was heading. Does it matter? If it's eastbound, she told me, I'll call Saint Paul, if it's westbound, I'll call Roseville. Oh. Eastbound, I said, but it crossed the median and is now in the westbound lanes. I left her to sort out who to call. Given this niggling over who to call about a crash, how will we possibly coordinate striping lanes and installing signage?

  • Education and awareness. It's always an answer. The vast majority of motorists share the road with cyclists without undue issue. There is a tiny minority who are mouth-breathing twits. Education and awareness is not likely to help them. One guy said he once had a drink thrown on him, got the license, but the cops wouldn't do anything because he couldn't tell who was driving. He was indignant; that would never happen to a car! Oh yes it would. I had a Saab 900 I liked a lot and was sitting at a red light in Duluth one morning when I got rear-ended so hard I hit the car ahead of me who hit the car ahead of him. The guy who hit me took off. The cops seemed to know who this guy would be and in less than half an hour found him at home. Been home all morning he said, smelling of booze. Cop looked at the car, which not only had front-end damage and was still warm but also had my taillight in his grille (the cop there and my cop compared part numbers from my intact taillight and the one in the guy's grille). However, nobody saw who was driving and this boozed-up insurance-free bozo got off free. It doesn't just happen to bikes. (and if you ever get in a crash while drunk, take off and lie, there are apparently no consequences)

  • Maps. There used to be a Twin Cities Commuting Map available but someone said it's out of print. Several people complained about how there wasn't a decent map of the Twin Cities for cyclists and that the Metropolitan Council should update it and reissue. I think they're wrong. I really like Little Transport Press's Twin Cities Bike Map, which has the core cities on one side with every street shown, and the larger metro area on the other. I adore maps anyway, and liked this one a lot when I first got it, but I like it even more now that Doug Shidell, the publisher, incorporated a couple of my comments on the latest one (Minnehaha west of Snelling as a marked route rather than Thomas, for instance, and the full length of the Intercampus Transitway). It's in bike stores now, it has the Light Rail on the cover and you can instantly tell it apart from the prior version of the Light Rail cover map by looking at MSP airport and seeing if the north/south runway is shown (another suggestion of mine, though I think he rendered it too short) (the really old Little Transport Bike Maps had the Stone Arch bridge on the cover and, although ok, weren't as good as this one). I actually talked to Doug about buying a bunch of these (10 or 12, whatever the package is) and carrying a couple with me for sale because people ask me about them so much (I stop a lot because I'm taking pictures, admiring the view, drinking beer, plus I'm from Iowa so am a friendly approachable guy) and want to know where to get them. I direct them to their local bike store, but if they're lost when they ask me it would be handy to give them a map. Just call me Matt the Friendly Bicycle Ambassador. By the way, Doug also does Madison and Milwaukee maps and a Twin Cities Bird Map, not that I've seen these others.

  • The last place I could have sold these maps was to three women on the east end of the Midtown Greenway by the Short Line Bridge, which as I have reported earlier, had a fire this summer. These ladies were from Chaska and had somehow got onto this trail, not at that point officially open, and followed me because I looked like I knew what I was doing. I told them this great trail might go over the ratty-looking bridge and connect to Saint Paul. We chatted, I showed them the map and where they were and directed them to the West River Road and towards Minnehah Park. The good news is, it sounds like the trail will go on across the bridge. Nobody is confirming anything, but the City of Saint Paul is doing the trail up Ayd Mill and calling it the Greenway and the comments made it sound like the Short Line bridge will be accessible to bikes. As usual, this is probably a couple of years out, but that would be great.

  • Bike Parking is an issue. Many people commented that it was an inhibitor to using their bikes more. The good news is that there are racks going in in the Marshall/Cleveland business area (think Izzy's ice cream and Trotters Cafe and Bakery) as well as in other places. There were a lot of comments, and I'd used mine on the Chatsworth rail crossing and didn't want to go again, but not only is bike parking (decent racks and especially lockers) not widely available enough outside common destinations, it often sucks outside bike stores. I first noticed this at World Cycling Productions and mentioned it in my blog, mocking them since the customers drive their cars there to get their $700 bike wheels, but in fact a lot of bike shops have sucky bicycle parking. The place to start might be getting decent racks outside bicycle retailers, then start hounding others. Jim at Hiawatha Cyclery has done a nice job outside with racks outside his shop, for instance, and he sells the Twin Cities Bike Maps, so you can have a fulfilled Practical Cycling experience. I may do a page of Bike Shop Bicycle Parking in the Twin Cities to illustrate this point.

  • At one point a lady was commenting on the proliferation of drive-through lanes for various businesses and someone piped up, yeah, and they won't even let you use them! Damn Right!

  • Although University Avenue is plenty wide enough for bike lanes at the moment, it probably won't be when Light Rail goes in there. There will be requests for sidewalks, parking, traffic, left turns, bike lanes and light rail, and it probably won't all fit, although the design hasn't yet been settled upon. Just don't be surprised. Also, University is likely to be tougher to get across once light rail goes in assuming it looks like the Hiawatha Line and not like Toronto's streetcars. I think it's due to open in 2014. These planning time frames are enormous.

All in all it was an interesting evening. Jim at Hiawatha has commented recently about how much he dislikes government and maybe anarchy would be better. That's a safe viewpoint from the standpoint of someone who's government provides police protection, puts out the fire if your house burns down, built the street you live on, enforces the property rights that allow you to stay there and provides a legal framework which, among other things, gives the mortgage company enough security to lend you the money to buy it, clears the snow, allows fresh water to come out of your taps and takes care of your shit when you flush the toilet. I think anarchy sounds greatest when you're a college sophomore. However, anarchy quickly dissolves into something else, tribal or feudal or fascist or, very rarely, and after some struggle, democratic.

This Bicycle Summit was a good example of citizens participating in government. Our opinions were being solicited, our viewpoints heard, non-cycling City of Saint Paul engineers were there to hear what the cycling community wants. I appreciate the opportunity to be heard and to have some tiny influence on what happens. Will we get everything we want? Nope. Can we affect what happens next and provide the benefits of our cycling experience? Yes. And we can affect it better if we're not the only anarchists; it'd be bad if well-organized pet owners got outdoor free-range hamster runs funded while anarchist cyclists just complained about The Man and how much it sucks and You Just Wait. As I mentioned earlier in the article, I have from time to time been astonished and grateful that someone, quite some time ago, took the time to get the approvals, design, funding and construction of the Minnehaha Park trails, the Midtown Greenway, the Munger Trail in northern Minnesota, the bike lane striping on Como and Marshall and Minnehaha. Somebody gave enough of a damn to get that stuff done, they probably did it in their spare time and they probably didn't get paid. Now it's our turn. Maybe one day we'll get a level crossing at Chatsworth and the railroad tracks and it'll be christened the Matt Memorial Level Crossing to choruses of rousing cheers; maybe they'll talk to BNSF and the railway guys'll have a conniption and fence the thing with barbed wire and my name shall evermore be cursed. Maybe nothing will happen. At least I will have tried my little bit to influence what happens, and I'd encourage you to do the same.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Saint Paul Bicycing Summit

The Saint Paul Bicycling Summit will be held Wednesday from 7:00-9:00PM at the Dunning Recreational Center at 1221 Marshall Avenue. I could summarize what this is about, but only noticed it from the Saint Paul Pioneer Press article, which I quote below. There is also an online survey about Saint Paul bicycling you can take.
We have the bikes, here come the trails
With more paths and a conference Wednesday, St. Paul aims to become state's bicycling capital
Pioneer Press

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."


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 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!