Friday, March 16, 2012

I've Been Working on the Railroad

We've been uncommonly warm here the last few days, after an unusually warm and snowless winter. One of the big markers of springtime in Minnesota is "ice-out", when the ice on the frozen lakes melts out and the lake returns to open water. On March 15, Como Lake was on the verge.
Ice nearly out on Como Lake, March 15, 2012
The ice has gone black and there's some open water at this end of the lake. The next day it would be in the upper 70s and the ice would go out of Como. I don't pretend to know what average is, but I expect it is 2 or 3 weeks later. Heck, the last date for getting fish houses off the lakes was February 29, just two weeks ago.

Ice out has nothing to do with cycling, of course, other than the warm and lovely weather has got lots of people out riding. I was among them, riding down to see how this season's construction on the Central Corridor Light Rail was going to affect my usual southbound routes.

Chatsworth crosses University and makes a dandy north/south route if you don't mind one informal railroad crossing. Once the light rail is in, this will be a signalled crossing. Going north from here you run into the informal railway crossing issue, then into navigational confusion around Como Lake. Southbound, Chatsworth goes all the way to St. Clair, then, with a one-block detour, down the hill to Jefferson and West 7th.

One irony of the light rail is that the Twin Cities used to have a wonderful streetcar system. Many of these streets are excellent cycling streets nowadays since they are pretty wide. University Avenue had streetcars (one of the reasons it is so wide and has always been a useful if not scenic cycling route, something that is likely to change if Saint Paul Public Works has their way) and so as they tore up the street they unearthed the old streetcar tracks. At one point, they are said to have tested the tracks to see if they were usable. Had they gone with a more modest streetcar installation (like Toronto has always had, or Portland has installed), one can't help but wonder it they wouldn't have worked, but instead it's going to be a much heavier "light rail" train and have a major railbed.
Old streetcar tracks dug up on University Avenue

If you're driving, you can't cross University at Chatsworth, but there is still a pedestrian crossing. They'll work the south side of the street first, with all traffic funnelled along the north two lanes, then switch and do the reverse. I think pedestrian access will be maintained all along, and happily, it's good enough for cyclists.
Pedestrian crossing of University at Chatsworth, March 2012

Hamline is the same sort of arrangement; no traffic access across University, but a pedestrian accomodation big enough for bicycles.
Pedestrian crossing of University at Hamline, March 2012

How this all ends up laid out when done is still open for discussion. The plan is to do four traffic lanes with no on-street parking. This is going to suck in many different ways, mostly because it will put high-speed traffic (yeah, yeah, 35mph limit, but these will be 12 foot lanes, the same width as Interstate Highway lanes) right next to the sidewalk, not pleasant for pedestrians and offputting for, say, sidewalk cafes. I'd like to see one through lane and one parking lane with a bicycle lane between them. It's not perfect; it's a bike lane running right in the door zone, but it allows on-street parking for the small businesses which populate University, those which survive construction anyway.

In the meantime, we can still get across University by bicycle and keep an eye on how construction progresses. They've sure got an early start on it with this weather.

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