City secrets: For walkers and cyclists, shortcuts are indispensable

Two weeks ago I happened across a grisly scene: the death of a shortcut. I often wander around downtown St. Paul with friends, paying special attention to back alleys, old buildings and parking lots. I was walking through one of my favorite alleys when I found three construction workers placing bricks and mortar in an alley off 7th Street. They were friendly enough and told me they were working for Dave Brooks, who owned the property and the surrounding buildings. Still, the sight of the new wall made me sad because St. Paul had lost another shortcut.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The hidden value of shortcuts

In Jane Jacobs’ groundbreaking book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” she argues that “small blocks” are one of the keys to healthy and walkable cities. According to Jacobs, great cities need small blocks because frequent street corners and shortcuts foster urban diversity.

But Jacobs’ lesson seems lost in many of today’s urban designs, where massive buildings on mega-blocks have become the norm. If you compare today’s downtowns to photos from 50 years ago, you’ll find that shortcuts have all but disappeared in the city core.

There’s a hidden value to shortcuts. Most people who get around on bike or on foot have secret routes around dangerous corners or urban barriers like freeways or railroads. These include parking lots, one-way streets, back alleys, holes in fences, and even un-sanctioned railroad crossings. In fact, once you start using shortcuts, real-life journeys can bear little resemblance to directions on Google Maps.

But shortcuts pose problems for private-property owners. As I asked friends about the Twin Cities’ best shortcuts this week, I got the following warning from Paul Dickinson, a local poet and media purveyor: “If you write about the shortcuts, THE MAN will shut them down!”

Dickinson is right; shortcuts are fragile things and must be handled with care, because many of these secret routes occupy a gray area between public use and private property, where authorities can choose whether to forgive our trespasses.

The long-lost walkable West Bank

Minneapolis’ hot spot for shortcuts has to be the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood (aka the “West Bank”), the historic immigrant melting pot surrounded by freeways and big institutions.

Cadillac Kolstad is a musician who grew up around the West Bank, and works with the West Bank Business Association when he’s not playing piano. These days, he’s nostalgic for the era when it was easy to walk around.

“One of characteristic things [about Cedar-Riverside] is that the grids collide between downtown and the rest of the city,” Kolstad explained to me this week. “There were a lot of triangular shaped small blocks. The neighborhood was relatively porous and you could get around really easily.”

From 1965: Cedar-Riverside’s existing land-use plan
Minneapolis Planning Commission
From 1965: Cedar-Riverside’s existing land-use pattern, and a plan for its future. Many of the changes proposed in ’65 never took place.

Starting in the 1960s, planners focused on large-scale development and traffic flow by consolidating smaller blocks and “vacating” pedestrian rights-of-way. Many of these changes made Cedar-Riverside more difficult to get around.

Even today, the corner of old 5th Street and Cedar Avenue is the site of a battle over a historic shortcut. For years, there’s been a sidewalk running through the site of Dania Hall and old 5th Street that connected Cedar Avenue to the neighborhoods to the East. But the shortcut has been fenced off since the next-door Nomad Pub received a permit to screen World Cup soccer matches in the space over the summer.

“Having the fence there is definitely inconvenient,” Kolstad said about the missing shortcut. “It’s a frustration for people, but it’s been a controversial piece of land for 15 years. Even the [fenced-off] sidewalk that was put there was controversial, because it was technically illegal. But most people were pretty happy that it was put in.”

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Back in September, I wrote to City Council Member Abdi Warsame to ask about re-opening the sidewalk shortcut.

“We understand that this is a space that provides a key connection to both sides of Cedar Ave.,” Marcela Sotela, Warsame’s aide, replied in an email. “It is important to highlight, however, that this is not a public sidewalk. It is actually part of the lot that the City owns and therefore private property. As you mentioned, the Nomad Pub leased the property over the summer. That lease has expired and this passage will be re-opened very soon.”

To this day, the fenced-off shortcut has yet to re-open, and pedestrians looking to get to and from Cedar Avenue have to walk blocks out of their way.

The Dinkytown railroad shortcut

Granary Road, another famous Minneapolis shortcut, sits right across the river between the Dinkytown Greenway and St. Anthony Main Street. Instead of high-speed 4th and University Avenues, many bicyclists and joggers opt to trespass along the old rail yard overlooking the river. There a gravel path runs along old boxcars before turning into a paved road leading to the Stone Arch Bridge.

“It’s a popular albeit kind of scofflaw shortcut,” said Paul Buchanan, who chairs the Marcy-Holmes Transportation Committee. “You can get between that part of the neighborhood, Dinkytown, and even Stadium Village. It’s safer most of the year, and much safer during the winter, than it is to walk or ride on the street level of things. It’s separated, and there’s really never any traffic down there.”

But like many shortcuts, Granary Road occupies a gray area between private railroad land and public use, so that bicyclists and joggers are occasionally warned by campus police about trespassing. That’s one reason the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood group has spent years trying to make the shortcut official.

“The neighborhood really could use this,” Buchanan explained to me this week. “Defining a public right-of-way and creating an actual public trail is our eventual goal.”

In fact, in hopes of officially sanctioning the shortcut, Mayor Betsy Hodges wrote a letter [PDF] this summer to the University of Minnesota asking that the university “include non-motorized commuting and recreational uses in [ongoing] lease negotiations” over the railroad right-of-way.

Use them while you can

When you examine the real world of walking and biking, shortcuts become one of the lesser-known urban secrets. A well-placed alley or sidewalk easily can shave a mile off your route, and that can often make or break someone’s experience of a city.

But if history is any guide, shortcuts are in constant danger. As I write this, St. Paul’s 7th Street alley remains walled off, Cedar Avenue still has a fence, and you might get yelled at by a security guard for going along “granary road.” Keeping shortcuts open in the face of private development is a difficult job, which is why I’m going to keep the rest of my favorite shortcuts a closely guarded secret.

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 11/06/2014 - 09:55 am.

    Meeting on the alley wall tonight

    Fun fact: The Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission will be discussing the wall tonight at their regular meeting at 5pm. The city staff recommends denial of the wall for a bunch of reasons, but it’s already built so it’ll be interesting to hear what the building owner has to say, and how this proceeds through the city.

    link here: http://www.stpaul.gov/DocumentCenter/View/75632

  2. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 11/06/2014 - 10:26 am.

    The grid

    It’s a shame how much our grid has been destroyed by freeways, megablocks, etc. Even if they don’t have the charm of organic shortcuts, it should be official policy to push for regrids.

    Of course, that’s the policy when economic development is at stake, such as reopening Nicollet at Lake. But the city hasn’t stuck its neck out for other opportunities, such as 8th St in the North Loop. And the 13th Ave SE walkway through The Marshall in Dinkytown leaves much to be desired.

    A shortcut is better than no shortcut… a pedestrian bridge over a freeway trench is better than none. But we should also make these regrids more human scale. Ideas like air rights development (freeway caps) should be explored. Just think how much better the West Bank pedestrian experience would be if there was development facing Cedar Ave over the Wash Ave trench – it would be a consistent sidewalk experience from 7 Corners all the way south to Triple Rock. These trenches are the biggest missing teeth we have when it comes to neighborhood walkability.

  3. Submitted by mark wallek on 11/06/2014 - 10:36 am.

    The rest of us on the road

    Indispensable to those other than cyclists and walkers on the road-the drivers-are cyclists who actually obey the rules of the road: signal intentions, ride single file, have illumination at night. This is needed especially around the university, where I’ve been sworn at a number of times for successfully avoiding an idiot on a bike. Time for the legislature to force a maturation process on urban biking. Cyclists should be ticketed for no illumination at night, as a driver would be. Cyclists should also register and be accountable via a licensing program. I know my neighbor, knocked down twice by cyclists, left with a sizable medical bill, would appreciate this.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 11/06/2014 - 11:21 am.

      big issue

      Kind of a different topic here Mark, but I hear this a lot and will perhaps do a column on “cyclist enforcement” down the road.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/06/2014 - 11:22 am.

      Bicycle illumination

      Just as dangerous as no bicycle illumination is too much, or the wrong kind.

      I was driving home during late dusk one evening a week or so ago when suddenly I was blinded by a brilliant white strobe light coming at me from the other side of the road. Fortunately I was able to pull off to one side until it passed and I could see the source – a bicycle!

      I did a bit of Googling this evening and learned this is a common problem, arising from statutes (Minnesota 169.222, subdivision 6) that state minimum brightness and visibility requirements for bicycle lighting, but no maximums.

      As a result, apparently some bicyclists take this as an invitation to install the brightest lights possible, and have no qualms about pointing that light directly into the eyes of oncoming motorists – effectively disabling them. (Google “blinding strobe lights on bicycle” – the stories are out there).

      I understand the need for bicycle safety. But that doesn’t rule out common sense, nor does it excuse putting oncoming traffic at risk. Motorists are not permitted to blind other motorists by driving with their high beams on. Nor should bicyclists be permitted to use illumination which has a dangerously blinding effect on oncoming traffic.

      • Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 11/06/2014 - 08:38 pm.

        Motorists not permitted to blind oncoming traffic?

        That’s an interesting perspective, believing blinding is a one-way deal.

        I’m blinded by car headlights as I bike home every evening during rush hour this time of year. I don’t ever talk about it because I’d be laughed out of the room. Maybe the real reason I don’t talk about it is because I’m more concerned about the very real threat of drivers crushing me. I’ll get to issue of being blinded by car headlights when I no longer feel like I’m in mortal danger because I’m not protected by a cage of steel.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/07/2014 - 12:53 am.

          See my comment below

          Why must these discussions always seem to devolve into “Well, it doesn’t matter what (insert one group) does because (insert other group) does THAT and that’s WAY worse!”?

          Why can’t we just admit that all groups can probably do better.

          Yes, motorists should be more conscientious about dimming their headlights for oncoming traffic, whether on two wheels or four.

          And bicyclists don’t need a flashing strobe light that blinds oncoming motorists. (And if you think about it, blinding an oncoming motorist poses a VERY real threat to anyone potentially in that motorist’s path. Luckily I was able to safely slow to a stop and pull to one side, but I couldn’t see while I was doing so and frankly I’m lucky that a pedestrian or a bicyclist wasn’t in front of me.)

          Dead is dead, and arguing about which group are the “worse offenders” is of little consolation if and when and injury or fatal accident happens.

          All of us – motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians – can do better. What’s so hard about simply having that kind of a discussion?

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 11/06/2014 - 11:23 am.

      PS thought experiment

      What about “jaywalking”, lighting of pedestrians walking at night, etc.? Is that a similar issue for you?

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/06/2014 - 12:44 pm.

        Near misses

        I’ve had some near misses. Scared the heck out of me!

        Pedestrians so often wear dark clothing (and if they also have dark hair or are wearing dark hats, that adds to the problem) and they seem blissfully unaware of how invisible they become. Especially if I happen to have an oncoming vehicle with badly aimed or too-bright headlights.

        Sure, I am always keeping an eye out for pedestrians at intersections. But when someone darts out from between two cars, that’s more of a challenge to be eternally ready for. And while I know I’d be legally at fault if I hit them, that would be scant comfort to any of those involved if such a horrible thing were to occur.

        • Submitted by William Lindeke on 11/06/2014 - 03:24 pm.

          if you’re nervious, you’re a good driver

          Sounds like you’re a good driver, Pat. There’s something I think of called the “paradox of safety,” where streets that feel the most dangerous are actually the safest because (ideally) everyone is paying close attention to what they’re doing. Basically, if you’re driving in an area with a lot of people walking and biking, you should be going slowly and feeling anxious about hitting people. There’s no way around that.

          (It’s one reason why texting and driving is so dangerous…)

          • Submitted by miki polumbaum on 03/21/2016 - 11:15 pm.

            Your post is spot-on, Bill Lindeke.

            It’s best to drive slower at night anyhow, especially because bicyclists and walkers all too often (at least where I live, anyhow!) all too often don’t go out of their way to wear or at least carry something light-colored in order to enable them to be visible at night, or, people who drive their cars all too often keep their high-beam headlights on, even in well-lit urban areas. It’s really sickening.

            Texting and driving is dangerous not only because texting and driving endangers people’s lives, including the driver, but it can get one into a nasty legal bind if the texting driver ends up injuring or killing another driver, or a walker or cyclist, especially at night.

      • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 11/06/2014 - 01:06 pm.

        Jaywalking is definitely one of the biggest shortcuts that I take advantage of when I’m walking almost anywhere in the city. Sometimes it is for a true shortcut and sometimes it is for safety. I’ve never been honked at, yelled at, or anything when I jaywalk.

        On the other hand, I have been yelled at by security for cutting through more private property, but unless there is a “no trespassing” sign, I feel like it’s just all bark, no bite.

        Of course, there was also the time that I was walking along Saint Anthony Avenue in Saint Paul because a) the sidewalks were inconsistent on University Avenue when the light rail was being built and b) it was just a shorter, more convenient route. I was on the grass, not the street- there currently is no sidewalk. When I got to the old bus barn site there, which was being used by the light rail construction company as a parking lot, a construction worker came speeding out of the lot, barely noticing me. I glared at him. He, of course, yelled at me, reminding me (as if I couldn’t see for myself) that there was no sidewalk there. I guess that made him feel better about being an inattentive driver who came close to killing someone.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/06/2014 - 04:44 pm.

      Licensing

      I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not sure licensing would be a good or effective program. Generally licenses are priced based on the amount of use the user gets out of the product. The more you use, the higher price you pay. Bikes don’t have much wear and tear on roads at all, considering most weigh about two hundred pounds or less, especially when you put them up against a 2000 pound car or a 20,000 pound semi. So a license for a bike would run you a few pennies per year. It would cost more to set up and administer the program than the license would cost.

      The alternative is you charge bikes more for licenses. But then you’re creating a plan that’s not fair as you’re asking bikers to subsidize drivers. That’s not very equitable.

      Another thing to consider are all the people who would complain about yet another government program and another tax. Or fee, if that’s what you want to call it–it all comes out the same in the end. A lot of people would take umbrage at the new government reach.

      And, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s another item to look at. A license would discourage people from biking. Now there are undoubtedly some people who would say that’s a good thing as those darn bikers don’t belong in the road in the first place, but the reality is they have a right to be there just like cars. And biking makes for healthy people, which lowers our health care costs. So encouraging more people to bike instead of fewer is a good thing.

      Plus if you get more bikers out there, the biking community will help to police the red light runners and people without bikes. A lot of bikers aren’t shy about telling someone they’re not operating in the most wise manner when they do something in appropriate. I would have used more blunt language in this paragraph, but this is a family forum. I’m sure you can read between the lines.

  4. Submitted by Matt Becker on 11/06/2014 - 01:13 pm.

    Bigger issue

    The bigger issue is people in 3,000 pound murder weapons driving drunk, not signaling turns, not yielding to pedestrians, speeding, texting while driving, running red lights…etc etc etc. So maybe an article about that should come first.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/06/2014 - 02:16 pm.

      It’s not about size

      They’re ALL big issues when they put peoples’ lives at risk. Whether the vehicle is a “3,000 pound murder weapon”, a 20 lb. two wheeler, or an inattentive pair of Nikes.

      Why do these discussions always have to turn into a “Well, YOURS is worse!” contest?

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/06/2014 - 04:34 pm.

        Scale

        Well, to be honest, size DOES matter. A two hundred pound guy in a pair of sneakers isn’t likely to do as much damage as someone in a Mac truck. It’s all a matter of force and momentum. Which isn’t to say that the jogger shouldn’t also pay attention when he’s out on the street, but the treads on his shoes aren’t likely to crush someone’s skull like the treads on a truck’s tires.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/06/2014 - 05:26 pm.

          Dead is dead

          It’s as if whenever one of these discussions begins, inevitably there is the outraged response that essentially boils down to “Don’t tell me what (this side) is doing wrong when (that side) is doing (insert list of things here) wrong!”. As if before we are even permitted to talk about addressing the wrongs of whichever side, we must first render the OTHER side perfect because otherwise it’s the whole glass houses and throwing stones and such.

          Well, the sad truth is that it’s gonna be a long wait for any one of these groups collectively to reach perfection. And in the meantime, people are getting injured and killed. And once that happens, it doesn’t really matter if it was a 3000 pounds of metal or only 20 – dead is dead.

          Let’s just make it okay to talk about what ALL these groups can do better rather than rolling up into our defensive little shells every time one of these discussions comes up.

          We can ALL do better. Let’s just wrap our heads around accepting that, and then maybe these discussions can actually go somewhere constructive.

          • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 11/07/2014 - 09:44 am.

            I’m sorry Pat, but statistically speaking the danger is almost entirely from motor vehicles. There are a tiny handful of cases of bikes/pedestrians injuring someone with inattentiveness next to nearly 40,000 deaths per year due to automobiles. Pretending like the responsibility for unsafe automobile use is some ‘shared responsibility’ is tantamount to victim blaming. Unfortunately we accept this death toll as a necessary cost in our society (although I’d very much like to change that), but trying to push it off as anything other than the direct human cost of automobility is disingenuous.

            Should people be careful when biking and walking? Absolutely! It’s dangerous out there. Should we accept this as a fact of life or strive to change it so that grandmas and children can walk around a city without fear of death? You can only do so much when you’re not in a position of power and dominance, as the automobile driver is on our roads. The safest biker or pedestrian in the world is just as easily killed by as a reckless one by an inattentive driver.

            • Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/07/2014 - 11:25 am.

              That’s not even the point I’m making

              But then, that’s why these discussions always get shut down.

              For some reason, we’re not even allowed to talk about anything cyclists and pedestrians might ALSO be doing wrong. For some reason, we’re supposed to completely fix the “auto problem” before we can even TALK about anything else.

              You’re gonna die of hypoxia if you hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

              I give up. This has always been and apparently always will be an impossible conversation.

              I just continue to be grateful there was no one in front of me when the cyclist suddenly turned on his/her strobe light aimed directly into my eyes on a dimly-lit street during late dusk.

  5. Submitted by Adam Miller on 11/06/2014 - 02:20 pm.

    Another thing

    There is history in those allies too, where nobody ever bothered to paint over old advertisements painted on the brick.

    Meanwhile, my shortcuts these days involve cutting through private buildings instead. The diagonal arcade on the ground floor of the Baker/Roanoke/Investors block is a personal favorite (http://streets.mn/2014/10/01/skyways-what-lies-beneath/), which I often get to by entering the Medical Arts building from Nicollet Mall next to the crepe stand and existing the McGladrey Plaza next to the 8th Street Grill.

    Of course, these are private, not public, places which limits their usefulness. Especially as the Baker Center starts closing its ground floor entries pretty early in the evening. Oddly, long before the skyway level closes.

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 11/06/2014 - 03:14 pm.

    The West Bank shortcut

    Other background issues include the Police Department’s wish to partition 5th Street (east of Cedar) from Cedar, to facilitate their work, and the concern of residents on that portion of 5th (including homeowners) about vagrants and criminals coming over from Cedar. (Some of those residents have gotten mugged at gun point on that street.) I have mixed feelings about the matter; some time ago it was my suggestion to keep the rear gate open on the City’s fenced vacant lot and see what would happen.

    As to crossing streets in general, I’ve often chosen to jaywalk rather than follow regulations in a crosswalk; considering how those driving (or pedalling) vehicles behave, it often feels safer to carefully jaywalk.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 11/06/2014 - 03:29 pm.

      Policing

      If we let the police design our cities, there would be no shortcuts anywhere and many more of us would be in cars. IMO safety comes from eyes on the street, though good design can help, especially if it demarcates public/private space.

      The broader point is that I believe 5th here was an historic right of way belonging to the people of the neighborhood, and should remain open to the public. Small blocks lead to walkable cities, and Minneapolis can do more to encourage mobility.

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 11/06/2014 - 04:45 pm.

    West Bank safety

    For many years the West Bank was one of the safest neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Probable reason: people knew one another. As to street design, some years ago nearby 19th Avenue was made a private way between 6th Street and 8th Street; nicely maintained homes got condemned and taken when owners resisted. Despite the touted theory of “defensible space,” the street vacation didn’t prevent me from getting held up at gun point on 6th near 19th, nor did it prevent the murder of a young cyclist on 19th near 7th. Apparently it has also somewhat encouraged motorists to often rush through the intersections at 6th and 7th.

    Despite all these issues, currently the West Bank has substantially less crime than the East Bank SE Marcy Holmes-Como area.

  8. Submitted by David Markle on 11/08/2014 - 06:37 pm.

    West Bank ps

    I would add that the basic trade-off in the 19th Avenue street vacation seems to be greater quiet versus sometimes annoying activity. It may be that safety diminished with diminished activity.

    As to letting police design a city, I agree that we shouldn’t let that happen, but we also shouldn’t let planners and neighborhood nabobs run the city according to questionable theories.

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