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After major upgrades to St. Paul’s routes, cyclists are in for a treat

Bike planning takes a long time, but St. Paul is starting to see some major dividends from processes started decades ago.

Mounds Park
Coasting south through St. Paul's East Side from Phalen to the glorious overlook on Mounds Park, above, and then to the long steep descent to downtown felt like visiting a whole new city.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

If St. Paul streets proved anything in November 2020, it is that arc of bicycle trail construction is long, but it bends toward progress. This fall, St. Paul quietly unveiled over 20 miles of new bike projects, over half of which are protected, off-street trails, the gold standard for urban bicycling. The new links have been years in the making, and stitch together the city’s bike routes in a whole new way.

“We had the culmination of a lot of projects that have been in the works for several years, including our effort to invest in the St. Paul Grand Rounds,” said Russ Stark, the Chief Resilience Officer for Mayor Melvin Carter’s Office.

Unless you’re a rare November cyclist, you might have missed the news. Apart from a gathering along Ayd Mill Road one Saturday morning, there hasn’t been much fanfare due to the ongoing pandemic. The other reason for a lack of limelight is the annual construction calendar. City street construction routinely finishes up after Halloween, and all the new bike trails debut just in time for the short, icy days of a Minnesota winter.

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Come springtime, people riding bicycles in St. Paul will be in for a real treat. There will be lots of new routes to explore, and for the first time ever, a century-old vision for a “grand round” tour around the city’s lakes and parks will be possible.

The new projects

Here, briefly, are all the newly completed projects:

  • Thanks to “mill and overlay” repaving, the city and county have added short stretches of bike lanes on: Territorial Road, Larpenteur Avenue, Fairview Avenue, Arlington Avenue, Marshall Avenue, and Tedesco Street.  Together these connect bike lane gaps around the city, including a few key bridges and dangerous intersections.
  • Ramsey County engineered a “road diet” on Energy Park Drive and installed a wide bike lane running for two miles between Lexington Parkway and Raymond Avenue. The new connection boosts safety for drivers and offers bicyclists a safe connection with few intersections. The result is a quick, if boring, route from the heart of the city to the University of Minnesota transitway.
  • As part of the ongoing work to build off-street bike routes through downtown, the city installed its first ever concrete-protected, two-way cycle track on 9th and 10th Streets. To do this, city staff removed parking and made these streets one-way for cars, though the bike route remains a bit awkward as it navigates the Green Line station at Cedar Street.
  • The generations-long debate over the future of Ayd Mill Road was finally resolved this year with a repaved three-lane freeway and a brand new off-street bike connection. It’s a lovely link for people on foot or bicycle, and now pothole-free for drivers. That said, the trail remains slightly useless as everyday transportation until (someday!) advocates figure out a way to connect the path to Minneapolis and the Midtown Greenway. If that happens, the new Greenway trail would become the best interurban bicycle route in the country.
  • Using a federal grant, the city constructed an off-street, curb-separated bike trail along Como Avenue from Como Park, west past the State Fairgrounds, and to Raymond Avenue. The wide trail with tabled intersection crossings alongside a narrower roadway transforms a key street that, especially two weeks out of the year, will become a lifeline for bicycles to access the State Fair and the University of Minnesota.
  • With another federal grant, the Parks Department completed a missing link in the regional bike trail along the west side of the Mississippi River. The new Piram Trail links Harriet Island along Plato Boulevard, past the St. Paul Airport, a string of industrial properties, and all the way to South St. Paul’s Kaposia Landing park. The intriguing path through the riparian woods means that cyclists and hikers can travel along a separated riverfront trail all the way from North Minneapolis to Hastings.
  • With more federal dollars, the City completed the biggest link of the Grand Rounds, connecting Lake Phalen to Mounds Park along Johnson Parkway. The new path transforms East Side bicycling with a two-mile, off-street trail with tabled crossings that closes off a handful of intersections along an old frontage road. The result is a seamless family-friendly connection between two of St. Paul’s best parks.

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A long-time coming

It’s hard to overstate the long time scales for transportation planning. For example, as part of my role in the City Planning Commission, I began attending the city’s Transportation Committee almost nine years ago. My very first meeting was the Piram Trail, which had received funding and was being planned. For various reasons — Russ Stark described them as “a lot of tricky negotiations over little slivers of land, easements, and access”— nearly a decade elapsed before the trail was finally completed this fall.

Four views of the new Robert Piram trail.
MinnPost photos by Bill Lindeke
Four views of the new Robert Piram trail.
A ten-year time frame is longer than most, but almost all bike projects take at least a few years to get funded, planned and completed. It means that bicycling advocates often have to be patient before they can enjoy the fruits of their labor.

“The lead time is so long on federally funded projects, but that’s how the process works,” admitted St. Paul Public Works engineer Reuben Collins, describing the $5.5 million grants that the city received for the routes. “It’s the result of a lot of years worth of ground work, and lot of projects just coming together this fall. A lot of really fantastic protected bikeways and regional trail facilities that are pretty attractive for everyone: families, kids, and all sorts of different types of users.”

Two of the big city projects — the Como and Johnson “Grand Round” — represented the culmination of a process that dates to the 1800s. The current incarnation began back in 2014, under then-Mayor Chris Coleman, who used a one-time budget windfall to launch the city’s bike plan. That funding went to plan for a contiguous “grand round” loop and an off-street downtown bike network. That decision laid the groundwork for today’s new trails, and after years of patient planning, the 2014 vision has become a reality.

The difference is particularly striking along Johnson Parkway, a wide linear right-of-way that lacked sidewalks for a century.

Clockwise from top left: Energy Park Drive, Como Avenue, 10th Street, and Ayd Mill Trails.
MinnPost photos by Bill Lindeke
Clockwise from top left: Energy Park Drive, Como Avenue, 10th Street, and Ayd Mill Trails.
“People didn’t have a lot of reason to go to the parkway,” said Collins, who is a big fan of the new project. “There were no sidewalks, no trails… despite it being a linear park. My hope for that project is that, by constructing a trail, people on both sides of parkway will use it, bump into each other and have the kind of chance meetings that happen on sidewalks and trails.”

Besides taking a long time, bike projects also don’t happen all at once, especially because of the slapdash way that transportation funding works in this country. Eventually, though, after enough small bits are put down into the map, they can come together into a coherent whole.

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“Often when we propose bike lanes, its a disconnected segment of the street,” admitted Collins, when I asked him about the long duration of bike planning. “Each time, we wrestle with question of whether or not it really connects to anything.”

That’s a common critique for projects like the Ayd Mill trail, which today is just a mile-long spur in a valley. But years from now, like many of the bike lanes built today, it could be a critical part of an amazing bike route across the city.

Four views of the new Johnson Parkway Grand Round trail.
MinnPost photos by Bill Lindeke
Four views of the new Johnson Parkway Grand Round trail.
“It’s important to move forward anyway and seize opportunities when the present themselves,” Collins explained. “We we do end up with intermittent periods where don’t have the best connectivity, but you only build a bike network by building the bike network.”

Riding the Grand Round

When I chatted with him, Collins suggested riding the newly complete Grand Round as a great demonstration of all the recent progress. Recently, on an unseasonably warm November day, I did just that.

I’ve been bicycling around St. Paul for decades, and even for me, the new connection was a revelation. Coasting south through the East Side from Phalen to the glorious overlook on Mounds Park, and then to the long steep descent to downtown felt like visiting a whole new city.

Here’s what I recommend: the next time the weather seems amenable, begin near the city border at Raymond Avenue, hop onto an off-street trail on Como Avenue, and bike east through Como Park, along the Wheelock Parkway trail to Lake Phalen, down Johnson Parkway to Mounds Park, and into Lowertown. You’ll go the whole way almost never biking in mixed traffic. The experience is a real pleasure, especially during a pandemic that’s kept everyone cooped up in homes and apartments.