Jonathan Mason is a dedicated cyclist. Almost every day, all year round, he bikes to work in St. Louis Park from his home in St. Paul — and the first leg of that 26-mile round trip commute carries him straight down the iconic, tree-lined Summit Avenue.
Better bike infrastructure would make Mason’s commute easier. Summit has a bike lane, but paint stripes are all that separates it from the traffic lane on his left. To his right, Mason must constantly eye the parked cars: “You’ve gotta pay attention or you’re gonna get doored.”
So you might think Mason would be thrilled about St. Paul city officials’ plans to add new, off-street bike trails along the entire length of Summit Avenue.
You’d be wrong. “I don’t want this trail,” Mason said. “I’ll never be on it.”
Summit would be “another orphan trail,” he argued. “Make-work-project, bridge-to-nowhere bulls—. It just stinks, and it doesn’t make sense as infrastructure.”
Summit Avenue is already one of the city’s most-biked routes, and it’s long overdue to be ripped up and reconstructed from the sewer pipes to the road surface. City officials argue that rebuilding, whenever it happens, will be a prime opportunity to make the route more bikeable for cyclists of all ability and comfort levels.
So city officials have drawn up an overview for what that remade street might look like: The Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan goes before the St. Paul Planning Commission on Friday, and could be headed for a City Council vote by the end of May. If the council adopts it, the city would still need to secure an estimated $100 million for the street project before construction could actually start.
That price tag has alarmed some neighbors, who worry much of it will end up charged to their property tax bills — though city officials believe that state or federal money would likely cover at least the $12 million cost for bike-specific amenities.
Most of the controversy around the project has revolved around trees: Opponents fear city officials are dangerously underestimating the risks to the lush canopy that shades most of Summit — risks that they say building the bike trail would exacerbate beyond what’s typical for a street repair project.
The bikers who aren’t thrilled about bike lanes
Though some critics have aimed barbs at “spandexed Tour de France wannabes,” leaders of the main opposition group, Save Our Streets, say their coalition is not anti-biker — and as proof, they point to the hardcore cyclists who’ve joined their ranks, like Mason.
Mason actually thinks the new bike trail would be a downgrade: In trying to make Summit more attractive to everyone, Mason believes city officials will wind up with a trail that’s less efficient for experienced bikers like him and more dangerous for casual bikers.
He also feels the city is squandering an opportunity to fund a more ambitious east-west bike route: the long-sought extension of Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway across the river to St. Paul, which would connect to the bike trail along Ayd Mill Road — a route that, for now, doesn’t really take riders much of anywhere.
But cycling advocates who support the off-street bike lanes say Save Our Streets and opponents like Mason are overlooking the benefits of the Summit route, which would improve the link between downtown and a list of high-traffic destinations along Summit and Grand avenues. Plus, the Greenway extension isn’t a new idea, and even staunch proponents say connecting it to St. Paul would still take years of negotiations with railroads and interagency cooperation.
“It’s a good route that should be explored along with Summit Avenue,” said Brett Hussong, a landscape architect with St. Paul’s Parks & Recreation Department, which is crafting the Summit plan.
That said, “you don’t want to miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a street safer, especially one that goes east-west,” said Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition. “We strongly support the protected bike lanes on Summit Avenue. We don’t think paint is enough to protect people.”
What Summit Avenue design would increase biking?
The Summit Avenue trail has become the latest venue for a debate that’s familiar to cyclists about how to build bike facilities that feel safe enough to lure more people into biking, either for recreation or as a means of preventing emission-producing trips in a car.
City surveys show that most cyclists along Summit Avenue don’t use the current, on-street bike lanes. Hussong said that number might improve if the city built new bike facilities with these less-avid users in mind.
So as part of their latest draft regional trail plan, city officials proposed narrowing the roadway and building new, raised bike lanes separated from the roadway by a six-inch curb. On the stretch of Summit east of Lexington, the new design calls for eliminating roughly half of all on-street parking spaces to make room for the new bike trail.
“We need to try to design for the less confident riders and people that are not utilizing [Summit’s bike lanes] at this moment,” said Hussong, “not design for the more confident cyclists that are already using it.”
Jonathan and Sonja Mason — who met in architecture school and are both experienced cyclists — have been involved in the planning process since its early days.
Last year, Sonja Mason served on a technical advisory board for the project. One of her early points of advice, which came from feedback she gathered on another recent trail project: pedestrians and bikers would prefer to choose a path that matches the speed they’re traveling — a “slow” path versus a “fast” path — rather than designated paths for walkers and bikers.
“Bicyclists and walkers wanted the fast bicyclists on the roadway,” Sonja Mason said, “and then a wider sidewalk for people walking their dogs, biking with kids, that cool guy who in the summer rides his adult trike around with the music — they’re slow.”
Sonja Mason said the city could make Summit safe enough to lure even some reluctant cyclists with simpler changes: a wider bike lane, marked in bright green paint; clearer crosswalks at intersections; narrower traffic lanes.
West of Lexington, Summit is already “suitable for all bikers,” Sonja Mason argued. East of Lexington, “it is a commuter route, you should honor the commuters that are there, and then make it the best that it can be within its constraints — without all these sacrifices.”
One of those sacrifices, opponents say, could be trees. The group Save Our Streets hired an independent arborist who estimated that 60% of the avenue’s trees would be “unlikely to recover” from the Summit project. City officials have discounted that claim, saying that reconstructing any street — with or without bike lanes — will always put some trees (between 8% and 15%) at risk.
Short of selecting a completely different route, Sonja Mason thinks city officials could consider a parallel bike boulevard route just one block to the north.
“Portland,” she added, “is just as beautiful as Summit, honestly.”
What would be the safest design for Summit Avenue bikers?
Lauren O’Brien — who lives two blocks off of Summit and bikes on the avenue two or three times per week in the summer — is among those who don’t think off-street paths on Summit are the answer.
“When we’re biking on Summit, yes, we’re sticking within the [on-street bike lane] most of the time,” O’Brien said, “but when there aren’t cars, you can spread out a bit and pass others who are going a little slower, giving them some more respect and space.”
These concerns about speed bottlenecks are a key reason why Jonathan Mason worries that Summit’s proposed off-street trail won’t be useful to him. He needs to pedal fast to efficiently complete a 26-mile round-trip bike commute — and he worries other potential car-to-bike converts might run into similar problems.
He also said an off-street trail “makes you feel safer, but you’re not safer. It’s more stressful for someone who knows the dangers.”
Like some opponents, Mason fears that removing bicycles from the road surface will make the street feel wider, and thus encourage cars on Summit to speed faster. He also worries about greater dangers at intersections with an off-street trail; when bikers use on-street bike lanes, Mason feels drivers are more aware.
Save Our Streets has pointed to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that the risk of crashes on “one-way, protected bike lanes” was basically the same as biking on a major road with no bike lanes at all.
However, that same study also found that elevated off-street lanes had among the lowest odds of crashes, and other research studies have found these “cycle tracks” are some of the safest designs for cyclists. To many avid bikers, these findings are basically settled science and much more applicable to the Summit proposal.
Opponents of the off-street lanes are “completely misrepresenting the findings of that particular [IIHS] study,” said Zack Mensinger, co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition.
Summit bike trail supporters say opponents’ fears don’t match their experiences cycling.
When Meredith Richmond bikes on the street, “I’m getting threats from the left by distracted drivers veering into the bike lane,” she said, “threats from the center, because trucks park in the bike lane; and threats from getting doored on my right.”
Richmond, who lives near Summit and bikes to work year-round, said she would feel safer on an off-street trail. She also appreciated the city’s plans for “tabled crossings” at intersections — which raise pedestrian and bike crossings six inches above the road surface on what is essentially a very large speed bump.
Another project supporter, Ben Quam, testified to the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission that he’s been hit by cars twice while biking in the street: “It’s an ever-present concern.” He said an off-street bike trail would make Summit safer.
“I’m a parent to a one-and-a-half year-old son. I can’t wait for him to learn how to ride a bike,” Quam said. “But he will not be riding a bike at Summit anytime soon … unless you build this bike path.”
While the controversy may be fresh, city spokesperson Clare Cloyd said the exploration of a regional trail on Summit Avenue dates back to at least 2005, when St. Paul officials asked the Metropolitan Council to designate Summit as a search corridor in a regional park plan.
Supporters say Summit Avenue is a natural pick for an east-west bike route: It connects downtown St. Paul with five of the city’s colleges and many more retail destinations — and it’s also a jewel of the city, with more than 1,500 trees and rows of Victorian homes.
Summit has also had on-street bike lanes since the early 1990s — and some opponents argue that other parts of the city are in greater need of both bike infrastructure, and a new amenity to spur economic development.
This is why Jonathan Mason is excited about the extension of the Midtown Greenway from Minneapolis to the Ayd Mill trail. A 2021 analysis commissioned by the Midtown Greenway Coalition found that extending the trail into St. Paul would generate some $980 million in economic benefits in an area that’s mostly industrial — and perhaps prime for development.
“There’s a huge economic opportunity. What economic opportunities are going to come from this investment in the Summit Trail? Zip. Zero,” Mason said.
Mason suggested a route for connecting this new trail to downtown St. Paul: a quiet, underutilized off-street path that connects to Grace Street, just north of Jefferson Avenue in the West Seventh/Fort Road neighborhood. Mason said funneling riders down this path to the trails along the Mississippi River should be straightforward.
“There’s a better route here — and we can finish the route,” Mason said. “We can make a system that goes from this beautiful Greenway to connect to the path that goes to downtown.”
There’s some renewed interest in the state Legislature to study the Greenway extension idea. But a railroad still owns the bridge that would connect the existing trail to St. Paul — or the tracks between the river and the existing Ayd Mill trail, for that matter — and the government may not have the leverage to force them to sell or share it.
“To me, it’s a totally separate project,” said Mensinger, pushing back on the notion that the Summit and Greenway proposals are competing alternatives: “No one says, ‘Oh well, we can’t make 35W better because we just made 94 better.’ Why does it always have to be some kind of either-or situation if we’re talking about creating safe, accessible routes for cycling?”