|[The Jefferson "test median", circa 2010.]|
The Story So Far
The problem is that the idea of bicycle boulevards are relatively new to a town like St Paul. They're streets designed to give pedestrians and bicyclists priority, to calm traffic speeds down to the point where only 'local' traffic is using it. They're intended to create spaces where auto speeds are far closer to bicycle speeds. In theory, boulevards are designed so that cars drive around 20 miles per hour, a speed at which any collision is very unlikely to result in the death or injury of small children, grandmothers, cyclists, or people out walking their dog. In theory, these kinds of streets would be seen as an amenity in the neighborhoods where they're constructed, as they create calm, quiet, walkable neighborhoods, accessible by car, that raise property values and quality of life for nearby homes and people.
Anyway, that's the theory. In the actual real world of Highland Park, St Paul, traffic calming that creates safe quiet streets is perceived as a quasi-fascist assault on the inherent freedoms of the automobile individual. (Or, at least that's true if you get your news from Soucheray.)
That might be exaggerating just a hair, because actually the project has received a lot of support and/or ambivalent shrugs. But for various reasons the proposed bicycle boulevard down Jefferson Avenue has for few years now been seen as controversial. The project has gone through a few different iterations, and finally now, after a huge number of community meetings involving hundreds of people, and after the city's Public Works department has spent countless hours doing research and analysis, a compromise plan has emerged that seemingly everyone can mostly agree about.
This plan isn't perfect. For example, it doesn't include any diverters that are common in bicycle boulevards elsewhere. These kinds of diverters do a lot to move 'through' traffic onto adjacent streets, while making sure that pedestrians and bicyclists can safely cross the busier streets that have higher traffic speeds (such as Cleveland and Cretin Avenues). You can see for yourself how these kinds of diverters work in South Minneapolis, where they seem to have not caused any kind of automotive apocalypse.
[An innocuous bike boulevard traffic diverter in Minneapolis.]
[Another Minneapolis boulevard diverter. Incidentally, neither of these diverters have caused the collapse of freedom and democracy.]
Anyway, the final St Paul proposal got rid of these kinds of traffic calming treatments in favor of traffic circles, which you will find elsewhere in the city. Traffic circles are a good compromise, I guess, because they do a nice job of 'calming' through the use of actual concrete that slows down speeds and makes streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Not only that, but traffic circles have little gardens on them! These circles have the potential to turn Jefferson Avenue into the kind of space where your kid might play football (as I did growing up with my brothers and sister on St Paul's Portland Avenue).
The Last Minute Deal
Or at least, that's the hope. I've heard that the proposal, passed unanimously through the Transportation Committee and the Planning Commission, is going to be semi-gutted by a last minute amendment during the City Council meeting this evening (5:30 - 6:30, roughly). From what I've heard, the new last minute deal will strip out all but two of the traffic circles from the project, while getting rid of the pedestrian crosswalk signage at the two busy streets, Cretin and Cleveland Avenues. This last minute deal will leave only two real traffic calming treatments on the Western portion of the bicycle boulevard: the traffic circle at Davern street and the one at Finn Street (which isn't scheduled to be built until 2017).
|[The Public Works plan showing two of the traffic circles that won't be built under the new deal.]|
To my mind, the last minute deal raises two key questions:
- Should the council ignore all the public process that's happened so far, in favor of a backroom deal that has never seen the light of day?
- Is a bicycle boulevard without much traffic calming still a bicycle boulevard?
I don't really know the answers to these questions. On the first, I want badly to say "No!" I want to say that the council shouldn't throw over a whole bunch of public meetings in favor of a few opinions of a few decisions makers.
But, on the other hand, most public processes are fraught with problems. If you hold a community meeting on some issue, the people that are most likely to show up are people with a lot of time and/or money on their hands. Those are the people with a voice, that provide "community input."
Meanwhile, not attending the meeting are many other people who almost never participate - people who rent, people with more than one job, young people, people with language barriers. Elected officials need to make decisions with the entire community in mind, not just those people with expensive homes and lots of hard-to-get phone numbers in their phones.
The second question is just as difficult to answer. To my mind, bicycle boulevards are a no brainer. They are streets that don't really mess with the status quo, as people can still drive around their neighborhoods, park on their streets, use their driveways, etc. But they're also streets that really emphasize and welcome the modes of transportation (bicycling, walking) that are the future of our cities. If St Paul wants to attract young people, or be safe for families, or be a place where old people can get around with dignity, they need to build streets that place people first. They have an opportunity to do this right now, basically for free, and it's too bad that it seems like they're going to do a half-assed job of it.
I guess something is better than nothing, here. But I really don't understand why the city cannot pass a common-sense measure that will improve the lives of almost all of the people who live here. Really the only people who 'lose out' when you build a bicycle boulevard are people who enjoy driving too fast through residential neighborhoods. Should we really make public decisions with them in mind?
In five years, nobody living nearby will think bicycle boulevards are a big deal. Neighbors will actually like the traffic circles once they are built. They'll blend into the background of the city and grow flowers. Ideally, Jefferson will subtly shift into a more quiet beautiful safe street for all types of people. Ideally, it'll be a place where even my mom would feel comfortable riding a bicycle and getting exercise on her way to the Highland Grill without feeling like she's 'in the way' of a pickup truck speeding down the hill.
That's the hope. I fear that today's vote will be somewhat different. It'd be nice if the City Council would pass a plan that really calmed traffic along this route. It'd be nice is St Paul embraced a healthy future.
The council meeting is tonight at 5:30 in the basement of City Hall. Show up and testify if you agree!
[A traffic circle amenity welcomed by its neighbors in Portland, OR.]
[A traffic circle amenity welcomed by its neighbors in Portland, OR.]