15.9.16

New Cleveland Bike Lanes Bring Saint Paul Closer Together

[Paint on the street showing where you can ride a bicycle.]
In the abstract, the new Cleveland Avenue bike lanes are straightforward. Just 6’ of paint on the road where you can ride a bicycle. Such a thing is laughably simple, so it shouldn’t seem like a big deal.

But in experienced fact, the new lanes are amazing. Even though I was intimately involved in the planning of the project, the actual fact on the ground really surprised me. I never realized how close and connected all these parts of Saint Paul really were!

Nearness and Farness is All About Experience

[What it feels like to walk around half the time.]
Believe it or not, distance is a funny thing. Geographic distance, emotional distance, and temporal distance are almost never the same.

For one thing, in a car, there can be massive difference between the “as the crow flies” distance and the experienced distance. For drivers, where the car's capacities greatly exceed their utility, most of distance difference is caused by traffic. When a 20 minute trip turns into an hour because of construction or a crash (or because you live in a dense city), the mall can seem very far away!

The same thing happens with bicycling and walking, but in a very different way. The difference between geographic distance (measured in in feet or miles) and experienced distance isn’t really about time. Even in crowds, people go pretty much the same speeds on bicycles (10 - 15 mph) or on foot (2-4 mph).

Instead, the big gap between cognitive and geographic distance has to do with the physical feelings that streets can create at different times. There are massive differences in the amount of danger, pressure, or insecurity that streets generate, depending on a few different variables. Two blocks walking through a dark alley at night feels a hell of a lot more longer than two blocks down Main Street at midday.

For bicyclists and pedestrians, depending on street design, one mile can pass in the blink of an eye or stretch into an eternity. Urban designers and small business architects are keenly aware that there’s a huge difference between a good and bad sidewalk!

[A mile on the left does not equal a mile on the right.]

Not Feeling Like You Are About To Die Should be Normal

[Objects In Distance Are Closer Than They Appear.]
While there are lots of variables that come together to create this cognitive, emotionally felt distance, the #1 factor for bicycling is speeding cars. Almost anytime you’re bicycling near speeding cars, it feels stressful. This is doubly the case if you don’t have your own lane, if you’re forced to interact with drivers who may honk, swerve, and/or pass you closely. And for a long time, that has been the case for traveling North-to-South from Highland up to Saint Anthony Park. Because you’re continually in “harassment mode”, biking on Cleveland Avenue used to feel like a long way.

That's why the change is so magical. The first time I rode it, I was a bit baffled. Where am I? What city is this?

It turns out, it's not far at all!

Re-Weaving the City

I've done it a few times now, and I'm still amazed at how connected these two neighborhoods, Highland and Merriam Park, are to each other. You can ride that whole distance in ten minutes!

Bike lanes are not rocket science. A little bit of paint, and a few feet of space so that you don't feel like you're about to die... that's a pretty simple thing. It's not much to ask, and shouldn't be a big deal. In a year, nobody will remember that they were "controversial."

It’s nice to know that students enrolling at Saint Kate’s or Saint Thomas this fall, the two colleges on Cleveland, will never know a world without bike lanes connecting them to their city. This small change makes Saint Paul feel a little less daunting, a bit more intimate, a bit more of a coherent place. Welcome to the new normal, Saint Paul, where bike lanes bring us all a little bit closer together.

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