Two (More) Open Streets Lessons from Saint Paul

[Painting a mural on the long-dormant "Saint Paul Meats" building.]
A few years ago, I wrote about Minneapolis' first ever Open Streets event. (I guess Saint Paul is about three years behind its twin, though this seems a bit optimistic...) And a few weeks ago, those of us in capitol city celebrated our first ever Open Streets event!

In case you haven't heard Open Streets (a.k.a. "sunday streets" or cyclovia) is an interesting active living and urban design event that comes out of South America, and first arrived in the Twin Cities a few years ago along Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis. I'd like to report that Saint Paul's debut effort was a resounding success, but (despite the organizer's proclamations) I can' quite bring myself to do so.

Rather, I think Saint Paul's Open Streets was a qualified good start. Sunday the 15th was a moderately lovely day. It was a bit cloudy, and what we in Minnesota might generously call" brisk." But eventually the sun came out, and it was lovely weather. Maybe it was the grey skies, but turnout was lower than I was hoping.

Maybe one of the reasons is that University Avenue, the site of the Open Streets event, presented a few challenges for the format. First, when cars are removed, you really begin to realize how barren, and dehumanizing the street architecture actually is. Vacant buildings and parking lots are everywhere. Very few doors, houses, or shops meet the sidewalk. Those that do seem devoid of people. Outside of a car, Saint PAul often feels like a ghost town, and University Avenue is no exception. (Inside of a car, it's too dark to see.)

[Musicians playing on the concrete LRT barrier.]
The second challenge of the street was the light rail itself. Construction for the train involves large concrete barriers that divide the road in half, length-wise, and make it difficult or impossible to cross the street. Compared to other Open Streets events that I've attended, the LRT concrete put a damper on the potential of the street to be transformed into a people-centered place. Other than a few intersections, the two sides of the street feel disconnected these days.

That said, the event was a success in my opinion. Saint Paul's first stab at the format illustrated some of the challenges faced by non-motorized transportation movement, particularly around the way that cars are perceived differently along race and class lines. And for that reason, it was a good start at trying to re-frame how our streets are designed and used in Saint Paul.

Two lessons in particular jumped out at me...

Open Streets Means Different Things to Different People

[Young hip-hop artists performing.]
In my research on bicycling and walking, it's very interesting to see how bicycling and walking are perceived differently across different race and class divides. From the dominant upper-middle class White perspective, biking and walking is perceived as a statement about fitness or environmentalism, a choice people are making to express their values. But as any regular bus rider knows, for communities of color, non-motorized transportation is a necessity. Transit, biking, and walking are often something you need to do to get around, because you need to. Being "liberated" from cars means something different if you've never really had one in the first place.

It's also worth mentioning that people advocating for non-motorized transportation can sometimes overlook cultural differences in how public spaces are used in everyday life. For example, think about the different attitudes toward front- and back-yards, towards music and expression, and towards clothing and dress that are always at work within social situations. Assuming that people have the same cultural and social framework for perceiving something like a "public meeting" is a mistake too often made within planning and community engagement.

That said, just like the last two Lowry Avenue Open Streets events in North Minneapolis, the full diversity of Saint Paul's University Avenue was on display on Sunday. There were different stages where the area's main cultural groups performed, including a stage devoted to hip-hop (pretty sure I heard YN Rich Kids performing their "my bike" song), one that featured predominantly White artists, and another one filled by Asian-American musicians. Traveling up and down the full two-mile stretch of the street, you could really hear, smell, and see the diversity of Saint Paul. It's something that should make us proud.

And it turns out there can be a lot of common ground between different parts of our community when it comes to streets. Everyone wants to feel safe crossing the street. Everyone wants to have places for their children to walk and ride bikes without being threatened by fast-moving cars. At its best, Open Streets builds bridges between often disparate groups, bringing them together around improving safety and quality of life along the streets that we all share.

Any critiques of the Open Streets event need to keep this diversity in mind. A common refrain I heard from some of the planners and advocates was that the Open Streets "needed more events," that the street felt too empty. I agree to an extent, but I worry that more fully "programming" the space might limit the inherent creativity of the different parts of the neighborhood. As I've written before, one of the brilliant things about the Open Streets format is that it doesn't tell people what to do, how to use the space. It simply makes it available, and then let's the inherent generative potential of people flourish. While this event felt a bit sparse at times, I'm quite hopefully that next time Saint Paul puts on an Open Streets event, more people will take to the streets in their own ways, and even more bottom-up activities might emerge.   

[A young man trying unsuccessfully to get people to stop in at 88 Oriental Foods, a grocery store.]

Some Small Businesses "Got It"; Most Didn't

This is connected to the first point. In the weeks and days leading up to the Open Streets event, I'd had a few discussions with leaders of the business community and arts organizations along the avenue. Despite the outreach and preparation work done, many people along University Avenue didn't seem to understand exactly what kind of event this was. (It's only natural that there would be confusion, as this kind of event IS complicated and might not easily translate across cultures.)

That said, one thing that was on full display was the wide range of approach to marketing the small businesses along the street. For example, the dozens of Asian-American restaurants along University Avenue are one of Saint Paul's best features. I haven't counted them all, but I'd bet you can buy a bowl of pho at more than a dozen different unique places along the street. But of all of these businesses, only a few seemed to clearly understand the nature of the event, and set out food along the street. Homi Mexican Restaurant was selling lots of roasted corn, Johnny Baby's rib sandwiches were doing a brisk business, and Lao Thai's food table was crowded all day long.

But meanwhile, outside of that handful of shops, most places had little to nothing out on the street. There were whole blocks with no displays, no tables, no smells, no samples. It was a real missed opportunity to connect the often-isolated car-centered University Avenue shops with each other.

In a way, all the open space of the first Open Streets is OK with me. It means that there's a lot of opportunity for the many people who live and work along University Avenue (or any future Open Street) to claim their social and physical spaces, and re-make them however they like. I'd like to see future Open Streets events be more aggressive about getting people outside, out into the public spaces. Hopefully, Saint Paul's first attempt is just the beginning. Down the road, I'm excited about the possibilities that come with freeing our streets from cars for a day.

[A young man (fake moustache) handing out free fried rice samples in front of a Thai Restaurant.]

[The hopping food table in front of Lao Thai, the best along the whole street IMO.]

[Delicious rib cookery at Johnny Baby's.]


The Best and Worst Saint Paul Intersection Neologisms

In Saint Paul, there's an unspoken spoken tradition of combining street intersections into new words. For example, a lot of people don't realize that the Grandview Theater is named thusly because it lies at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Fairview Avenue. Grand + Fairview = Grandview!

Similar applications throughout the city include the lovely word "Marydale," the dubious "Unidale", and the less fortunate "Ran-ham."

A recent Minnpost stroll column and subsequent Facebook conversation got me thinking about this practice, and what its potential might be.

What are the best and worst possible combinations of key St Paul intersections, according to the rules of St Paul street name neologisms?

Saint Paul Intersection Neologism Guidelines

The rules are simple. You have to combine the first or last syllable of one street with the first or last syllable of the intersecting street. Doing this provides you with a new word denoting the neighborhood around the intersection.

Get it? For example, right now I'm in a coffee shop at the corner of Cleveland Avenue and Marshall Avenue. What would this intersection's neighborhood be called?

Well "Cleve-hall" is really awkward, so the only real choice is "Marsh-land."

Hey, that's not bad! Marsh-land has a nice ring to it...

Here's a thought experiment for you: What would you do call the intersection of Cleveland Avenue and Maryland Avenue?

Trick question! Gotcha! It can't be done.

Here's another one. This corner doesn't actually exist in Saint Paul, but what might you call the hypothetical intersection of Ford Parkway and Victoria Avenue?

Correct! You get the Ford Crown Victoria, everybody's favorite cop car.

OK. I've "ran-hammed" through all the permutations. Here are a pair of lists for you, the 10 best and 10 worst possible Saint Paul intersection neologisms. Enjoy!

Ten Worst Saint Paul Intersection Neologisms


While this gets points for rolling off the tongue, I'm pretty sure it will crush property values in the Uni-Vandal neighborhood. 


This sounds like a prescription drug for constipation or something.


This thuds off the tongue like a stale Dorito.


This makes me think of early 90s B-movie action movie hero Dolph Lundgren PLUS Val Kilmer for some reason. 


This almost works, but doesn't work at all.


This one is a real one, but just makes me think of the Uni-Dale mall (which is depressing).


Yikes. Dolph Lundgren is not getting a good rap here.


"Sex Offender lives here." (Sadly, probably true of this neighborhood.)


So bad it's good... (almost).


 When every city in America becomes Cleveland, Ohio.

OK. That was depressing. On to the winners!

Ten Best Saint Paul Intersection Neologisms


Hey, actually I kinda like the Uni-dale parking lot!


This just works so well as a new word.


 Ditto. This could be someone's last name, and I'd have no problem with it.


Very soothing.


What you might call a Chinese cooking school?


Another one that sounds like a prescription drug name, but maybe one to treat depression.


A holiday where everyone throws rice at each other like in right after a wedding.


The Ojibwe word for when you laugh at a pun.


The world's largest piece of ham!


This just sounds like a really good hug.


Q: Why Don't Bikers Stop at Stop Signs?

I have a friend who's in the administration at the University of Minnesota, one of the largest schools in the country, and (despite all my insistent proclamations) one of the "most bike friendly" schools in the US. Each time we bump into each other, we have a brief chat about bikes on campus, and how they're out of control. Mostly, I try in vain to defend my bicycling brethren about their bad behavior...

It's not an uncommon topic. As bicycling has been increasing in Minneapolis, especially around the biking epicenter of the University campus, many of the employees, faculty, and others going through the area have come to me with their frustrations about bikes riding on the sidewalk, bikes running stop signs or stop lights, bikes riding in the street, bikes "darting out" and scaring my mom, or bikes parked in various awkward places around the school.

For example, I got an email from my administrator friend the other day, who undoubtedly had experienced another harried drive through campus on his way home from work. He sent me the following brief electronic epistle:
"Driving Your Bike 
By Minnesota law, bicycles are defined as vehicles, so bicyclists must follow the same laws as motorists. To bike safely you need to know Minnesota laws for operating your bicycle.

So why don't bikers ever stop for a stop sign?  I'm trying my best not hit anyone, but it's tough on campus."

Good question! At first glance, the answer is obvious. Bicyclists are hooligans out to terrorize society in general, and people driving cars in particular. There's a lot of evidence for this. Critical mass, blah blah blah.

A: Stopping Destroys All Your Momentum

[A frustrating "stop" sign on the Cedar Lake bike trail.]
Actually, though, the answer is a bit more complicated. The first part of it has to do with efficiency.

Stop signs serve different functions for cars and for bicycles. For someone driving a car, the stop sign is meant to slow you down, to keep your speed in the sub-30mph range, where you won't kill anyone if you hit them, where you still have plenty of ability to make quick decisions. Stop signs are a safety measure, slowing you down from 35 to 5-0, keeping the others neighborhood safe.

For a bicycle, stop signs operate slightly differently. Most bicyclists aren't going that fast in the first place, probably averaging 10 mph in residential or pedestrian-centered areas. Slowing a bicyclist down isn't really necessary for safety reasons. So for bicycles, stop signs serve instead as a traffic flow device, a way to make sure that cars, bikes, and people can pass through an intersection most fairly and efficiently.

That said, the problem with stop signs for bicycles is that, for a bike, there's a huge difference between slowing down to 5 mph and stopping completely. On a bike, when you come to a complete stop you lose all your momentum. It's actually a lot of effort and exertion to regain that last little bit of rolling inertia. On a bike, someone who makes a "foot on the ground" stop at every stop sign will probably work twice as hard to get where they're going as someone who merely slows down to walking speed. If you're on the fence about riding a bike in the first place, this is a deal breaker.

(This is one reason why Dutch-style "green wave" signal timing, where traffic lights are timed to the normal bicycle speed of 10-15 mph, is such a good idea. Bicyclists can keep their momentum, and just cruise to their destinations.)

A: Rolling Stops are Common Sense

[Most bike paths are littered with unwarranted stop signs.]
If you talk to a transportation planner about stop signs, one of the things they'll bring up is how sometimes you can have too many stop signs. In other words, if you try make a street safer by adding more stop signs, sometimes drivers will start to compensate for or ignore them. Engineers call these "unwarranted" stops.

For example, the city of Fort Collins, CO has this to say on the topic:
An unwarranted STOP sign installation reduces speed only immediately adjacent to the sign. In most cases, drivers accelerate as soon as possible, to a speed faster than they drove before STOP signs were installed. They do this apparently to make up for time lost at the STOP sign. STOP signs are not effective for speed control.

For bicycles most of the time, stop signs are even less warranted. In all my interviews and conversations with bicyclists, nobody comes to a stop at every stop sign (except, perhaps, to prove a point). If one is riding through a quiet neighborhood with no cars or people around, you ignore the stop sign.

In fact, Idaho (of all places) has even made this the official state law, now called the "Idaho Stop Law." Here's the description of the law, from the League of American Bicyclists:
When bicyclists in Idaho approach a stop sign they: 
Slow down, and if required for safety, stop. 
Yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching, if the approaching vehicle will create a hazard while they cross the intersection. 
Proceed after appropriately slowing and yielding without stopping.
The second rule is a very permissive red light exception. While all other red light exceptions contain language that indicates that proceeding against a red light is only appropriate when the signal fails to detect a bicyclist, the exception in Idaho contains no such language. As with the “Idaho stop” the reason for the law is encouraging cycling by making it easier.

Minneapolis state representative Phyllis Kahn has tried for years to get a similar passed in Minnesota, but to little avail. For bicyclists, this kind of rule is just common sense. It's how the vast majority of urban bicyclists ride in the city anyway, and changing the law to fit actual behavior would be a big step forward to actually fostering an enforceable legal framework.

A: Cars Yielding to Bikes is the Right Thing To Do

[A DIY stop sign in Minneapolis' West Bank neighborhood.]
I'm probably getting onto thinner ice with this one, but there's another case to be made about bikes and stop signs. There's a certain kind of environmental and social justice argument that says that more vulnerable users of the street should always get the right-of-way. In this scheme, pedestrians are at the top of a pyramid of road users, and should the right-of-way in almost all situations. After all, they're the most at risk of injury or death. After that, bicycles should be given priority. They're the second most vulnerable group of people out on the road. Finally, people driving cars should get right-of-way.

This leads to some sticky situations, particularly at intersections. (The debate over pedestrian rights at crosswalks is similar.) In some countries, there's even a legal assumption that the less vulnerable road user is 'at fault' in any crash. But as a general rule of thumb, this is an important principle. Our signalized intersections, street designs, funding priorities, and legal framework should not just equivocate between modes, but prioritize them. A society set up along these lines will be more economically just and more environmentally sustainable than one that prioritizes car driving.

In Practice, Stop Signs Demand Flexibility

These are all theoretical arguments. The lived reality of riding a bicycle in any city is far more complicated. I've written before about DIY Bicycle Infrastructure, and how bicyclists have to make up their own rules as they go along to get by on our inadequate American streets. Here's my personal rule about how to behave at a stop sign:
On quiet residential streets, treat most stop signs as ‘yield: slow down and look for cars and pedestrians’ signs. Treat many stop lights as ‘stop, look both ways, and yield to any traffic' signs. ... [But] caution! Always watch for cross traffic! Yield to car traffic on cross streets.
[The U of MN redesigned a problem intersection, and now many use it properly.]

Honestly, biking in the US means you have to think on your feet. Sometimes, you can completely ignore a stop sign. Other times, particularly in places with a lot of car and foot traffic, you have to pay a lot of attention, actually put your foot on the ground, and yield the right of way.

College campuses like the University of Minnesota present a really difficult riddle for how to behave. There are tons of people walking, driving, lots of buses, and lots of bikes all over the East Bank. What's a bicyclist to do in this situation?

One of the clear lessons from bicycle research is that, as long as bicycles are ignored or shunted into the gutter, people will come up with their own rules. In the absence of a clear common-sense path, bicycling becomes a free-for-all: some people will weave between cars, some will hop into the sidewalk, some will sit in traffic choking on a tailpipe, and some will run through the stop sign.

However, if you have a decent bike infrastructure, the vast majority of people will follow the rules. There was a study about the redesign of a traffic signal in Portland, before and after they installed a separate bike signal for bike traffic. Before the signal, the majority of bikers blew through the red light. After the re-design, which designed safe spaces for bicycles to wait, and gave them a separate signal phase to go safely through the intersection, almost all of the bikers waited at the 'red.' In other words, bicyclists aren't inherently anarchists. If you design a street that actually makes sense for bicycles, people will use it.

So that's the short answer, which it turns out, is a long answer. Bicyclists don't stop at stop signs because it's really tiring, because much of the time it doesn't make any sense, and because in the grand scheme of things, they shouldn't have to.

I hope that helps.


I received another email from my administrator friend:
Thanks--makes sense.  Except when there is a need to stop, which does not always happen.

I'm thinking of biking on campus--cars are too dangerous.


Sidewalk Closed Signs #5

[Center City, Philadelphia.]

[Center City, Philadelphia.]

[Center City, Philadelphia.]

[Stadium Village, Minneapolis.]

[Stadium Village, Minneapolis?]

[West 7th Street, Saint Paul.]

[Warehouse District, Minneapolis.]

[Downtown, Saint Paul.]

Signs of the Times #81


[Door. West 7th Street, Saint Paul.]

[Tomatoes. Farmer's Market, Saint Paul.]

Please leave
rocks where
they are.
 They belong to the 
owner of this lot.
Thank you.

[Sent in by reader.]


[Young man. University Avenue, Saint Paul.]

Project Runway on
100 CashMere a budget
Classic Men Coats
22nd St

[Boulevard. Seward, Minneapolis.]

Welcome To
FaTima  PSychic
<---- p="">

[Pole. University Avenue, Saint Paul.]


[From Twitter.]

Open your heart.

[People. Downtown, Saint Paul.]