Detour Signs: Mostly Thoughtless, Sometimes Painful

[The High Bridge, lit and lurking on the horizon.]
Heading home the other day, I was riding my bicycle across the High Bridge, which rises at a steep angle for half-mile over one hundred feet over the Mississippi. I live on the top of the river bluffs on Saint Paul’s West Side, and so my home stretch climb is inevitable.

When I moved to the neighborhood, three years ago, the bridge relentlessly stalked my horizons. The thought of crossing filled me with classic bike dread, and sometimes I’d go out of my way to avoid it, heading to the less dramatic downtown river crossings. But then much of the time, I would turn down Cliff Road to the base of the bridge, aiming my tires up the incline and climbing to my inevitable fate.   

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at scaling the bridge, developing a few tricks to lessen the psychic burden of the steep half-mile. Sometimes, I count my breathing, each breath a number on the way upwards. I typically get to 70 or 80 deep breaths before I reach the summit, and somehow that makes it more manageable. On other ascents, I put my head down and stare at the cement slowly moving underneath my front wheel, a classic hill-climbing trick I learned on the bluffs of the Wisconsin driftless. Gazing at the distant hilltop only makes it seem farther away, and it's far better to focus solely on the pavement in front of you and to lose yourself in labor. 

This is what I was doing the other night. My hat brim pointed downwards at the concrete of the High Bridge's bike lane, ascending like a doorstop to the top of the bluff. With an occasional glance left or right to take in the downtown skyline or the wide Mississsippi valley to the West I relentlessly pedaled, getting into a mute rhythm. It was going well, the slow steady pace, and as I gazed down, I knew that soon enough enough I’d reach the top and almost home.



Simultaneously, the top of my head and my front tire collided with a piece of metal.

"Fuck!" I yelled out into the empty air, high over the river, suddenly halted. 

I raised my eyes. I had ridden directly into a large orange sign sitting in the bike lane. 

DETOUR AHEAD, read the sign.

I stood stunned. For half a minute, my nose inches from the reflective black-on-orange message, my brain basically stopped. The sign was a diamond roughly 3’ square. I stared at it. It was made from thin metal that made a distinct low sound when you slammed it with the top of your head.

“Who put this here?” was my only thought.

[Similar situation on Fairview Avenue. I saw this one though.]
It’s not often that you ride a bike straight into a large object. My head down, staring at the ground, I hadn't been looking up, hadn't even seen the sign, despite the fact that it took up up the entirety of the 6’ bike lane. My only saving grace is that, climbing up the bridge, I had been going slowly, maybe 5 miles per hour.

"Fuck!" I said out loud again, a bit less loudly, bicycle Tourette's. I straddled my bike for a few more seconds before awkwardly moving around the sign, defeated by a dumb object.

Up ahead, there were some cones off to the right. The right-turn lane to Cherokee Avenue was closed. 

“Whoop-dee-doo,” I thought as I slowly rode by, taking a moment to silently curse whichever Public Works employee had deposited the sign in the bike lane earlier that day.

I suppose it wasn’t anyone’s fault but mine. What kind of person doesn’t look up at where they’re going? Who would fail to see a bright orange 4’ sign directly ahead on a straight-as-an-arrow roadway?

The answer is, of course, me. Construction detours are invariably designed for cars and their drivers. I can count on one hand the number of times more than a moment's thought was given to bicyclists when these signs and detours are installed in Saint Paul. (Maybe that's beginning to change, but not quickly...) The almost willful ignorance of active transportation goes doubly for people on foot. Construction detours rarely offer any accommodation, simply “closing” the sidewalk willy-nilly and forcing people to fend for themselves.

This is exactly what happened in Edina last week, when a black man named Larnie Thomas was walking up Xerxes Avenue and came across a detour that closed the sidewalk. Like the vast majority of people trying to get around the Twin Cities’ barely-walkable suburbs, he took the most direct option and trudged along listening to music. That's when he caught the eye of a police officer driving past.

The rest of the encounter with the cop is your typical racist policing, surely made worse by the fact that Edina is one of the most historically segregated cities in the metro. But the whole thing could have been prevented if the Edina Public Works policies had called for legitimate pedestrian detours that didn’t force people to walk in the street in the first place.

The story reminds me of Trayvon Martin, where the lack of sidewalks in so many parts of Florida forces anyone not driving a car to “trespass” along all kinds of boulevard desire paths. Too much of the time, our built environment treats anyone outside of a car like an alien, a willful ignorance that epitomizes structural racism. Police profiling combined with unequal access to mobility and a landscape that privileges drivers is bad enough; detours that throw people off the streets and force them to fend for themselves is fuel on the fire.

[Another thoughtless "closed" sign on a Saint Paul bridge.]
I’m not sure what could have prevented me from riding my bike directly into a large orange DETOUR sign. Maybe smaller cones placed in the lane ahead of the sign might have helped. I’m sure it's next-to-impossible for a Public Works’ employee, even one used to riding a bicycle, to predict that someone would put their head down and climb up the bridge without looking up.

The stunning indignation when coming face-to-face with a mute metal object is an unforgettable feeling I hope never to repeat. Maybe someday someone will figure out a way to install signs without putting them smack in the middle of bike lanes. Maybe I’ll look up next time...

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