Pioneer Press Misses the Point: Rice Street Road Diet is a Huge Deal for Saint Paul

This Sunday, the Pioneer Press published a 1A front-page story about Rice Street and the North End, my old neighborhood. The piece described a changing of the guard in the local community group, the District 6 Council, which recently held an election where a new wave of board members ran for office and won, angering an old guard. The neighborhood schism hinges around a changing philosophy about streets and public space, particularly a proposed redesign of Rice Street, the main commercial drag, soon slated for reconstruction.

The reporter, Fred Melo, is one of the best journalists at the Pioneer Press and (mostly) does good work in trying circumstances. (For some context, consider how the newspaper’s hedge fund owners have admitted to “harvesting”the newsroom.)

But, as I pointed out on Twitter, he missed the key point here:

In short, Melo was right to cover the story, and has some good journalistic instincts on display. But by framing the piece around bike lanes, he and his editors needlessly turned an important story into another piece of bait for trolls.

An example of how the article’s framing quickly adopts bike lanes as its central focus:
Holst, a Marion Street resident and proponent of bicycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, was appointed chair by the board members, and his friends and personal contacts took over the other leadership posts.

“A lot of people have served tirelessly for District 6 for a very long time,” said Holst, a rental property owner, on Thursday. “My focus is going to be on making the North End the best neighborhood it can be.”

The sudden turnover in leadership within the North End’s neighborhood planning council may underscore the extent to which bike lanes have become a contentious topic in St. Paul’s business districts. The districts have long struggled with how to balance the needs of drivers, pedestrians, business owners and nearby residents.

Scoffing at the prospect of adding bike lanes to a busy county thoroughfare, some business owners see cyclists as newcomers and outsiders inserting themselves into the discussion.
Cyclists and advocates of “new urbanism” say they’re a growing part of the city’s population, and too long overlooked. And they say the infrastructure they’re advocating for could help calm traffic, improve public safety and boost business sales by increasing general access. They believe it could save lives.
The article continues with some quotes from disgruntled neighborhood group members, a cursory mention of on-street parking, and that’s about it.

And that’s the problem, because the issue here isn't bike lanes, it's a street re-design around pedestrian safety.  The difference in focus is significant because street design is central to solving Saint Paul's safety problem, which has 140+ pedestrian crashes annually and 5 deaths in 15 months. Economically struggling Rice Street, more than anywhere else in the city, needs this kind of urban design change if it’s going to survive.

Here are three key pieces of context that the column left out:

[A "road diet", aka a safer street design.]

1. Road diets are a revolutionary safety improvement

[Seattle data.]
At first glance, the term “road diet” seems like flip jargon. Like “traffic calming” or (please God no) “woonerf”, it seems like cutesy self-help, something for the bougie “new urbanist” crowd (as Melo put it) to slap on convention brochures.

But it’s not. A 4-3 road diet is a very serious concept at the core of the contemporary shift in urban design thinking. They represent a huge change in civil engineering practice, a rethinking of the relationship between speed, congestion, safety, and walkability.

A quick definition: A road diet is when you take a four-lane undivided street (i.e. no turn lane) and replace the middle two lanes with a center turn lane. It creates a “three lane” footprint where cars can no longer swerve back and forth between gaps in traffic like they’re racing at Daytona. (Local examples include Marshall, Fairview, Lexington, West 7th, Riverside, and Franklin.)    

Here are a few key points, from my 2010 article on deadly four-lane roads, following a tragic crash at Rice and Hoyt:
#1) 3-lane roads are much safer for car drivers. 
According to a Federal Highway Administration study, changing a 4-lane Death Road™ into a three-lane road reduces automobile traffic accidents from 20% to 50% depending on the context. (Note: this makes intuitive sense if you’ve ever driven on a street like this.) There are dozens of similar studies out there.

#2) 3-lane roads have marginal impact on traffic flow. I’m not going to suggest that a 4-to-3 conversion of a Death Road™ has no impact on traffic flow (though sometimes that turns out to be the case). Rather, fixing a Death Road™ usually sees a reduction in car throughput in the 5% to 10% range. As another Federal Highway Administration report puts it, “under most average daily traffic (ADT) conditions tested, road diets have minimal effects on vehicle capacity.” 

#3) 3-lane roads slow speeds
The main difference between a 4-lane Death Road™ and a 3-lane safe street is that traffic speeds go down and become far more uniform. It’s a proven fact that reducing speeds even a little bit, i.e. from 40 to 30 miles per hour, can make a huge difference on accident severity for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

#4) 3-lane roads increase biking and walking. 
After a 4-lane Death Road™ was fixed in San Francisco, “bicycle usage increased 37% during the PM peak hour, the number of pedestrians increased 49% during the PM peak hour, [and] public response has been overwhelmingly positive about this project.” That’s just one example; also, it’s common sense.

#5) Fixing a Death Road™ is really cheap. 
Unlike expensive street reconstructions or concrete bumpouts, cities and counties can quickly, easily, and cheaply fix these Death Roads™.

Here’s a quote from a city engineer in Portland, Oregon:

Graff said the price of all five road diets considered in the city’s analysis was “in the $100,000 range,” or up to $120,000 or so for projects that added new median islands or other improvements. “The cost/benefit is really high,” he said. “For the cost of one improved crossing — a median improvement or rapid-flashing beacon that provides a point improvement, you can reduce crashes across 10, 20 blocks.”

[A forthcoming example from Hennpein County.]
If anything, the case for 3-lane designs has only gotten stronger in the last seven years.

Hennepin County is going to do a 4-3 (and 4-2!) road diet on Lowry Avenue, and just this week I’ve read about a proposed 4-3conversion in Bloomington and a 4-3 conversion on a 30,000+ ADT street in Denver that barely impacted congestion. (That’s over twice as much traffic as on Rice Street.)

The only thing I’d change:  

#6 Road diets solve the fatal crosswalk problem

[Four people recently killed on Saint Paul streets.]
I would also add that the 4-3 conversion solves the deadly“whip around” problem that Saint Paul has been wrestling with for years now. In response to a rash of crashes where drivers killed five people in just over a year, the Police Department has led “crosswalk stings” at dangerous points around the city.

But the truth is that Saint Paul Police can continue doing “Stop For Me” events until Sergeant Ellison is blue in the face, and it will make only marginal differences. Enforcement is facing huge challenges because of escalating distraction culture.

Two-hour police stings make for nice headlines, but when you install a 4-3 road diet, you can build 24-hour medians at key intersections. These designs will literally save lives on a street like Rice, and it’s not hyperbole or speculation to say so. They are the only thing that will make Rice Street (and others like it) safe for the thousands of people who live and work along it every day.

[A sign I once spotted on Rice Street.]

2. Social ties in the North End are very frayed

[Via MN Compass: North End is getting poorer, more diverse.]
The second big piece of the puzzle is that the North End is struggling and I’m very worried about its future. Think about this: I lived In the North End for seven years and barely met any of my neighbors. Keep in mind that I’m an outgoing, friendly guy, but after spending seven years living on Western Avenue, when I moved away, the only people I knew by name were the butcher down the street (since burned down), the bartender at my local dive bar (since burned down) and the owner of the pizza place (not burned down!).

There are a lot of demographic and social reasons for the weak social ties. The North End has always been a working-class place. A local bar (Tin Cups, featured in the story) sells a shirt that says “It’s a Rice Street thing, you wouldn’t understand,” and there’s a legacy of community there from past generations.

[Asked an old-timer the age of Born's Bar: "I came here in my mothers' womb," he said.]
But over the last few decades, the area has quickly changed and the institutions have not kept up. Looking at Rice Street offers a good example. Super old-school Tschida Bakery closed a few years ago, a building burned down next to Mama’s Pizza, bars that closed included Diva’s Overtime Lounge, Easy Street West, and the bar on Front Avenue (I forgot the name). Many in the neighborhood saw this as addition by subtraction, but I see these closures a as a bad sign.

(Or see also Melo' excellent story on the struggles of a Maryland Avenue beauty salon from 2016. It is very hard to start a business in this neighborhood.)

[Via MN Compass.]
The result is that the old North End institutions have disappeared through death, entropy, changing tastes, and demographic changes that have seen a transformation of the neighborhood away from older white residents toward younger people of color.  

The growing diversity is a good thing for Rice Street, which boasts businesses like Bangkok Thai Deli or Kathy's Live Bait, with more and younger people speaking languages other than English. But in an area that struggles with crime and gang violence, it’s a challenge, especially for the old-timers.

Another story: I felt really weird when I marched in the Rice Street Parade back in 2006, because the parade offered a long string of floats full of white people heading down a street lined with people of color. The parade dynamics really bugged me, especially when I saw the guy running for City Council on a “tough on crime” platform hoisting police logos against a segregated racial background. It was one the things that pissed me off enough to get involved in local politics in the first place.

(I door knocked for his opponent, who won a close election. Then, four years later, I door knocked for his opponent, Amy Brendmoen, who has shown a great ability to have tough conversations across some of the stark neighborhood lines.)

[The view from Tin Cups.]
One more story about Rice Street inequality: When I attended the North End/Como Ward DFL convention back in 2007, where the City Council nomination was being determined, there was a huge disparity between the different ward neighborhoods. My Rice Street precinct had three delegates in the room, while many of the other Rice Street precincts had none at all. (!) Meanwhile, every Como Park precinct was jam packed with dozens of supporters of different candidates.

This to say that political engagement in the neighborhood is hugely imbalanced. For years, it’s felt like almost nobody advocates for Rice Street, except in a reactionary way. Few people vote, politicians generally ignore the area, and the street has been stuck in a downward cycle of disinvestment and apathy.

It’s in the midst of this vacuum of social capital that Rich Holst, the new chair of District 6 (featured prominently in the story) has been doing some amazing work. Here are three quick examples that I've personally witnessed:

Last summer I attended an hour+ long meeting that Holst had set up in the District 6 offices. He’d invited an expert on co-cooperatively owned real estate developments from Northeast Minneapolis to give a “how-to” talk on setting up alternative community investment models on Rice Street, an area that has trouble getting regular business loans.

Second, last year Holst successfully applied for a city grant to install new, branded bike racks on Rice Street. He pulled together a design for for the racks: a “North End” logo featuring a compass rose. They’re kind of like the ones in Highland, only it’s much easier to lock a bike to them. Then, by himself, Holst went up and down the street talking to business owners trying to convince them to agree to have the racks installed.

Finally, he and his neighbor, (newly elected Soil and Water Commissioner) Lena Buggs, have been hosting weekly (!) “pink flamingo” parties in his neighborhood for over a year. Every week, all summer, for over a year…  People gathering on each others lawn to talk about the weather and how to improve the neighborhood.

This kind of work is hugely difficult in a neighborhood like the North End, where poverty, crime, and demographics tend to keep people turtled up in silos.

[One of the "flamingo friday" parties in the North End.]
3. Neighborhood politics is always about getting friends to show up

[Meeting in Minneapolis' Central neighborhood.]
Maybe it was the petty quotes from the outgoing District Council members, but Melo’s article seemed awfully naïve about how neighborhood group politics work.

For one thing, there’s a huge range of difference in quality between the different neighborhood groups in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Some neighborhood groups reach out to city leaders and the community all the time; others seem like they don’t exist. (At the Saint Paul Planning Commission, the inequality is very apparent. Union Park, Mac-Grove, Fort Road, Highland, and Highwood, for example, have very active Councils. I have never heard anything from District 6, other than a complaint about a used car dealership.)

Secondly, some neighborhood groups take pains to try and reflect the demographics of their neighborhood. Others explicitly disenfranchise marginalized groups, like students, renters, or people who don’t speak English. A lot depends on where you live, each neighborhood’s unique history, and who steps up to get involved.

A few examples: I wrote an article about the great work being done in the Standish-Ericcson neighborhood; or check out John Edwards’ justified diatribes and hell-stories about LHENA and critique of Whittier's democratic process; or listen to Chris Meyer’s experiences with student disenfranchisement in Marcy-Holmes.

(Meanwhile, in my West Side district council, the annual meeting does a great job reflecting the diversity of the community and the board has many younger and/or non-white board members. In fact, a year ago, a group of board members ousted a long-time executive director in a contentious vote.)

[Meeting in Minneapolis' Standish-Ericcson neighborhood.]
In each case, the power dynamics are pretty simple. District Councils hold an annual election, and you try to get as many friends, neighbors, or others who live in the neighborhood to attend the three-hour meeting. After some period of mingling, they vote and elect the board. It’s straightforward, though group dynamics can quickly become petty in wrong circumstances. 

The point is that talking to friends and neighbors about the neighborhood is precisely the point of a community group. The idea that people who voted and ran for the board of a neighborhood group would know each other is a feature, not a bug.

The Takeaway: Bike Lanes Have Little To Do with It

[Drive down Rice, chances are good you'll see a crash.]
This kind of context is difficult to explain, and there’s no way that a newspaper story could fit it in. But my big critique of Melo’s story is that it focused on bike lanes instead of Saint Paul’s huge street safety problem.

(PROTIP: "new urbanism" is a term most commonly linked to developments like Seaside, Florida.)

It’s worth pointing out, as Osten does in the article, that bike lanes are just one of the options for the forthcoming street re-design. Compared to the safety improvements, they’re not anyone’s top priority.

It’s also worth pointing out that Rice Street can stand in for a half-dozen deadly Saint Paul streets in poor areas of town. These deadly streets are a social justice issue, because the high number of people of color and people living in poverty who depend on walking, biking, and transit. It’s a geographic issue, because of the imbalance of power within both the city and the county.

[A deadly intersection on Maryland Avenue.]
And it’s a political issue, because changing these streets isn’t a given, by any means. Almost all of Saint Paul’s deadly arterial roads are Ramsey County jurisdiction, so having a friendly Council Member does very little to advance the conversation with County-wide constituents, old-school County engineers, and little-known County Commissioners. These are the people shaping street designs on Rice, Dale, Maryland, and White Bear, and they’re only beginning to change the way that they make decisions. As Bob Collins predicts, it’s not a given that any of these streets will become safer in the next ten or twenty years.

(For example, the County Commissioner who represents the North End, Janice Rettman, successfully killed a 4-3 road diet on Dale Street a few years ago because she was worried about parking. She’s also consistently opposed bike lanes, and was *the only vote* against Ramsey County’s new All Abilities Transportation Network Policy, which aims to increase safety and ensure mobility for vulnerable people. There’s little chance that she will support safer designs for Rice Street.)

The work of people like Holst, Buggs, and Osten, and many others in these vulnerable neighborhoods, to build community and get involved, show up to meetings and stay positive, is one of the best things to happen on Rice Street in many years. In other words, this is exactly the kind of community work we need if we’re going to finally build safe streets in all parts of Saint Paul. It won’t be sufficient, but it’s a great first step. To me, it feels like blowing the dust off of the King of Rohan.

This isn’t the first time that media chosen a misleading slant for a street-related story. Bike lanes make both a convenient scapegoat, and an easy shorthand for more complex issues. But focusing on bikes does a disservice to the stakes and concerns of the people involved. It’s not about bikes, it’s about safety, and it’s about time. I wish the article could have figured that out. 

[The corner of Rice and Hoyt, where Bickram Phuyel was put in a coma.]


Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Great article. Well written, from someone who lived in this area. Thanks for highlighting the important issues that the North End faces daily.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I think your take is spot on.

Unknown said...

Excellent post. Your research is thorough and your personal reflections or refreshing and honest. Thank you.