2020-05-07

My Letter to the City Council on the 9th/10th Street Bikeway in Downtown Saint Paul

[A great project for downtown Saint Paul.]
I was on the public committee that worked with the consultant on this project. We met a handful of times to go over critical decisions like "what color should the logo be" and "do you like biking past an on-ramp." All in all, it was one of the less meaningful public engagement experiences of my life, somewhere in the "tokenism" rungs of Arnstein's ladder of citizen participation. But at least I got to learn a lot about the challenges of creating an off-street bike network in downtown Saint Paul, one of which is certainly parochial businesspeople who freak out about on-street parking in a walkable downtown.

[Typical downtown Saint Paul sidewalk experience.]
The key point is that downtown Saint Paul has two big urban design problems, and lack of parking is not one of them. First, while the downtown has some wonderful pockets of lively streets, shops, and parks, in between these hot spots sits a bleak landscape of blank walls, parking ramps, and empty asphalt. There are very few places to walk or bike comfortably through the skyway-centric hostile parts of downtown, and nowhere to do so in a comfortable, urban, engaging way. (4th Street is one of the few east-west streets with any promise on this front.) So people view downtown as fragmented and fractured, with Lowertown seeming like its miles away from Rice Park, which in fact they're quite close. (Trust me, I drove a pedicab in downtown Saint Paul for a year.)

[Does for downtown what Midwest nitrogen does for the Gulf shrimp industry.]
The other big problem is that downtown Saint Paul is separated from the neighborhoods on nearly every side by a large, almost impenetrable moat of dangerous high-speed roads. Though you can see downtown Saint Paul from the Cathedral steps or the West Side Bluffs or Mounds Park or the State Capitol, you can't get there from here, at least not very comfortably. (West 7th Street is the one, vibrant exception that proves the rule.) Connecting downtown to all the wonderful neighborhoods that surround it with safe, comfortable bike paths is a wonderful goal. If done well, these links will certainly help the downtown economy.

Thus, the Capital City Bikeway. Jackson Street was a great beginning to this effort, but the city really needs to do something while it waits for more funding for the rest of the project. That's why it's great to see the City Council vote unanimously to support an interim route east-west along 9th and 10th Streets. More importantly, they did it despite the dunder-headed opposition of a handful of restaurants and even a brewery (!).

Despite what the Key's Café lady will tell you, rules for businesses downtown differ from those in Roseville strip malls. People come downtown because it's a vibrant, unique place. Nobody comes downtown for convenient parking.

Anyway, here's my letter to the City Council:
Dear City Council: 
I'm writing today to let you know that the Transportation Committee of the Planning Commission passed a resolution yesterday unanimously in support of the interim bikeway treatments along 9th and 10th Streets downtown. We are on the record as being very excited about this project, that fulfills the commitments and ideals laid out in many of our long-standing city plans. 
Speaking for myself, I believe that connecting downtown Saint Paul in ways that make it more walkable and bikeable will only boost the downtown economy, which has been uneven, fragmented, and struggling for as long as I can remember.  
In my opinion, one of downtown Saint Paul's big problems is that it has long been isolated from the rest of the city around it. The freeways and dangerous, high-speed roadways that ring our downtown form a kind of asphalt moat that prevents people from easily walking, biking, or accessing the downtown from anywhere else in the city. This harms local businesses and prevents downtown Saint Paul from being the economic and tax base asset that it can and should be.  
The Capital City Bikeway is intended to help fix this problem by linking all parts of downtown. This connection is both an internal one within the thriving pockets of downtown, and external one with the neighborhoods around it. The 9th/10th leg is a critical connection that will bring people into the city and alleviate perceived and actual tensions around parking for drivers. I am very enthusiastic about the future of a downtown Saint Paul that is gracefully and safely connected to the east, west, north and south. 
Please support the 9th/10th bikeway by voting to lay out a welcome mat for people to easily get into and out of downtown, and help downtown Saint Paul streets, businesses, and communities thrive. 
Thanks for your support, and I hope you are staying safe and healthy.

It's worth pointing out that debating this project during the stay-at-home shut down triggered by COVID-19 adds an extra layer of tension here. As CM Prince stated, she was worried about the loss of parking "further stressing these businesses" during the pandemic.

But I would suggest that the pandemic actually shows the critical importance of biking and walking infrastructure. When restaurants do re-open, the ones that are linked to biking and walking paths will be the most successful. This goes double for breweries, which have long thrived when they invest in bike parking and locate near bike trails. Here's hoping downtown Saint Paul comes out of this crisis better than ever.

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Yes, good point! There is a dangerous moat around the city, making it impenetrable. My child nearly got hit by a minivan on Kellogg Blvd. because vehicles treat it as a raceway. We need to seriously rethink and change our actions on roads, making them more hospitable to pedestrian and bicycle traffic as downtown once was a busy epicenter. I wonder how we'd react if more attention was paid to deaths by vehicles. Seriously, how many Minnesotans die each year due to motor vehicle accidents?

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