Lessons from St. Paul

24 Jan

-submitted by Jackson Long

I’ve lived in Omaha for most of my life, but last fall I decided it was time for a change, packed my bags, and moved up to Saint Paul, Minnesota for college. I’m now a student at Macalester, a small liberal arts college in an urban area not too far from the Mississippi River. In all of my excursions through the city, it hasn’t felt very different from home, which is why I think that Omaha could stand to learn a few things from the Saintly City.

My first leisurely walk as a Macalester student brought me to a street called Ayd Mill Road, a divided highway that at first reminded me of Omaha’s Saddle Creek Boulevard or Northwest Radial Highway. I reflexively steered clear of the area, deeming it unfit for travel. The next morning my bus took this same road, and while I was studying the route in a futile attempt to get a sense of direction in my new home, I caught myself thinking, “Well, I don’t own a car, so I won’t be using this road anyway.”

The old Ayd Mill Rd (Photo: Bill Lindeke)

I was wrong!  On the first day of class, my urban geography professor briefly mentioned Streets.MN, which I quickly jotted down on my syllabus.  I looked through the website a few days later and found an article by Bill Lindeke titled “I Was Wrong about Ayd Mill Road.” Intrigued, I started reading, and it was brought to my attention that not only was there a very usable bike path on the road I instinctively turned my back on, but that this joint bike path and road reduction proposal was led by Saint Paul’s very own Mayor Carter. Commuters into Saint Paul now only get one lane, and Lindeke estimates the road reduction led to a 20 mile-per-hour speed decrease of cars headed that direction. The concept of working alongside the mayor on issues regarding urbanism—rather than in direct opposition—was, and still is, foreign to me, especially following Omaha Mayor Stothert’s decision to leave our first protected bike lane unfunded.

The new Ayd Mill Rd, (Photo: Bill Lindeke)

I went for my first Saint Paul bike trip the day after commencement: north on the riverfront trail, across a bridge over the Mississippi, and south on the Grand Rounds Byway. It was truly a great first impression. The parallel lanes for cyclists and pedestrians were completely new to me, an Omaha native who was scarcely used to encountering so much as a trail sign. I was taken aback before even getting a mile from campus, as one car in each direction yielded to me with no crosswalk to be found. It seems that having a culture of cycling both present and ingrained into the city’s infrastructure makes for a more amicable relationship between drivers, who respect my presence alongside them, and bikers, who anticipate that drivers have dealt with cyclists before. My coworkers would sometimes lament the car culture in the Twin Cities, and they have a point, but I just have to laugh. They have no idea how bad it can get.

What’s so striking about Saint Paul, for me at least, is how it feels like every single step of my ride has been thought out by planners and engineers. Two days after my first bike ride I went out for another, and every step of the way I was surprised to find infrastructure to accommodate my dilapidated cross bike.

I left campus and immediately crossed the side road to get onto the Summit Avenue bike lane. It’s not protected, unfortunately, but there is a painted gap between where cars go and where bikes go.

Summit Avenue bike lane (Google Maps)

I took this bike lane all the way down to the riverfront, where I was able to get off the street and onto the riverfront trail. I took this trail south toward the Ford bridge, where the pedestrian and cyclist lane was physically separated from the driving lanes.

My own photo of the Ford bridge

I used this bridge to cross the river, where I quickly found my way to the Minnehaha Trail, which took me all the way to Fort Snelling. One complaint: the trail was far too bumpy, my suspension could hardly handle the uneven pavement. I walked my bike up a particularly steep hill, and after reading a few signs about the unspeakable things that happened there, I searched for a way to get back home that didn’t pose the risk of destroying my vehicle. I encountered a staircase and was preparing to walk my bike down it in the slow, careful, and exhausting way I would in Omaha, only to find a bicycle access ramp that took me all the way down. Reaching the bottom, I rode northeast across the Mississippi along MN-5, with a sturdy physical barrier between myself and traffic. Soon enough, I found another staircase with another bike ramp that took me back up to the riverfront trail. To put it simply, riding alongside a highway felt easier and safer than taking the already accessible bike trail.

Bicycle access ramp (CycleSafe)

It wasn’t all this easy, though. Back on the trail, I encountered two roadblocks in only a few miles, and had to find an alternate route.  Luckily, there were these orange detour signs which flawlessly guided me around the obstruction.  There were even different detour routes for cyclists and pedestrians, and the one for cyclists took me to Cleveland Avenue, where sure enough, there was a bike lane waiting for me. Not once did I have to check Maps to guess at the nearest bike-friendly road, all I had to do was look straight ahead for the relevant signage.

Orange detour sign (Photos Public Domain)

I got a bit lost and went too far north on Cleveland, all the way to University Avenue.  I had to cross some railroad tracks, but they had these rubber crossing pads that made it so I didn’t even have to dismount my bike.

It wasn’t exactly like this but you get the idea (Railway Technology)

On my way back to campus, I noticed that the traffic lights all had leading pedestrian intervals, meaning the pedestrian signal would change a few seconds before the light would turn green, giving me a chance to establish my place in the intersection and become more visible to drivers before they start to turn.

I can’t wrap up without another quick comparison. To get to Saint Paul’s riverfront trail, all I had to do was hop on a bike lane and take it to the river. Compare this to Omaha, where to get to the foot of the riverfront trail I have to meander down Locust street, which… have you ever accidentally taken one of those classes designed to weed out students who aren’t serious about the major? It’s like that, but for bikes. The tall grass, disappearing sidewalks, and railroad tracks (without crossing pads, of course) force you to consider how much you really want to ride on that trail.

In conclusion, what we’re doing in Omaha is not enough.  It’s not sufficient to give us one bike lane, one crosswalk, one bike rack, and then cross your arms and ask, “There, are you happy now?”  What is a trail for if you can’t get to it, or get anywhere from it?  What is a bike lane for if it ends two blocks after it begins?  What is a bike rack for if you have to fight for your life to get to it in the first place?  It’s not all about that one bike lane, it’s about biking.  It’s not all about that one sidewalk, it’s about walking.  Not even a month after moving to Saint Paul, I was shown what it really means to commit to walkability, to bikeability, and to an environmentally-friendly city. While I have my complaints, I feel like I can safely say that Saint Paul is making these commitments. Omaha is not.

Learning the Wrong Lessons

10 Jan

Derek Babb, Board Member and Bike Team Lead

Last week, I rode the Harney Street Cycle Track to see how well it was plowed after our recent snow storm. The previous day, I had seen Dear Evan Hansen at the Orpheum and there were several people parked in the bike lane, waiting to pick someone up. I loudly commented that you shouldn’t park there and my wife said, “He’s obviously waiting for someone.” I responded that there is no reason to be parked in the bike lane, even if it’s cold, even if you’ll only be a minute. 

All that background to say, we have so little here in Omaha that I feel like we constantly need to fight to maintain what we have, we constantly need to prove that we “deserve” the few painted bicycle gutters and the one “pilot” project protected bike lane we have.

Back to the snow. 

I went to as many public meetings as I could in the lead-up to the protected bike lane. I was there nearly 10 years ago when this lane was first proposed. I was there when we re-started the conversation. At every one of these public meetings, someone would ask, “What about when it snows?” The frustrating thing about that question is that it’s so lazy. Omaha is snowy for a few weeks out of the year. We have a baseball stadium that is only used for two weeks a year but I guess that is not the same.

We know that snow is a possible problem. We know that it is a top critique from people who would rather not have any bicycle infrastructure. We know that piles of snow in the bike lane will deter people from biking, further justification to people who claim “nobody ever uses the bike lanes.”

Last Monday, 48 hours after our snowstorm, I rode the Market to Midtown Bikeway to see how the snow had been cleared. The results were…spotty. 

Some patches were fully cleared, some businesses had cleared their driveways and pushed the snow into mounds in the bike lane, some places seemed to be untouched. There were also several other tire tracks in the snow, so it wasn’t just me (out to prove a point) riding in the bike lane. When I complained on Twitter, I received this response from Bike Walk Nebraska:

The thing that I keep thinking is, we are learning the wrong lessons. We know that people are going to use snow clearing issues as a blunt instrument to prevent future bike infrastructure. The goal needs to be a fully cleared bike lane as quickly (or ideally quicker) than the car lanes are cleared. We can’t afford to do a bad job and learn from that. We need to do an immaculate job and learn where we can be more efficient in the future.

Nobody is rooting for the success of this lane more than me. Mode Shift Omaha and other advocates have been trying to make this lane a reality for over a decade. We should have a network of connected, protected, safe bike lanes at this point. We have lost so much as a city through our inaction.

The good news is that Omaha is so far behind that there is no longer a need for pilot projects. We know what works, we have the benefit of being able to steal the good ideas from other cities and, rather than doing a study, simply implement those ideas here.

How do you clear snow? – Ask Minneapolis.

What about the cold? – See above. 

Will people ride where it’s hilly? – Ask Kansas City.

People don’t ride that much. – What happened in Des Moines when they added protected bike lanes? How about Lincoln?

Advocating in Omaha is exhausting. We have to fight to maintain what we have and it feels like actual permanent improvements are impossible. It’s been a long few years and I am tired. When do you stop shouting for basic infrastructure and move to a place that gets it?

In the meantime, I am upset with fellow advocates because the city isn’t even at the table. The city is doing nothing. The CIP is full of parking and road widening and Council Bluffs is embarrassing Omaha with their forward thinking and action on bike infrastructure. There are many lessons to be learned here, but I fear we are missing the most important ones.

Weekend Events

17 Dec

TONIGHT Walk With Us – Blackstone: The MSO Walkability Team invites you to join us for continuous crossing event Friday, December 17th from 4-7pm (originally 5-7pm but we have an earlier group interested!) at the 38th & Farnam intersection. If you haven’t read our statement calling on the City to get serious about Vision Zero, do so HERE and then join us this evening to draw attention to the area. We’ll have safety vests and signs. Bring a friend and walk with us, even if it’s just one lap around the intersection!

TOMORROW Ride With Us – Council Bluffs FIRST AVE Trail! The Bike Team invites you to join us for a chilly Saturday afternoon ride in Council Bluffs for phase one of the amazing new FIRST AVE Trail. Meet us on the CB side of the Bob Bridge at 1pm. You’ll find a Heartland BCycle station there if you want to ride but don’t have your own bike. It will be short and sweet since the temps are low but we’ll pedal and talk about our first impressions with a MSO Member & Planner in Council Bluffs.