-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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What a wonderful blog post. Helped me think of the possibilities when leadership in cities actually come up with the ideas. We toured the Council Bluffs IA FIRST AVE trail with the Mayor’s Chief of Staff as the tour guide.(on a bike). Imagine that! Thanks, Jackson for a great read!