Cut-through traffic, near misses reportedly have been getting worse

By Jane McClure

Making Pelham Boulevard safer for bicyclists and pedestrians is a priority for some Merriam Park residents. The heavy volume of vehicle traffic during rush hours and motorists mistaking the bikeway for a traffic lane are among the problems neighbors regularly cite. They took those concerns to the Union Park District Council (UPDC) Transportation Committee on May 11.

Committee members said they will work with neighbors to make the St. Paul Department of Public Works aware of the problems and see if changes can be made. The two-way, separated bikeway became the first of its kind in St. Paul when it won the City Council’s approval in 2017. It replaced “share the road’ signs that had been there for several years.

pelham bikeway
The two-way, separated Pelham Boulevard bikeway was the first of its kind in St. Paul when it was approved in 2017. It also was the first to use white poles to separate bicyclists from motor vehicles.

One complaint neighbors have is with the Pelham bike lanes’ design, especially at Otis. Neighbors said they regularly see vehicles turn from Otis to Pelham and wind up driving in the bike lane. Near misses between bikes and vehicles happen too often, they said.

The $250,000 bikeway project, which also included Myrtle Street and Raymond Avenue, was touted as the completion of a section of the Grand Round, a network of bike and pedestrian trails that was planned in the 19th century. The Pelham leg brought bike improvements from University Avenue to Mississippi River Boulevard. The side-by-side bike lanes on the east side of the street were controversial due to the resulting removal of on-street parking.

Pelham was also the city’s first bikeway to use white poles, called delineators, to separate bicyclists from motor vehicles. According to Public Works, 5,000 motor vehicles per day traveled on Pelham south of I-94 in 2018. The latest bike count on Pelham north of Otis was also in 2018 and found 57 bikes in two hours.

David Tierney, who has lived near Pelham for more than 40 years, said the safety issues have gotten worse in the last year. He said Pelham is increasingly used as a cut-through street during rush hour as motorists try to get to and from I-94, Highway 280, Mississippi River Boulevard, Marshall Avenue and other roadways. Tierney showed the committee photos of stop-and-go traffic backed up for blocks. When vehicles are not backed up, he said, they are speeding through.

Large trucks are also on Pelham more frequently. “It’s not a truck route,” Tierney said.

Some of the cut-through traffic has been deterred this spring by Mayor Melvin Carter’s order to close southbound Mississippi River Boulevard from Franklin Avenue to Ford Parkway. That closing, which ends May 31, was meant to provide more social distancing space for outdoor recreation. While that has provided some relief, neighbors said they are bracing for more traffic backups when the road is reopened.

One complaint neighbors have is with the Pelham bike lanes’ design, especially at Otis. Neighbors said they regularly see vehicles turn from Otis to Pelham and wind up driving in the bike lane. Near misses between bikes and vehicles happen too often, they said.

“I use Pelham on a daily basis,” said committee member and bicyclist Mike Mechtenberg, “and these comments match my experience.”

The St. Paul Bicycle Coalition has also fielded complaints about Pelham. “The problem is that some drivers start driving up the bike lane, not realizing it’s a bike lane because it’s almost the width of a car lane,” said coalition leader Andy Singer. “What’s needed is some removable or retractable steel bollards or signs in the middle of the open ends, particularly at the intersection of Otis, which is where most of the problems have occurred.”

One challenge is Pelham’s deteriorated condition. “To do this right, Pelham needs to be rebuilt,” Tierney said.

St. Paul typically makes bike-related street improvements when streets are rebuilt or resurfaced. Pelham is not included in St. Paul’s five-year street plan for either work. Some sections of the street have not been rebuilt since 1964.

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