Saint Paul’s proposed $12 million Summit Avenue Regional Trail is fraught with many unknowns that will likely result in unintended and irreversible consequences—and with no proven increase in its primary goal: bicycle safety. Before city officials approve the recently unveiled Regional Trail master plan, they must prove that the trail will not be one more civic improvement built on good but not fully thought-out intentions.

summit and lexington
Summit Avenue looking west from its intersection with Lexington Parkway, where efforts have been made in recent years to improve the safety of bicyclists using the on-street bike lane.

The first of its kind

According to the master plan, regional trails are multi-use and “intended to pass through or provide connections between regional parks.” At a recent meeting of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, a citizen asked a design engineer if there were any dedicated regional bike trails similar in length and design that also run through a highly developed urban residential neighborhood. His answer was “no,” he and his staff were not aware of a similar bike trail in the region or even the nation.

The Summit Avenue trail would be the first of its kind: a 5.4-mile-long ribbon of off-road pavement running through the heart of an old and established neighborhood. It would intersect with 48 cross streets, seven of which are high-traffic connectors. The danger posed by those intersections is real and will not be diminished.

In the last 10 years, 32 accidents have been reported between vehicles and bicycles on Summit Avenue. Most of them occurred at one or another of its intersections. Two of the accidents, both at Snelling Avenue, killed the bicyclists involved. One accident was the fault of the motorist, the other the fault of the bicyclist. There is no evidence that the new trail will reduce or eliminate these types of accidents, given that it will intersect with the same 48 cross streets.

Too slow and overcrowded for the serious cyclist

The Metropolitan Council’s 2040 Regional Parks Policy Plan—the guiding document for the Summit Avenue Regional Trail—notes that “experienced bicyclists…want direct access to destinations at maximum speed with minimum delay. These bicyclists primarily rely on the road systems for routes, and value using roads for commuting, but occasionally enjoy independent trails if they are relatively continuous and not overly crowded.”

The proposed Summit trail would indeed be relatively continuous, but its chances of not being overly crowded are unlikely due to the avenue’s popularity among residents and visitors. As the 2040 Regional Parks Policy Plan states, “regional trails are primarily multi-use recreational trails. They may be used for walking in small or large groups, jogging, bicycling and other wheeled, activities (e.g., skateboards, in-line skates, roller skis).”

We must expect that those who ride electric bikes, electric scooters and motorized mobility scooters will also favor the Summit trail. It is also likely that pedestrians will use the trail, especially in the winter when sidewalks are not cleared of snow and ice.

 

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In short, there is a strong possibility that many experienced and commuter bicyclists will prefer not to ride on a multi-purpose trail in a high-density urban neighborhood. They will not want to slow down to maneuver around other riders. Instead, they will ride on the Summit roadway, as they do now, but without the benefit of the on-road bike lane, which will be eliminated. Motorists and cyclists will need to share a single lane. The master plan does not provide enough room for motorists to safely pass cyclists, which is a recipe for frustration, anger and accidents.

Seductive plan is little more than a bureaucratic dream

Saint Paul residents are being asked to buy the proverbial pig in a poke—a $12 million pig. The master plan—seductive because it hits all of the high notes of what many consider to be good urban living—is little more than a bureaucratic fever dream for an untested and unproven concept. It leaves far too many unanswered questions, including the impact of the trail’s construction on hundreds of mature trees and the impact on the character of a nationally treasured historic district.

Safe bicycling for all should be more than a goal; it must be a proven result. This goal can be achieved on Summit by less intrusive means, such as paving and striping the avenue, installing traffic-calming devices at each intersection and strictly enforcing current speed limits. If the city implemented these simple measures, Summit would provide an expedient and safe experience for all bicyclists at a fraction of the cost.

— Patrick Contardo and Robyn Roslak

The writers are residents of Merriam Park.

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