It’s urban. It’s suburban. It’s a highway.
Snelling Avenue is a lot of things. It just depends where you are. Annual average daily traffic (AADT) ranges from 43,000 AADT at the northern limit and around 14,400 around Ford Parkway [Source]. That’s a lot of cars. Suffice it to say, Snelling Avenue effects a lot of people’s lives. It’s important that it’s done right.
The problem with Snelling Avenue is that it’s a little bit of everything. It tries to appease everyone and therefore, appeases no one.
At it’s farthest point south in Highland Park, Snelling is a pleasant windy tree-lined, two-lane street that quickly transforms into a school zone. Traffic moves slowly until you cross Montreal. At this point, the lanes widen and the speed increases. That is, until you hit the patchwork of late-streetcar / early-suburban commercial nodes around Randolph.
The intersection of Snelling and Randolph feels urban; buildings hug the wide sidewalks and apartments are above the shops. Yet, the heavy flow of traffic make the area a walker’s nightmare during rush hours. These roads act as mini-freeways through the neighborhoods. Getting north to south or east to west through parts of St. Paul will take you on a long adventure of local arterial roads.
What to do with these types of roads is always contentious and the City of St. Paul and MnDOT often seems like they’re at odds. While residential property owners would certainly benefit from reduced traffic, the business owners like it – especially if they are fortunate enough to have off-street parking. The trouble continues when MnDOT concerns itself too much with LOS ("level of service") and “the standard”. This often translates to: how do we make the cars move most efficiently? The model criticized by urban planners has changed for the better in recent years, but still struggles to deal with places like Snelling and Randolph, a place where urban meets suburban meets pedestrians meets highway meets potential bike lanes [Related article].
From Randolph heading north, Snelling has single-family homes until St. Clair. Macalaster College’s flowering greenery turns the highway-oriented avenue into a three block version of Summit Avenue’s well-known median. The median is nice and works well, but it’s part of Snelling’s identity crisis; a highway-styled road turns pedestrian-friendly, then it quickly converts back.
North of Summit you’ll find strip malls and a hodgepodge of light industrial until you hit I-94 and University Avenue (two of Minnesota’s busiest intersections). Anyone who has driven this section of Snelling knows that congestion is the norm. It’s a major intersection off the interstate and what appears to be endless light-rail construction plugging it up even more.
Snelling from University Avenue north to Hamline University is medium-density lined with small businesses and multifamily dwellings. This stretch of road works. It accommodates lots of pedestrians, businesses, buses and cars. It’s noisy and chaotic, but it works. If Hamline University were to follow in Macalaster’s footsteps and spruce up the median, it could potentially go a long way.
Snelling past Hamline abruptly turns back into a highway as you cross railroad tracks towards the State Fair. On your left hand side, it’s a long chain-link fence and on your right are single-family homes. Both feel out of character and uncomfortable. This continues until you pass Larpenter and into Falcon Heights. It’s here where Snelling finally commits to becoming something consistent.
Snelling clearly doesn’t work as a highway; but as long as it tries to sometimes act like a highway, it won’t be able to act like a city street either. Yet, if it turns into a street city (with a median, narrower traffic lanes and bike lanes), what will happen to adjacent alternative routes? When congestion occurs on your traditional street grid, people have options. They’ll take Fairview or Hamline or Lexington. Will these roads become more congested and less desirable? Will it reduce traffic demand or move it elsewhere?
The answer isn’t clear. What is clear though is that MnDOT’s (and the City of St. Paul’s) recent reconstruction of Snelling will keep it very much the same. Appeasing no one.