Snelling Avenue is a must-see landmark in St. Paul.
By "must-see," I mean it's unavoidable. It is an inevitable monster and, at some point, you'll need to combat the seemingly endless hordes of fast-moving car traffic.
I decided to fight that traffic from south to north, through the entire City of St. Paul.
At it's farthest point south, near my house in Highland Park, Snelling is a modest tree-lined, two-lane street that quickly transforms into a school zone. Traffic moves slowly until you cross Montreal. The lanes then widen and the speed increases. That is, until you hit the patchwork of local businesses situated on late-streetcar and early-suburban commercial nodes around Randolph.
The slight hill makes the ride enjoyable, and car traffic isn't overwhelming. It's not comforting, but at this point I'm not fearing for my life. That last part is important when designing spaces for bikes.
Moving northbound, the intersection of Snelling and Randolph feels urban; buildings hug the wide sidewalks and apartments are above the shops. The further northward I go, the heavier flow of traffic makes the area a biker's nightmare even during quietest weekend hours.
What to do with these types of roads is contentious. The city of St. Paul and DOT often seems like they're at odds. Is it a highway or is it a city street? 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. It's a blend of urban meets suburban meets pedestrians meets highway meets potential bike lane. It tries to appease everyone, but successfully appeases no one.
From Randolph heading north, Snelling has single-family homes until St. Clair. Macalaster College's green median turns the avenue into a three block stretch akin to Summit Avenue. This looks nice, for a short period, but quickly converts back. Despite good effort, the median that was designed to help students across tightens the space and makes me feel on-guard. Speeding cars pass on my left and I debate jumping onto the sidewalk.
North of Summit you'll find strip malls, a Buffalo Wild Wings, a gas station, and a hodgepodge of light industrial until you hit I-94 and University Avenue. Anyone who has driven this section of Snelling knows that congestion is the norm. But not today. I-94 construction has closed the intersection to cars and the silence is oddly beautiful. I picked up my bike and just walked right over. It's a beautiful feeling to have control over a space that would otherwise be inhospitable.
Snelling from University Avenue north to Hamline University is medium-density lined with small businesses and multifamily dwellings. This stretch of road works, kind of. It accommodates 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 go a long way.
It's always astonished me that the city hasn't done more north of University Avenue; little improvements could go a long way. The congestion oddly acts as a safety buffer, too. The slow-moving traffic ensured that any possible collision would occur at less than 5 miles per hour. It is here that I feel refuge.
I stopped my ride near the Midway Motel, glanced over the bridge to the Minnesota State fairgrounds, and figured that it'd be best to ride the sidewalk from here on out. And that is what I did; relegated to the margin as cars whizzed past at unknown speeds. At this very moment, anyone on a bike becomes a second-class citizen.
I can't help but think that Snelling is emblematic of the transition we're making from car culture into something else. It's urban. It's suburban. It's a highway. Snelling Avenue is a lot of things. It just depends where you are. The problem with Snelling is that it's a little bit of everything, but doesn't do any of those things particularly well.
Snelling 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. 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. But, what is clear is that I wasn't biking back on Snelling. I found another way.