I often joke about how St Paul is a suburb of Minneapolis, but it’s always been in jest, a gentle sibling ribbing.
That was until I took a bike ride on Wheelock Pkwy last weekend. This road, marked as an on-street bikeway on St Paul’s official Bike Map, doesn’t have a single bike facility. Not a lane, not a sharrow, no little bike symbols painted on the pavement, just a few faded signs every mile or so proclaiming it a “Bike Route.”
Wheelock Parkway seems to have been built around 1920 (it appeared on a Hudson map from 1922, but not on a Blue Book map from 1920) as one of the inter-war period’s recreational driving parkways. If there were park facilities along the road at one point, they’re gone now, although a long segment of the road follows a wooded bluff, making it feel sorta park-y. Wheelock is built for driving, and although maybe drivers were able to keep their speed down in the 20s, when they were still afraid of driving so fast their faces would peel off, no such fear lightens the feet of today’s motorists, who speed down Wheelock with only rare stop signs to slow them. If you’d prefer to traverse this parkway at a leisurely pedestrian pace, then tough crackers, Mrs. Grundy, because the so-called parkway is even missing sidewalks for most of its length.
Wheelock proves the old joke about parking on a driveway and driving on a parkway – there is no parking allowed anywhere on it, and although the roadway is narrow – 30-35′ at various points – my guess is there would be room for 5′ lanes along the entire route. But why settle for on-street facilities? Apparently to justify calling a parkway, Wheelock has exceptionally wide setbacks for most of its route – the ROW varies between 120′ and 130′, which means there’s a 40′-50′ strip of public land on both sides of the street that could be used for a two-way path or a pair of one-way cycle tracks on either side.
But a few bad eggs don’t make the St Paul omelet, and there’s some really nice biking in our neighbor to the east. In fact, two trails cross Wheelock Parkway, and by “cross” I mean it’s difficult or impossible to get to them from Wheelock. At the Gateway Trail, which may be the premier non-river East Metro trail, someone was kind enough to build a wooden staircase from Wheelock to the above-grade trail. A nice gesture, maybe, although a strange choice considering this segment of Wheelock doesn’t have a sidewalk. Kitty corner to the staircase for no one is a strange stub extending down from the trail towards Wheelock but terminating mysteriously before reaching the Parkway pavement in a kind of overlook, as though anyone would want to sit there and enjoy the view of nothing. But at least there is an indication that the North End‘s only east-west “bike route” is intersecting with the Gateway Trail. The Trout Brook Trail passes under Wheelock with nary a whiff of spray paint pointing to it. Granted, it’s at the bottom of an impressive gorge that Wheelock overpasses, and the Trout Brook Trail is just a short segment so far. But as St Paul grows up into an adult biking city, it’ll have to figure out how to make the connections between bike facilities intuitive.
Luckily, St Paul is growing up, and it’s working on a Bike Master Plan that vaguely promises some kind of real improvements, and we’ll find out what exactly sometime around New Year’s. Presumably there will be recommended connections of their existing randomly-strewn network, maybe an instruction to city employees to avoid parking in bike lanes, and – dare we hope – proposals for actual bike facilities on existing designated bike routes like Wheelock.
The cool thing about St Paul is it’s actually not bad biking most places in the town already. The car traffic is light compared to Minneapolis, and most roads are 3 lanes, tops. I was cruising around downtown on Sunday with no problems. One downside – they have these things called hills that are kind of annoying, but they can be fun, too.
So I guess I have to hesitate to apply the epithet of suburb to St Paul. And maybe St Paul is less of a baby brother, and more of a weird, reclusive older brother that you have drag into the latest fashions.