Biggest suburb or baby brother?


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.

Drag your bike up here

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.

Can't you think of a better place to nap?

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.

5 comments on “Biggest suburb or baby brother?

  1. mulad says:

    The screwy staircases/ramps up to the Gateway Trail are among the most baffling things I’ve come across while biking in Saint Paul. Looking at Google Maps just now, it appears there are access paths on both sides of the trail — Is your photo of the one on the west side? There’s also a ramp on the east side that goes most of the way down from the trail toward the road, about 215 feet out of a needed 240 feet or so (slightly longer if the trail needs to make an extra turn somewhere to reduce the grade).

    The Gateway Trail is a state Department of Natural Resources property as opposed to a city or county one, so I wonder if there was some inter-agency squabbling going on that prevented the connections from being made properly. It seems like they built that east ramp up to the edge of the Wheelock Parkway right-of-way and expected the city to pay for the rest. Google Streetview also reveals that there’s a utility pole right in the way if the ramp were to continue straight on, so maybe Xcel was making life difficult (though I think the ramp could just loop around it somehow).

    Anyway, it seems that many people use the grade-level entrance at Arlington Ave rather than trying to get to it from Wheelock. I’ve also heard from one of the bikers at work that he prefers to use Arlington anyway, since the hill (over to the west by Arlington High School) is steeper but shorter.

    • The picture is of the west side of the Gateway, but I tried to mention the east side too when I talked about the ‘strange stub.’

      I thought Arlington would probably make a better “bike route” too, but I’m guessing they designated Wheelock because of the steeper hills on Arlington, or maybe because of the word parkway.

      Have you been involved with the Bike Master Plan at all?

      • mulad says:

        Oops, yeah, I see the mention of the not-so-scenic overlook now. I’ve got a bad habit of skimming a little too much…

        No, I’m sorry to say I didn’t even know the bike planning was going on. I’ll try to send them a note repeating my request for some better north-south connections over the BNSF tracks that slice through my part of town. (I sent a note to some sidewalk-related address several months ago, but never got any response.)

  2. […] now St Paul has two strikes.  A shitty bike lane isn’t nearly as bad as pretending a road with a couple signs on it is a bikeway, but counts as a strike when you add in that awful spot right after the West 7th overpass where the […]

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