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Revisiting the Cleveland Avenue bike lane battle, two years later

In October, protesters (a mere 20) showed up again—this time, in Uptown.

In October, protesters (a mere 20) showed up again—this time, in Uptown. City Pages

It was way back in the fall of 2015 when the Great Fight Over the Cleveland Avenue Bike Lanes began, but I remember it well. At the time, I was on a panel charged with developing a plan for a bike route through St. Paul’s Highland neighborhood.

We had a half-dozen meetings, lengthy discussions of the pros and cons of bike lanes versus parking spots, impassioned speeches about safety and parking. There were notably emotional moments on both sides, where a bike crash tragedy or the specter of a small business being forced to close due to lack of on-street spaces was wielded like a Nerf bat.

In the middle of it all, there were the heated public meetings packed with hundreds of sometimes-angry St. Paul residents—mostly older folks defending parking with signs that said #ClevelandAvenueLivesMatter. Perhaps the low point was a now semi-infamous City Council hearing in which one property owner warned that, if bike lanes were built and parking went away, there would be “sex shops and pool halls” appearing in the place of the bakery and the toy store. (There was also, in the middle of it all, an election that saw supporters of the bike lanes easily re-elected.)

Our committee was charged with finding compromise, but in the end, I don’t think many minds were changed. There was a contentious vote, and six months later, the parking was gone and the bike lanes were built.

That was two years ago. So, what’s happened on Cleveland in the post-bike-lane world? Where are the sex shops? Have people been using the lanes? Is it impossible to park in Highland?

I asked a few people who were there during the Cleveland fight to comment on how the lanes are working, two years later.

“They rock, they’re incredible,” says Andy Singer, co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, who lives just a block off Cleveland Avenue. “They’re used all the time. When I think about how few cars were parked on them prior to this, and now within an hour 20 or 30 people go by on Cleveland.”

You get a similar verdict from Mike Sonn, a Mac-Grove Community Council member who was a member of the community task force back in 2015.

“I think they are a success,” Sonn says. “The city has seen new businesses on Cleveland Avenue, and the predictions have not come to pass. Bar Brigade opened on Cleveland and Randolph in the old Luci Ancora space, and new owners have bought the old Trotter’s Café, which is now called Tillie’s Farmhouse.”

Bill Lindeke

Bill Lindeke

One of the big arguments in favor of the lanes, at least from my perspective, was that there are so many students and colleges in the area. Both St. Kate’s and St. Thomas are right on Cleveland Avenue, which means there are thousands of young, broke, potentially bike-riding college kids looking for a safe way to get around.

“St. Thomas supported the Cleveland lanes and has encouraged people to use them,” Doug Hennes, the St. Thomas VP who was also on the 2015 task force. “We are proactive in promoting bicycling, as well as riding buses, carpooling, and walking, as a way for people to get to and from campus.”

Last month, the Bicycle Coalition led a “bikes mean business” ride up Cleveland Avenue, visiting businesses along the way to show the connection between bike lanes and local economies.

“I was honestly surprised at how many bikes we saw using Cleveland for transportation,” says Ethan Osten, who organized the ride. “The businesses were really flattered we were coming, they were supportive of it.”

“The arguments against them were BS,” says Singer. “Everybody’s afraid of change, and thinks the sky is going to fall in if we put bike lanes instead of parking on Cleveland. The bike lane slowed speeds down tremendously on the street. People just generally drive slower. It’s really nice.”

My own take is that there are winners and losers with any change to the street, but in the big picture, the lanes have made Highland a much safer place. According to the city’s still-early traffic counts, bike ridership on Cleveland has more than doubled. Meanwhile, businesses are still thriving.

And, compared to just about any other growing city in America, parking is still a piece of cake in St. Paul.

Cruise around to rest of our 2018 Bike Issue: