Building the future in a street: Cleveland Avenue

By Pat Thompson
News commentary

When it comes to major street rebuilds, you only get to set an example once every 50 years or more. When a one-mile stretch of Cleveland Avenue is rebuilt in 2020 and 2021, it will be a chance for Ramsey County, St. Paul, Falcon Heights and the University of Minnesota to show they and we are committed to a carbon-­neutral future.

How do we do that? By building a street that favors people over private cars and helps conserve water in our warming world. This section of Cleveland between Larpenteur and Como avenues, bordering the U’s St. Paul campus, can serve as a model for those functions. Let’s design for the future, by planning a road that:

• Includes off-road, protected bike paths, which research shows brings a wider range of people to biking;

• Includes separate sidewalks to encourage walking;

• Still allows for car and bus traffic;

• Does not have a parking lane for cars.

What, you say, no parking?!

Right. This illustration shows how eliminating the parking lane allows room for walking and biking paths, while increasing boulevard space for trees and permeable surfaces that help stabilize the water table. That will be a benefit during the wet and dry spells we will experience more in the coming years.

A Ramsey County planning team has developed five options for a new Cleveland Avenue: ­Alternative D is the one the St. Anthony Park Community Council voted to support at its June meeting. The other options have different configurations, including unprotected in-street bike lanes, a parking lane, and various combinations of these features: For details, see

Transition Town-ASAP also supports Alternative D because it meets the most criteria needed for a livable street in a carbon-neutral city:

• The least total pavement, minimizing water-wasting runoff and decreasing our contribution to the urban heat-island effect;

• The widest boulevards (best for tree growth and keeping noise and pollution from motorized vehicles farthest from homes);

• An off-road bike path on the east side of the street, as shown in the Saint Paul Bike Plan;

• The shortest pedestrian crossing without bump outs;

• The narrowest street and therefore the slowest driver speed.

Adjusting our thinking

As it often seems, many transportation-planning topics can be agreed upon until the discussion turns to parking. And this is where it becomes a true Transition topic. If you believe we need to make a transition to a low-carbon world . . . if you heard that the permafrost is melting faster than the fastest models ­predicted . . . what kind of road should we build for the coming decades of rapid environmental, social and economic change?

We all need to adjust our thinking. The streets are public property, not a place to store private property—basically—for free, inducing more demand. Cars take up a lot of space, even if they’re electric. One-third of St. Paul’s land is pavement for streets or parking, according to the Department of Planning and Economic Development. These parking spaces actually separate us, making it harder to walk to things.

“We can’t keep designing systems to make our self-destructive choices as easy as possible,” states Julia Curran of StreetsMN. “We can’t say, ‘We need to decrease emissions,’ without actually making driving harder.”

Julia is right, and the Cleveland Avenue rebuild is a chance for us to show what we really believe. 

Pat Thompson is part of Transition Town—ASAP and co-chair of the SAPCC Transportation Committee.

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