How do you fit all the public amenities needed for a 21st century city into a 19th century street? Some cities benefited from great forethought, like Salt Lake City, and gave a few extra feet here and there for the public realm. Saint Paul, my hometown, wasn’t as generous.
As I have discussed before, I’m deeply involved in the process of considering transit improvements to West Seventh Street. For me, it’s more than just my ‘hood – it’s a very classic street through a neighborhood that demonstrates many of the best things that cities have to offer. Yes, it needs a little something here and there, and should include better transit.
This is a big public decision, and the public has to be involved. In order to communicate not just plans but the thinking behind them, for true citizen empowerment, it’s vital that we get into how this is going.
A lot of background is necessary. West Seventh is a street which runs diagonally through the heart of the city. Nearly everything is funneled through here, at the base of the Crocus Hill / Ramsey Hill bluff line carved out by a much larger Mississippi River at the end of the last Ice Age. In a five block stretch, we have I-35E (over 100k cars per day), West Seventh (24k) and Shepard Road (10k). That is life at the major “pinch point” of Seventh, roughly from Mancini’s to the Xcel Center – about 3/4 of a mile.
The buses also funnel through this gap in topography, meaning we have excellent transit already. But connecting us, and really all of St Paul, means we need more. A rail line is at least worth considering.
West Seventh was built as a 66’ wide street. That’s 4 Rods for those of us into surveying. In the early 1950s it was widened to 80’ by tearing down or even sawing off buildings on the South side of the street, and that’s where it stands today. With the help of a fun site called streetmix.net we can make a quick cross-section of the streetscape roughly between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, between Burger Moe’s and the Downtowner.
This is where it all comes together: (click on the picture for a larger version)
How did we get to this street? It evolved slowly over time. Once there were trolleys in the outer driving lane , but now there are buses. Street parking is vital for buildings built close together before cars were even invented, so there is limited off-street. But we can hardly say that Seventh, as configured here, is really the perfect street for any use.
So let’s look at what we can do in 80’ at the same spot from the perspective of different uses. We’ll start with cars, since they have dominated city planning for nearly a century – and were indeed why Seventh was widened. With roughly 24,000 cars per day, a street which can really handle them all needs a lot of asphalt. It would be nice to have left turn lanes, too. And those 10’ wide lanes? They’re only as wide as a big truck – 12’ is much more standard as a minimum.
If we re-made Seventh into Carvana, a motorist’s paradise, it would probably look like this:
Note that there is essentially no sidewalk at all – it just doesn’t fit. The real problem with cars in urban planning is that they take up a tremendous amount of space – to drive as well as to park. A good reason for considering transit is that it is simply far more space efficient.
But cars aren’t the only ones who use Seventh. There are at least 100 large events two blocks down at the Xcel Center, which holds 18,000 people for hockey (Go Wild!) and 20,000 for concerts. When these events let out, the existing 13’ sidewalk overflows to the point where police stand mid-block simply to keep them from spilling into the street. It’s nuts. We could reasonably use a 20’ wide sidewalk to handle the crowds – and to provide a nice street cafe scene during the day. It might look like this:
Note that there is no parking because Xcel patrons don’t get to park in the street anyways. They’ll be getting into their cars eventually and jamming up Seventh pretty badly, even if it is 4 lane. But they probably need about half of the total street width to be truly safe.
Pedestrians aren’t the only ones who want to use Seventh hard, though. We have more bicyclists every day because Seventh is a diagonal, flat street. Today they tend to ride on the sidewalks in this stretch, an insanely dangerous thing to as they are largely invisible to cars before they cross Chestnut or Walnut. This is something more like they would need to have a cyclist friendly street:
But if we punt on all of it and put a high capacity LRT down the street we can be more efficient with how we use it, right? If you presume the cars are always going to be there, if highly constricted, you still have the problem that LRT cars need 14’ of width each way. While more efficient, they still take up space:
So those are four visions for West Seventh based on different uses – and they naturally result in four utterly different and incompatible layouts for the street. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile all of them in a mere 80’ of street width.
What can you do? So far, the Riverview Corridor team has identified two possible scenarios for LRT on Seventh. The first is a dedicated guideway or something like the Green Line – except this group realized that putting it along the sidewalks takes up less room and makes for a more pleasurable experience. I have to applaud that. But it still takes up a lot of room for the trains and naturally squeezes out a lot of other uses for West Seventh:
Note the lack of parking, left turn lanes, or even standard lane widths for cars. Note also that the sidewalk is substandard, less than 12’ wide. A typical LRT cross section squeezes everything out – and if you leave even the smallest possible room for the high volume of traffic creates a streetscape that can hardly be called “pedestrian friendly”.
Knowing in advance that this wouldn’t fit, the team has been scrambling for an alternative. It’s known as the “Hybrid”, which has narrower LRT vehicles which are only 12’ wide operating in the driving lanes. Think of it as a very large streetcar – 4’ wider and a solid 30’ longer even if there is only one LRT car in the train:
We have room for parking! But not a turn lane for those heading off to Cossetta’s and an even more substandard sidewalk that will simply not be able to handle the Xcel crowds. I know that the team that is working on this is very proud of their design, but it just doesn’t work.
What do I think will work? If we punt a bit further and go with real Streetcars, like the Skoda 10T, we have a bit more room for a lot more stuff. But we have to put the street on a “road diet” that presumes a 3-lane configuration (as we have West of Mancini’s, just beyond Goodrich) will handle the cars, It’s a big assumption, based on proper 12’ wide lanes and a flexible turn / passing lane in the middle, but it has been shown to work well in other cities at this level of traffic. Also in this configuration, streetcars share the road with automobiles – or, for that matter, might just be buses at least until a certain threshold is reached that justifies a streetcar line on rails:
This is where I see it going. But for all of this the original charter of the Riverview Corridor was to provide transit service from Downtown St Paul, at Union Depot, to the Airport and beyond. Anything on Seventh is not going to move faster than 35 MPH no matter what you do. It’s not going to be very adequate.
The team is going to have to consider two systems that merge like oil and water – one fast and one local on Seventh. Such a system is going will emphasize the transfer points where they cross along with parking, pedestrian access, and so on.
It may even make sense to dig a tunnel deep down in the soft St Peter Sandstone, under the limestone cap. We will look at the cost of this “subway” and see. It’s either a brilliant idea or a crazy one – we won’t know until we look.
Until that time, the basic configuration of Seventh Street is reasonably creating a lot of interest and people are sketching out a lot of ideas. That’s all good.
When it comes right down to it, the key has to be reliable transportation which is integrated into the street furniture and distinct places all along the street. It really needs to operate every 10 minutes or less, with each stop bearing a number like “7” which tells you the transit arrives at 8:07, 8:17, 8:27, et cetera.
We’re not there yet – not even close. A lot of different visions of this relatively narrow street have to converge and a lot of thinking about the next century of West Seventh has to come to a consensus. And, of course, we have to price it all out and figure out where the money will come from.
But this is where we are starting from. The fast train to the airport? Not really even on the screen yet. Stay tuned and make popcorn – and try your own ideas out at streetmix.net! There’s a lot more show to come as the competing visions boil down into one.