Bikeability? Excellent. No. 2 in the country.
Walkability? Not so good. No. 17 among the 30 top metro areas. Down among St. Louis, Detroit and Houston. That hurts. Even Atlanta, the least pedestrian-friendly city I can imagine, came in three spots ahead of us. And the cities that Minneapolis-St. Paul likes to emulate — Denver, Portland and Seattle — all finished in the top 10, at Nos. 4, 5 and 6.
These results are part of a Brookings Institution report released Tuesday called “Footloose and Fancy Free: A Field Survey of Walkable Urban Places in the Top 30 U.S. Metropolitan Areas.” Christopher Leinberger, the Brookings researcher, found 157 such places, but only two in the Twin Cities that qualified: the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. By Leinberger’s reckoning, then, the Twin Cities’ walkability ratio is one walkable district for every 1.6 million residents. Not too impressive. The top finisher, Washington, D.C., had one such district for every 264,000 residents.
Let’s be clear about what Leinberger was and wasn’t looking for, and why. He wasn’t looking for cities with lots of lakes you can stroll around and parkways you can meander through on foot. Minneapolis has gobs of those. The whole metro region has an impressive trail system that promotes recreational walking and hiking. But that’s not the point. The point is finding urban places where walking becomes part of the fabric of everyday life: walking to the coffee shop in the morning, walking to the movies, the grocery store, the laundry, the park, the transit stop, and so on. Leinberger’s point is to highlight places where driving can be reduced in the course of everyday life.
Why? Because those kinds of places help mitigate climate change, help reduce dependence on unstable supplies and prices of oil, and help people live more active, healthy lives.
Leinberger wasn’t looking for neighborhood nodes like Linden Hills or St. Anthony Park, but for major urban districts with lots of jobs, housing, shopping and cultural venues all accessible by means other than driving, and all within walkable range of one another. Fifteen years ago, he would have found almost none of these places outside of New York and a few other eastern cities. Now even Western cities like Denver have transformed themselves through thoughtful planning and wise transit investments. Leinberger singles out the Colorado city for its intentional efforts to reduce auto dependence.
Minneapolis falls short
He concedes to certain flaws in his report. There’s no good way to decide where one walkable district ends and another begins, for example. That shortcoming unfairly penalizes New York City in his rankings because, arguably, all of Manhattan could be considered a single, walkable district.
A second flaw is that there’s no analysis of the quality of walkable places. That’s where Minneapolis could further suffer if Leinberger probed more deeply. Yes, it’s perfectly possible to walk from a condo on the city’s downtown edge to a store or concert hall in the city’s core, but why would you? You’d be walking, for the most part, down treeless streets, past grim parking lots and blank building fronts. You’d be using crosswalks with no markings and suffering dozens of other small indignities that remind you that you’re living in a city that values motorists over pedestrians at almost every turn.
Jay Walljasper, one of the nation’s best writers on urban design issues and a senior fellow at the Project for Public Spaces, offers these thoughts:
“This recent snowfall reminds me of how the city of Minneapolis falls short on pedestrian issues. We have this wonderful civic spirit where everyone gets out and puts tens of thousands of hours collectively into shoveling the sidewalks. Then the city plows come through and barricade the sidewalks off from the street, making the sidewalks unpassable. This is even true at busy shopping corners like 38th and Grand, where I had to climb up a mound of hardpack snow to get across the street. [I can attest that this is true even downtown.] How hard would it be for someone to jump off the truck and shovel out the mess they’ve created?
Walljasper continues: “We should all be proud of the great record we have accomplished on bike issues. But pedestrian issues are even more important, because everyone is a pedestrian at some point during the day [even the driver who, after parking, must climb over a huge mound of snow to plug the meter]. The city needs to paint more crosswalks … That’s a very small thing that would make people safer, encourage more people to walk places and enliven our city. It would make it safer, too — since streets full of people are streets where crime is seldom committed.
“All in all,” Walljasper says, “we need to make walking something for which Minneapolis is famous. It should be part of our identity as a healthy, enlightened, charming town. Seattle has a pedestrian coordinator at city hall, who is responsible for reviewing all plans from a pedestrian point of view. That helps a lot.”
He concludes: “In the global economy right now, people and companies are choosing places to locate on the basis of livability. If we want to attract talented young people, which has been a secret to our economic success since World War II, we have to convince them that this is a great place. Having pleasant places to walk and hang out is foremost among livability issues. It’s more important than a good baseball team or a great symphony. Our cold climate already steers people to other places. Let’s not let a laziness about important quality of life issues like walkability discourage others from coming here. Our loss is New York’s. Boston’s, San Francisco’s, Denver’s, Portland’s, Seattle’s, Chicago’s and the other nine cities that rank ahead of us in these listings.”
Walk and explore
To be fair, St. Paul’s riverfront vision includes pedestrians and Minneapolis’ new transportation initiative recognizes the city’s pedestrian shortcomings. A private effort, the Walking Minneapolis Foundation, has also been launched. It’s director, Sarah Harris, offered these thoughts:
“People discuss pedestrian planning as if it were on the fringe. I try to change the context. I always ask people to stop and think about their favorite great city in the world. I ask what they see, feel and hear. Then I ask what they do when first they arrive in that city. They almost always respond that they walk and explore to become a part of the city at a human level. People know, at some level, that the things that make great cities great are the same things that make them walkable.”
Harris continues: “Walking Minneapolis is more than just about physicality. It’s about psychology. One day a friend and I left my office downtown at the same time to attend a meeting at City Hall. She drove. I walked. I beat her there, even stopping along the way to buy some juice and to notice a pair of shoes I saw in a store. (I bought them on the way back. I never would have seen them if I had driven.) Multiplied many times, these things are fundamental to city life: meeting and market. So, it’s not just about walking to make us healthier.
“We are a community for whom a walk about the beautiful lakes is programmed into our DNA,” she says. “Almost every day of the year, the Grand Rounds are well used and well loved. For most of us it’s not just the exercise. It’s the need to be out enjoying, talking, observing, participating. Our next opportunity is to transfer that experience to downtown. We have a phenomenal district with incredible natural, economic, cultural and creative resources. But we aren’t yet seeing and capturing the public realm opportunities. Not yet. But we are seeing a change in thinking and planning, and that’s a start.”
Harris concludes: “Our efforts aren’t about altruism, but they comprise a compelling business recruitment tool that will bring additional private resources to augment a financially stressed public sector. We can build a great community legacy that begins with just getting out and walking.”
Harris and Walljasper are right. There’s much work to do and many habits to change. Concerns about walkability are not “pedestrian.”