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What makes a city a good place to walk?

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.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Matty Lang on 12/06/2007 - 10:09 am.

    Excellent article Steve. Indeed, Harris and Waljasper are right. The land use and transportation policies of Minneapolis and our metropolitan region have been about accommodating the automobile at the expense of people and quality public spaces.

    As we continue to resist people-oriented planning and design in order to cater to the automobile we continue to fall behind our peer (and competing) cities as your article well notes. If we value and desire a safe, vibrant, healthy and (economically) thriving community we need to stop placing the automobile at the top of the priority list and replace it with people as Harris and Waljasper correctly note.

    I would take issue with the idea that Minneapolis is number two in bikeability, however, we have much room to improve. While it’s true that we rank number two (behind Portland) in the number of commuters who commute via the bicycle, we come nowhere close to Portland in regards to investment in bicycle facilities that enable more to comfortably choose the bicycle as transportation mode (whether for commuting or for other trips). We have a large number of cyclists in spite of our relative lack of investment in bicycle infrastructure. If we had facilities equal to Portland’s, my bet is that we’d be number one with room to spare.

    Keep up the great work Steve!

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/06/2007 - 12:06 pm.

    I’d like to seize on the idea about painting that Mr. Waljasper brings up. Painting is an excellent and efficient way to make forbidding asphalt more usable for pedestrians. At a low cost, painting entire intersections or blocks, ideally in customized patterns and multiple colors, will not only make people more comfortable walking, but will make drivers more attentive.

    more info:

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/06/2007 - 12:07 pm.

    Mr. Waljasper suggests painting more crosswalks – how about the whole intersection?

  4. Submitted by Matty Lang on 12/06/2007 - 12:33 pm.

    Alex is correct. Painting the entire intersection is a practice becoming known as “Paint the Pavement”. The city of St. Paul has implemented the practice a couple of residential intersections:

  5. Submitted by ralph propst on 12/07/2007 - 09:50 pm.

    It would be nice to see the cities more pedestrian friendly and I mean all cities. The last time I drove to Minneapolis the traffic was so over whelming that we were not able to get off at our exit. I ended up crossing the Mississippi into St.Paul before we could turn around and try again to get where we wanted in Minneapolis. Needless to say I haven’t been back in 7 years.
    But in a city in South Dakota a few years ago the mayor wanted to do a side walk project to make Watertown more walkable and the residents rejected the plan. So in many places pedestrians have no choice but to walk in the streets with traffic and that includes young children and elderly that do not drive.
    In a modern society like ours it is a shame that we don’t put safety and livability of our communities ahead of the rush of driving every where. The way money is allocated for transportation has to change in favor of pedestrians.

  6. Submitted by Richard Layman on 12/19/2007 - 06:48 pm.

    The Leinberger work was a little disingenuous. They were looking at walkable communities that had the ability to accommodate new development and infill construction. It’s why they looked at Columbia Heights or NoMA in DC, but not Capitol Hill or Cleveland Park.

    Anyway, wrt Minneapolis, the biggest problem you have other than the cold in the winter is that your blocks are way too long. Read the chapter in _Death and Life_ about the value of short blocks as one of the 4 keys to revitalization of center cities.

    Still, before you worry too much, don’t forget John King’s piece on Minneapolis:

    Recently the Nat. Trust for Historic Pres. nat. conference was in St. Paul and Minneapolis, but really St. Paul, the last day, and the next I went to Minneapolis, and felt that the Nat. Trust really gypped us–the conference should have been in Minneapolis, not St. Paul. I was very impressed with the Mill Museum, the River, even the Transit Mall, and the neighborhood I stayed in (by the Minneapolis MFA), the restaurants around there, and commercial districts we visited in the brief time we had.

  7. Submitted by Bryce Engen on 12/23/2007 - 07:58 pm.

    It is all well and good that we are all in agreeance on this issue, but it is time for us to stand up for the city we believe in and make some things happen. I will say from experience that the city council is quite receptive of “urban improvement” ideas, but they are not too powerful and slow to act (if at all!) on anything. I have been told the downtown business owners are the ones putting the brakes on all the good ideas, but I just don’t see that as true. There is no doubt that St. Paul, with its 3 downtown parks, small streets, low street lamps, and historic, not-so-damn tall and glassy buildings, has more of an urban feel, but it also suffers from long blocks, the disection of 7th Place (unfortunately), and the lack of life after 5. Minneapolis has more money, more residents, is probably more liberal, and has way more nightlife, but fails miserably at public space, walkability, and interesting streetscapes. And the city’s best try is the new park by the Guthrie! Who will EVER use that thing?

    To make MPLS better it simply needs:
    1. A downtown park. I suggest in front of the library, or better yet by the 1st Ave. light rail stop (south side of station, currently a surface parking lot).

    2. Street lighting and benches. These things will improve by the gradual closing of the street-killing skyways.

    3. A fixed street grid, with two-way streets, which will discourage high-speed car travel through downtown and increase navigability. Eventually on street parking can be increased and parking ramps can be closed down as public transit in the downtown core improves.

    **And lastly, while I’m ranting, some type of North/South walking connection from NE Mpls to Uptown should be realized, as well as a walkable East/West route, connecting Near North to Seven Corners and onto the U of M – East Bank.

    If anyone wants to work with me to bring some of these issues to the city I would love the energy!


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