How to end the war on walkers in the Twin Cities

CC/Flickr/jessie owen
So many of Minneapolis' streets seem to say, "Don't walk."

I love walking — maybe because it’s the only athletic activity that I do semi-competently.

My favorite stamping grounds are three of the city lakes (Harriet, Calhoun and Isles) and the Heritage Walk — across the Stone Arch Bridge to Northeast Minneapolis, down Main Street and back over the Hennepin Avenue Bridge.

Sad to say, however, those are almost the only places in our two cities where I’m completely comfortable walking, which is odd.

We have plenty of sidewalks, about 1,800 miles in Minneapolis alone. But crossing Washington Avenue, near my home, during rush hour or before a Vikings game, is a harrowing prospect. And even when I’m on a sidewalk, I worry that some jerk who’s texting his girlfriend could swerve up sideways onto the curb and squash me like a bug.

Wariness is in order. In 2010, the latest year for which numbers are available, cars killed nearly 4,300 pedestrians in the United States; in the first nine months of this year, there were 23 pedestrian fatalities in Minnesota. That’s a 64 percent increase over the same period in 2011.

Obviously, negligent drivers and incautious walkers bear some responsibility. But so do traffic engineers. Back in the day, they seemed to believe that streets had one purpose only: moving traffic. Collateral damage to humans (or scenery) wasn’t a big concern.

Since then, there’s been a drastic change in philosophy, and it can be seen in the preview of a new guide to urban street design from NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Now their mantra is: “Traffic engineers can and should do better, by designing streets where people walking, parking, shopping, bicycling, working and driving can cross paths safely.” Amen to that.

New York's Union square, before and after implementation of NACTO design princip
Courtesy of NACTO Urban Street Design Guide
New York’s Union square, before and after implementation of NACTO design principles.

The major item on NACTO’s agenda: reduce car speeds. According to the guide, conventional design encouraged the construction of long straight roads that allow drivers to travel faster than the posted limit. The NACTO guide insists that instead planners should set a target speed and then use every technique available to make drivers stick to it. Among them:

  • Allowing on-street parking and bike lanes. Signs that alert drivers to people biking and getting in and out of cars automatically slows them down. I realize this isn’t always popular. Recently, when Minneapolis converted whole lanes on Park and Portland Avenues, there was a storm of protest. I can’t figure out why, since I’ve driven those routes during several rush hours, and it’s never taken more than 10 minutes to travel from Lake Street to the Mississippi. Adding parking spaces — especially ones that allow drivers to open their doors without having them sliced off — also makes businesses more accessible to their customers.
  • Narrowing lanes. According to NACTO, reducing lane width does not increase the frequency of accidents — and it automatically reduces speeds. (I’m not so sure that’s true. As a regular driver on Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway, whose tiny lanes were constructed in the era of the Model-T, I was constantly passed by other cars even when my speedometer exceeded 75 mph.)
  • Adding trees and landscaping. Apparently, if you install these along the sides of the street and in center medians, they tend to narrow a driver’s field of vision automatically forcing him/her to travel more slowly.
  • Using medians and broadening corner sidewalks. If you reduce the distance a pedestrian has to walk to cross the street, he (or she) is more likely to survive.
  • Traffic calming devices. Think speed bumps.

Now I know that I will be besieged with comments from people declaring that all these moves constitute a so-called War on Cars, waged by liberal bed-wetting, bicycle-helmeted city planners. But the NACTO folks, many of them hard-core traffic engineers, aren’t talking about freeways designed to move commuters and freight to the suburbs. They are focusing on city streets, which, they say, “should be designed to include public spaces as well as channels for movement.”

Design strategies defended

Jon Wertjes, director of Traffic and Safety Services for Minneapolis, defends the design strategies. “War is a harsh word,” he says. “This is about design standards and how they apply to the place type — how streets are being used and what the land use is.”

My translation: If a street is lined with interesting shops and cafes, for example, you want cars to go more slowly. After all, maybe they’ll stop and buy something.

Anyway, even those in love with driving (I include myself) have to admit in the far corner of their hearts, that for the past 60 or 70 years, there’s been a War on Walkers.

Minnesota has been on the case for a while. In case you didn’t know — and who can keep track of all these initiatives? — in 2010 the state adopted “complete streets” legislation which requires road projects to be designed to meet local needs and to “be sensitive to context and emphasize that all
modes of transportation and all users are considered in the project development process.” What the Legislature hoped to avoid were situations in which road engineers paved over paradise (or perceived paradises) and put up a highway interchange. (If you think they wouldn’t, consider the fact that back in the 1960s, state transportation engineers proposed a freeway that would have cut through Kenwood in Minneapolis and skirted Lake of the Isles.)

St. Paul grant

Local governments may, but don’t have to, create their own complete streets plan. St. Paul recently received a $250,000 grant from the feds to develop one, which should itself be complete in September 2013. There’s some urgency, says Anton Jerve, the city planner working on it, because “St. Paul has moved back to a system of neighborhood schools, and more people will be walking.” He expects the plan to spawn 10 pilot projects that will test various design elements.

Minneapolis had already created a Pedestrian Master Plan back in 2009. Shaun Murphy, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, laughed when I asked him how far implementation had progressed. “These master plans take over a generation to develop,” he said. But he added that the plan team has worked on the closure of sidewalks during construction. In the past, pedestrians have been forced to cross the street in the middle of a block or walk in the road. Now developers are required to provide a walkway protected from cars. And the city has been working to calm down traffic on Riverside Avenue and narrow pedestrian crossings.

Of course, I’d like to see the planners put some pedal to the metal. The NACTO guide in fact urges cities to “Act Now” by using temporary materials to test out new street configurations. Instead of making costly permanent fixes with cement and asphalt, they suggest paint, glue, planters and gravel to create a new design, as New York did in Union Square. The virtue of going that way is clear: if planners make a mistake (and who doesn’t?), it’s not permanent.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Gross on 11/05/2012 - 07:48 am.

    I agree except . . .

    Currently in the Twin Cities the car is the only way to get around unless you are fortunate enough to live near the light rail or on well-services bus routes (I live in the Northwest corner of North Minneapolis, so neither of those things apply to me). We need to get off our or car addiction and start building more public transportation, bike lanes, and pedestrian street.

    But that being said we need to take other steps to ease the car congestion that we have, and that means we can’t turn every street into a bike/pedestrian usable road. That picture from New York is a perfect example, in order to make the road safer the planners turned a 4 lane road into a 1 lane road. So while some roads need to become dramatically bike and pedestrian accessible, some should become less. For example, bikes should be prohibited from travelling on Wash Ave through downtown, and the adjacent roads should become substantially more bike friendly.

    TL;DR: We can’t have cars, bikes, trains, pedestrians, food vendors, etc. on every single street. Some roads should be made efficient for cars and some should be made efficient and enjoyable for human traffic.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/05/2012 - 08:55 am.

    A daily walker

    …I’m not aware of any “War on Walkers,” but then, I don’t live in downtown Minneapolis. I’m also a daily driver. The two don’t just conflict in terms of speed, though that’s an important consideration, they conflict in terms of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “motivation.”

    Like Ms. Harris, my 3-mile daily constitutional is more or less the only real exercise I get on a given day, and I was never an athlete, so there aren’t a lot of suitable alternatives. Since at least some modest exercise is a key to maintaining my health – and as a certified old person, that’s increasingly a consideration – I feel very fortunate to be living only a stone’s throw from the Shingle Creek Trail, which allows me to make those three miles with only a couple of street crossings, and on streets that – unlike downtown – don’t see a constant stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic during the day.

    Aside from purely physical exercise, walking allows me to get in touch with the day in terms of weather, and because I don’t have to worry unduly about cars leaping the curb to take me out when I’m unaware (bicycles are a different matter), the daily walk is also a good time to figure out assorted domestic dilemmas: how much longer to keep my current vehicle, whether I should hire a landscape contractor for some hardscaping of the yard, should I spend the money for a new winter coat, etc.

    If my neighborhood had any street-level retail (sadly, it doesn’t), walking would also provide opportunities to patronize local businesses. An urban street with coffee shops, restaurants, boutique dealers in clothing or hardware, book stores, etc., is likely to be an attractive place to meander for pedestrians, but if I’m one of those merchants, I’d like the city – no matter what city it is – to provide a little help by keeping the automobile traffic to speeds low enough to allow someone to pull into a curbside parking space to take advantage of those retail opportunities without causing a 5-car pileup. Street-level retail relies on access to be successful, and 50 mph speed limits don’t encourage that access.

    As a driver, however, I’m not interested in “getting in touch with the day,” window shopping those streetside boutiques, or pondering philosophically, at least, not while I’m driving in the urban core. Even if the errand I’m on is to buy that winter coat, or talk to the landscape contractor face-to-face, the whole point of having the automobile in the first place is to get to those destinations reasonably quickly. That’s a primary reason why streets are paved, rather than pothole-ridden dirt paths. As a driver, I want to get to my destination, and pedestrians, trees and shrubs, curb bump-outs, one-way streets, speed bumps, stop signs, etc. are all annoyances that keep me from getting my errand taken care of expeditiously.

    Andrew Gross and I must be near-neighbors, since we live in the same far northwest corner of the city, where there’s no light rail on the policy horizon, much less in service to that part of the city. Bus service is frequent, but mostly to places I don’t want to go, or else getting to my destination requires 3 transfers, which, in this climate, means I’m not going to use the bus. In general, I’m inclined to agree with Andrew’s critique. Not every street can be all things to all people, and until we devise a genuinely suitable alternative to the automobile (and eventually, we’ll have to), we don’t have a practical option, which means we can’t turn every street into a bikeway or pedestrian zone.

    Finally, while this doesn’t at all excuse the cell-phone-addled driver who hits a pedestrian, Marlys has lived elsewhere, so she surely must be aware that the pedestrian environment in Minneapolis is far better than it is in some other, comparable, cities. Speaking as a transplant from metro Denver, for example, I feel a lot more safe crossing the street to Minneapolis City Hall than I ever did crossing the street to the City and County of Denver’s new office building.

  3. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 11/05/2012 - 09:04 am.

    Andrew, why should we prioritize cars at the expense of bikes or pedestrians when cars are by far the most inefficient use of space on our congested urban roads? I’m sure most people have seen the picture of the space occupied by 50 people in buses, bikes, and single occupancy automobiles. With your example of Washington Ave, we could actually move more *people* by calming it to a four lane (or less) boulevard and ceding more space to pedestrians, buses, bicyclists, and maybe a streetcar someday. This is the same principle that allows a carpool/bus lane on the freeway to actually move more people while at the same time being perceived as empty. We need to calculate efficiency based on moving people, not moving cars. Cars move people, but other contraptions move people too (including our own feet).

    Which brings me to some feedback for Marlys… we need to call walkers “people” instead of “pedestrians.” The word pedestrian sounds like an obstacle for a car.

    • Submitted by Andrew Gross on 11/05/2012 - 03:05 pm.

      We should, but it won’t happen any time soon

      Matt, I agree with your sentiments completely, but how do you propose we get to a point where Wash Ave could be a “bike-way?” If tomorrow we prohibit or dramatically reduce car traffic in downtown Minneapolis, then development will increase at the fringe of the metro area because getting around in Minneapolis would become next to impossible. Fringe development will only increase our dependence on automobiles and frustrate the expansion of our public transportation system. The sensible option is to slowly shift policy and economic incentives towards non-car based transportation systems, while in the short-term ensuring that people are able to get where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time.

      I agree with Ms. Harris that we should encourage people to walk and bike through some areas of downtown. Doing so creates a vibrant city and has economic and health benefits as well. I also think that we should increase funding for our public transportation by generating increased revenues from fees we place on automobile users (with exceptions to those who cannot afford the fees). We should build more high-capacity housing in our down town areas, and we should encourage mixed-use development in our residential areas. And then we need to start linking our residential areas to our schools and our job centers with trains and other public transportation.

      But none of those things can happen tomorrow, they will take time, and they should take time in order to properly plan those major investments to our infrastructure. That means we need to continue to make car traffic more efficient. Also, long and frequent stop lights means that the drivers will burn more gas (accelerating and decelerating) and will spend more time idling which means releasing VOCs and other toxic compounds into the air. Therefore taking steps to limit the increase of congestion would have environmental and health benefits as well, while we transition away from cars.

      TL;DR: We must keep car traffic moving while we transition to a new system of transportation.

      • Submitted by Faith Cable on 11/05/2012 - 05:53 pm.

        Why wait when you can start now?

        It’s unlikely that we will dramatically reduce car traffic tomorrow, although that does not mean that we should wait to make walking and biking through downtown better. Starting with incremental changes – a bus lane here or a bike lane there with a widened sidewalk can create a more vibrant city over time. If we continue to prioritize making car traffic more efficient now and have a city full of infrastructure for cars and few investments in other modes, it will be more difficult to shift towards a non-car based transportation system in the future.

        Washington Avenue is the most intuitive way to get to the North Loop and to Cedar Riverside from downtown Minneapolis although it can be pretty scary to bike. The North Loop is close to downtown yet a bit far to walk and the transit connections are poor. Driving to the North Loop isn’t quick either (especially if your car is not on the same block as your office), so biking can offer a quick option. The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has suggested a cycle track on Washington Avenue, which would make the street a lot safer for biking:

  4. Submitted by Sarah Tittle on 11/05/2012 - 09:16 am.

    Southeast! Not Northeast

    While I LOVE and agree with your article, please note that when you walk across the Stone Arch Bridge from downtown to Main Street, and then cross back over the Hennepin Ave. Bridge, you are solidly in Southeast Minneapolis. I only point this out because we SE’ers are a little sensitive that our fabulous neighborhood is constantly being confused with equally fabulous Northeast. We’re the St. Anthony Main, new Lunds, Stone Arch Bridge, super-bike-friendly neighborhood!

  5. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 11/05/2012 - 09:54 am.

    When the Cities couldn’t care less

    We lived in St Louis Park for a long time and for a while my wife and I would walk to the local coffee shop, next to City Hall, get coffee and then my wife would take the bus to her job. One of the most dangerous things we had to deal with was crossing Minnetonka Blvd, in the crosswalk, right in front of City Hall. The road would be clear when we would leave the curb but often a car running the stop signs on the side roads would speed out and blow through the crosswalk while we were in it. This happened a lot. We made every attempt possible to get the Saint Louis Park Police, our City Counsel People, and out City Manager to do something about the speeding cars and their refusal to stop for people in the crosswalk. They did nothing. We never saw the Police even attempt to monitor the crosswalk. One morning I watched a older woman get trapped in the middle of the road and no one would stop. It then happened to me. On a snowy morning walking with my dog to the coffee shop I started crossing the street. The street was clear. RIght away a car running the stop sign from a side street cut both of us off. By this time more traffic had showed up and none of it would stop for us in the cross walk. I was stranded in the middle of the Minnetonka Blvd on a snowy morning holding my Lab with cars racing by at 35 mph and missing us by inches.

    I called the City and got “Nothing”. We changed our route to cross at a light down Minnetonka Blvd but after more close calls with cars running the red light while we were in the crosswalk we finally gave up. We stopped going to the coffee shop and my wife stopped taking the bus. Many others had called the City to complain about the crosswalk and all got the same response, SLP didn’t care. Two women who went to talk to the City officials about the crosswalk said the City employees actually thought it was funny and made a joke about it.

  6. Submitted by David Frenkel on 11/05/2012 - 11:10 am.


    Seldom hear anything from government officials about better enforcement of pedestrian right of way such as marked crosswalk enforcement as mentioned earlier. California has had strict enforcement of crosswalks for decades and while not perfect it is leaps ahead of MN. Why isn’t there more enforcement and education? On Halloween night I stood on corner with my children as cars drove by until a 5th car finally stopped and gave my children and I the right of way. I lived in VA a few years ago and there was a police car at the school doing traffic enforcement every day, seldom do I see that in the Twin Cities. The Twin Cities are a walk-able/bike-able community but law enforcement needs to step it up the enforcement to make it safer.

  7. Submitted by Alex Bauman on 11/05/2012 - 01:58 pm.

    A couple more strategies

    Two more walk-friendly strategies – eliminating slip lanes and moving the exclusive left turn arrow to the end of the phase. Chicago is implementing both as part of their excellent (as opposed to our tepid) Pedestrian Master Plan.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/05/2012 - 02:01 pm.

    Pedestrian right-of-way

    Enforcement is increasing, and some suburbs are taking steps to crack down on pushy drivers that blow crosswalk rules. That being said, there are times when pedestrians are the offenders. And sometimes it’s both–game day in downtown Minneapolis is ridiculous, as are snow days. Pedestrians sometimes intentionally saunter across the street, or while the light is red, while traffic backs up for blocks. And drivers fail to consider whether they can make it through an intersection before entering it, creating gridlock. It’s a matter of common sense.

    I also agree with comments above about designating some streets “traffic” streets and others “pedestrian/bike” streets. Like it or not, there definitely is not enough public transit, let alone public transit with enough coverage, to get all people where they need to go. That means there will be cars. Putting things in the way of every driver on every path will only create a backlash that will serve no cause but anger and increasing pushback for more pedestrian-friendly areas.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/06/2012 - 07:23 am.

    The war will end in the defeat of wheels! Walkers unite!

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/06/2012 - 07:54 am.

    I like all the ideas Marlys presents but they won’t work

    I think we should implement these ideas but don’t kid ourselves they’ll make things safer for pedestrians. People speed an any and all roads. To some extent narrow roads are more dangerous because a pedestrian will appear in your path with much less warning. Signs do nothing to alert people to danger, experience changes behavior, not signs. As a pedestrian or a biker, don’t put yourself in front of a car that can hit you unless you know the driver sees you and is stopping for you. It may take a while but no matter what we’re never going to live in a world where you can just stroll across a busy street without looking.

    I’m finding as I walk, ride, and drive that distracted pedestrians are growing into a problem. The number of people texting and talking on phones while walking has increased dramatically and many of these are not paying attention to their surroundings. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that drivers frequently stop when they don’t really have to, there’s a lot of confusion about the new crosswalk law requiring cars to stop.

    I’d like to have prettier streets and better designs but I’ve walked all over the world and I haven’t noticed walking being any safer in London, Paris, or Amsterdam, places where these design idea came from. I grew up in St. Louis Park and have lived here my entire life. Yeah Minnetonka Blvd. has always been a pain, but it’s nowhere near the nightmare described here. There are two stoplights within a block of city hall and there’s a crosswalk in between.

  11. Submitted by John Mark Lucas on 11/06/2012 - 11:46 am.

    Paint is cheap, not acting is costly!

    One point that should not be missed is that in the case of New York, it started with an experiment; a few cans of paint, some potted plants and a genuine desire to improve current conditions. There was a well thought out plan but at the same time a lot of questions unanswered. Do not get stuck on questions because as smart as we think we are, they won’t get answered until people and cars start going through the network. A lot of other similar urban street projects in Europe started the same way. Even in Hong Kong (think about density and 50 storey residential buildings on top of 4 stories of businesses), streets were rebalanced (and some closed to vehicle traffic) because both people and vehicle access needs were not being met. And yes, the change started with a few cans of paint and some temporary barriers (I wish we had some potted plants too). Let’s act on it.

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