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How to end the war on walkers in the Twin Cities

Back in the day, roads seemed to have one purpose: moving traffic. But there’s been a drastic change in philosophy.

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

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.

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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.

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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.