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Change comes to car country: Biking, walking on the rise in the suburbs

From “road diets” to “advisory bike lanes,” the Twin Cities’ suburbs are creating infrastructure and policy to turn their auto-only paradigm into a new vision of walkable, bikeable streets.

An "advisory bike lane" in Edina.
Courtesy of The Line

Josh Sprague grew up near the Cedar Lake Trail, where walking and biking were a natural part of life. In 2006, he moved to Edina. He loved his new neighborhood except for one thing: It was harrowing for him and his young children to cross 70th Street on the way to the local park.

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“That’s what got me involved in the community,” Sprague explains, “and propelled me to the city council. Seventieth Street was like the wild, wild west before we did something about it.”

What Sprague and a group of neighbors did was convince the city of Edina to rein in speeders on the street. This was accomplished with a road diet — converting the four-lane street to three lanes with alternating left turn lanes to keep traffic moving smoothly. Bike lanes were also added, not only to provide better access for two-wheel travelers but to calm vehicle traffic, making it simpler and safer for Sprague, his four kids, and everyone else in the neighborhood to walk.

Changing routes

Edina is at the forefront of a trend throughout the metropolitan area to make suburbs — once seen as auto-only zones — better places to walk and bike. From Crystal to Roseville to Richfield, projects are popping up to give people options beyond driving to get around.

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Steve Elkins, transportation chair of the Metropolitan Council and former Bloomington City Council member,  says “We’re to the point where the Met Council is going to study all the local bike plans to do a metro bike plan, where we help connect the bike lanes between cities.”

Elkins credits Bike Walk Twin Cities (BWTC) for boosting these trends through its financial and technical support for bicycle and pedestrian improvements in suburbs. A program of Transit for Livable Communities, BWTC administers a $25 million federal grant to find strategies for increasing bicycling and walking as a means of transportation to work or for other trips. A number of their recent projects and partnerships showcase the potential for biking and walking in the suburbs:

* New on-street bike lanes and separated pedestrian walkways along Fairview Avenue in Falcon Heights and Roseville connect the University of Minnesota-St. Paul campus to the Rosedale shopping center. On-street bike lanes have also been added to Larpenteur Avenue.

“It’s quite successful — I’ve seen a lot more people biking and walking,” says Falcon Heights mayor Peter Lindstrom, who took another step to promote a new vision for suburbs by leading his city to adopt Complete Streets legislation — a commitment to creating safe and accessible road conditions for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists and motorists.  (St. Louis Park, New Hope, North Saint Paul, Eagan and Bloomington as well as Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota have adopted similar measures.)  

* Transforming Fridley’s Main Street to a “Complete Street” by narrowing travel lanes, adding add bike lanes and filling a gap in the sidewalk network to provide safe and convenient access for people to walk and bike to the Northstar Line train station, which is planned to open this summer.

*A road diet with bike lanes and reduced speed limits running for more than 3 miles on Douglas Drive through Crystal and Golden Valley.

*Paying for a study that paved the way for a road diet on Portland Avenue in Richfield from 66th to 75th Street, leading to an existing cross-town bikeway on 75th and 76th streets. Richfield also hosted an Open Streets event last fall where Penn Avenue was shut to traffic for part of a day, bringing 7,000 people into the streets. David Gepner, who runs a car-leasing business and chaired the city’s bike force, points out that Richfield has a long history of bicycling. Two of the metro area’s biggest bike dealers, Penn Cycle and Erik’s, both started there.

Edina is the leader among Twin Cities suburbs in creating new opportunities for people to walk and bike for fun, exercise and transportation. With help from Josh Sprague and other city council members, Bike Walk Twin Cities helped create connecting bike facilities on Wooddale Avenue, Valley View Avenue and 54th Street, which might soon link to the bike lanes on 70th Street and Antrim Road. “It’s looking like a network now, not just disparate projects,” says Sprague.

Parking problems? Go ‘advisory’

One stretch of these new bikeways, completed last fall, sparked community discussion.  Residents did not want to lose parking on Wooddale Avenue, so “advisory bike lanes,” (a relatively recent innovation from Europe where a dotted line marks space on the roadway shared by bicyclists and motorists) were installed. This confused some drivers, which Sprague sees as a sign that further education about advisory lanes is needed.  But, he notes, “there have been no incidents that would tell us we need to stop the experiment.”

“I know not everyone wants to bike,” Sprague acknowledges. But he believes bike lanes benefit them too. “It makes a calmer street when you walk and drive. People spend time in their front yards again.” Those are reasons Edina recently passed a franchise fee on utility bills to finance further bike and sidewalk improvements.  

At 41 Sprague is the youngest member of the Edina City Council and sees biking and walking as crucial to the city’s future. As a real estate agent, he is keenly aware of what today’s homebuyers are seeking in a community. “Young families want a place that’s walkable and bikeable. And it’s not just about transportation, its about health and wellness, a sense of community, the chance talk to your neighbors, the feeling of living in a town, not an anonymous existence.”

Steve Clark, bicycling and walking program manager for Bike Walk Twin Cities, foresees a transformation of suburban life throughout the region. “More and more, in the first ring suburbs and beyond, people want more choices. They don’t want to drive all the time.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Jay Walljasper writes and speaks frequently about how to create better communities.