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The Most Essential Mode of Transportation

July 21, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Hidden in plain sight, there's a transportation network in Minnesota that stretches for thousands of miles and accommodates tens of thousands of daily trips. Few of us think much about it, but a new report hails it as "an essential mode of transportation" and the only one that is "universally affordable to everyone."

We're talkin' walkin'. Sidewalks. Trails. Skyways.

Far from a throwback to the 1800s, pedestrian infrastructure plays an important and growing role in 21st century economics and lifestyles. This is pointed out in fascinating detail in a draft of the City of Minneapolis Pedestrian Master Plan, now undergoing public review.

Bet you didn't know that ...

  • The most successful commercial and tourism districts rely on high levels of foot traffic.
  • Streets and neighborhoods are safer when folks are out walking, partly because people who walk get to know their neighbors.
  • Walkable communities promote personal and environmental health by reducing obesity, heart disease and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In Minneapolis alone, more than 6 percent of workers commute primarily by walking, and some downtown and University of Minnesota corridors log five-figure daily pedestrian traffic counts that far exceed vehicle use of most streets.
To be sure, these benefits aren't available everywhere. Post-war suburbs developed around the ideas of sparse population density and universal driving don't adapt easily to pedestrian culture. There's even a political aspect: It's been noted that places with sidewalks attract progressives, while roads-only suburbs get the conservatives.

A faltering economy, rising fuel prices and global climate worries appear now to be favoring the older forms of urban design and mobility. Minneapolis hopes to capitalize on this trend by improving its already impressive list of pedestrian assets - 1,714 miles of sidewalks, more than 100 walking/biking bridges, 18 miles of park and greenway trails and 8 miles of enclosed downtown skyways.

This fits well with national policies now emanating from Washington. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted in his official blog last week that reducing vehicle miles traveled, not better gas mileage, is the real key to bringing down carbon emissions from transportation.

"This means providing communities with additional transportation choices, such as light rail, fuel-efficient buses and paths for pedestrians and bicycles that intersect with transit centers," LaHood wrote. "These options will also reduce household transportation costs, strengthen local economies, lower traffic congestion and reduce reliance on foreign oil."

Minneapolis already boasts the ninth highest rate of walking to work among big U.S. cities, according to U.S. Census figures. Its pedestrian plan aims to fill gaps in the city's walkway system while making it more attractive, safer, well maintained and fully accessible to the handicapped.

Proposed strategies include:

  • Laying another 112 miles of sidewalks along the 7 percent of city streets that lack them.
  • Adding to the city's 310 curb extensions at intersections, which have been shown to cut pedestrian traffic crashes by reducing the distance to cross a street. Such crashes account for only 4 percent of the Minneapolis total, but 25 percent of traffic deaths and 21 percent of severe injuries.
  • Correcting access barriers at curbs and bridges that affect not only the disabled but anyone with wheeled conveyances such as luggage or baby carriages.
  • Improving the walking environment with buffers from vehicle traffic, adequate lighting, trees, street furniture, public art and places to socialize such as sidewalk cafes.
  • Maintaining sidewalks in good condition and free of winter ice and snow.
  • Promoting walking to work, school and youth events with the help of pedestrian maps and tours and "positive public messaging about walking."
Funding can come from public-private partnerships and improvement districts, the report says. Additional resources may be identified in separate mobility planning initiatives from Hennepin County, the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Department of Transportation's forthcoming "Complete Streets Study," due to be issued in December.

This is beginning to look like a critical mass of government at all levels paying new attention to the oldest way of getting around. It's a welcome development for these times.

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