A growing number of Fridley residents use a bicycle, public transit or their own two feet to get to work and run errands, according to recent census data. But navigating the city without a car can prove harrowing.
Like many inner-ring suburbs, Fridley was built out in the 1950s when the automobile was king. Sidewalks, trails and bike lanes added years later stop and start, creating a piecemeal system.
Now city planners have mapped out a future where those who live and work in Fridley can more safely walk, bike and use public transit. To that end, the city has just released "Getting Around Without a Car: 2010-2012 Pedestrian and Bicycling Transportation Study."
Fridley resident Mandy Meisner rides her bicycle to the produce market, dance class and the coffee shop during the warm-weather months. She agrees that there's room for improvement.
"I think it's good to be active and outdoors," Meisner explains. "But it's awkward because you have bike trails for half the street and then you have to ride on the shoulder, which is nerve-racking, especially if you have kids."
The new study identifies gaps in the current pedestrian and public transit system and includes a list of recommended fixes. The study also examines ways to better connect the city of 27,000 to its neighbors, including Minneapolis. An outside consulting firm, city staff and residents all contributed to the study.
"With our proximity to the Mississippi River and downtown Minneapolis, we feel excited about the potential in Fridley," said Kay Qualley, the city's environmental planner.
Fridley Mayor Scott Lund said he supports the vision of a more-pedestrian-friendly city, especially since an estimated 11,000 non-Fridley residents drive to work there each day. Fridley is home to Medtronic Inc.'s world headquarters.
"People think Fridley is a bedroom community, but we import people. We have more people working here during the day than sleeping here at night," Lund said.
The mayor stressed that improvements won't happen overnight.
"It's a patchwork and it will take many years," Lund said. "If gas ever gets to $5 a gallon, that's a threshold where more people will be looking for alternative forms of transportation versus the automobile."
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, 7.2 percent of Fridley residents commuted to work on bike, on foot or using public transit. That's nearly a 2 percentage point increase in the last decade. In Fridley, 80 percent of the city's households have one or no autos, according to the census.
Recommended improvements outlined in the study include:
Fill in gaps along popular bike and walking routes. Many sidewalks and trails are incomplete, stopping and starting throughout the city. Top priorities include trails and walkways along East River Road, 61st Avenue NE. and 57th Avenue NE., Qualley said.
Improve the safety of pedestrian crossings at the city's large north-south corridors, including Central and University avenues. Crossings now can feel treacherous as pedestrians rush to cross in the time allotted and often wait to finish crossing on center concrete medians.
Better delineate bicycle lanes along city streets. The city permits motor vehicles to park on the shoulder in the path of bike routes, forcing bicyclists to weave in and out of traffic.
Improve bus stops. More than half of the city's 185 bus stops are unpaved and often go unplowed during winter months.
Install bike racks at bus stops, parks and other key locations.
The city already has started work. It has installed new bike racks at parks and at City Hall. It is also moving forward with plans to build a half-mile of sidewalk along Main Street. The walk will connect the Northstar commuter-rail line station with a nearby shopping district.
But retrofitting a built-out city to be more pedestrian- and bike-friendly isn't seamless. Residents and business owners often protest when a proposed sidewalk or bike lane affects their property.
In an aging city, other infrastructure upgrades often are given right of way versus bike lanes and sidewalks, according to the city manager. Fixes often require a web of city, county, state and even federal approvals. And then there's money.
"For many, anything we put in is a disruption of their property," said Fridley City Manager Bill Burns. "It's not easy. It's a complicated subject."
Getting the Main Street sidewalk project completed is a critical first step, Burns said.
"Once you get something started, things tend to build momentum. It's a matter of succeeding initially," Burns said.
Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.