Twin Cities sidewalks are under scrutiny this week.
Hundreds of people from around the country are talking walking in St. Paul at the National Walk Summit, a conference all about getting around on foot. It’s a gathering where “walk in the park” is more than an expression — it’s the name of an outdoor session exploring the St. Anthony Park neighborhood.
A number of attendees of the semiannual conference, hosted by the national advocacy group AmericaWalks, said walking often gets overshadowed by its prominent sibling in the “active transportation” world: bicycling. Most conferences of this nature focus on both.
“Bicycling in particular has this kind of cult following … that it’s very easy to organize people around. Walking is just part of daily life,” said Melody Geraci, a transportation advocate from Chicago. “So it gets left behind sometimes.”
Portland consultant Jessica Roberts said bicycling advocates have the enthusiasm of “golden retriever puppies,” and sometimes talk over their walking-focused counterparts.
“So I think this is a safe place for the pedestrian people,” Roberts said.
More than 600 people came for the event at the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront Hotel, representing all but five states. They represented governments, advocacy organizations, consultants and the public health sector. Amid sessions at the hotel, hallway chatter ranged from state crosswalk laws to poor road markings and funding dilemmas.
“Physical activity is like the cheapest drug you could ever get, that has a better efficacy than most prescription drugs,” said Phil Bors, who works at a public health related nonprofit in North Carolina. “And then if you look at what activity is within reach of most people, it’s walking.”
Instead of conference tote bags, attendees pocketed free shoelaces and pedestrian pins at the registration desk. They maneuvered downtown in wheelchairs and special goggles to experience life with a disability, mapped walking networks of St. Paul and watched police enforce traffic laws.
And they seemed to think pretty highly of the Twin Cities. Several admired the abundant trees, the ease of the light rail and public access to the riverfront.
“It’s green. Walking in L.A. there’s not a lot of shade,” said Emilia Crotty, who had just changed into some more comfortable shoes to explore the Cedar-Riverside area. Walking around her Airbnb in Lowertown at night was quiet, she said, but there were enough people around that she didn’t feel threatened.
“This is awesome. I love this,” said Kayla Gilbert, from Denver, pointing to a painted brick crosswalk on Wabasha Street outside the hotel. It signals to drivers they’re coming up on “something different,” she said.
Others saw room for improvement, particularly for people with disabilities.
Juliette Rizzo, a former Ms. Wheelchair America who delivered the summit’s opening speech, said cities like St. Paul need to better consider people with disabilities when closing sidewalks for construction, for example. She participated in a tour that ended at the State Capitol — the grounds of which she found very accessible — but ticked off hurdles along the way.
“We saw everything from grates in the sidewalks that wheelchairs and scooters got stuck in, to curb cuts right around [a hospital] that … were uneven so it was very hard for a wheelchair or scooter to navigate without tipping,” Rizzo said.
Geraci said St. Paul has “all the ingredients for a great walkable city,” but more traffic than she expected.
“Rush hour here is no joke,” Geraci said. “People coming across the [Wabasha] bridge over the river, they’re coming kind of at high speed, on and off the interstate at high speed.”
Sessions Thursday touched on everything from street design and data collection to walking to school and walkability in rural communities. James Kissee, who works for the department of health in Washington state, appreciated hearing from other people in the field.
“The best part of it is hearing all the challenges and barriers that are similar to what everybody else is experiencing,” Kissee said.