Street design is raising a healthy debate

Officials hear how reworking city layouts can help encourage exercise. But the changes aren't always greeted with enthusiasm.

For Mark Fenton, a former world-class race walker and an engineer who travels the country energetically pushing health-conscious urban design, the development choices that cities make are literally life and death.

Americans are killing themselves with inactivity and poor diets, he told officials from Bloomington, Edina and Richfield last week. Cities must make it easier for people to walk and bike as part of their daily routine.

The mayors, council members, engineers and public health officials in the group were receptive. But Fenton never met Richfield homeowner Cheri Wright, who isn't crazy about the bike and walking path built across her side yard on W. 75th Street this summer.

Wright said she likes to walk, but she doesn't see the need for a trail through her rambler-filled neighborhood.

"I can understand going around lakes or around a pretty area, but why would you want to just go around a neighborhood?" Wright asked.

Bridging theory and ideals with reality is the challenge for city officials, who sat down in groups after Fenton's presentation to talk about how to build more streets and developments that lure people into being active. No one questioned the worth of encouraging physical activity at a time when, as Fenton pointed out, an estimated 365,000 Americans die prematurely each year from causes linked to inactivity and poor diets.

Unless today's kids exercise more and eat less, he said, this may be the first American generation to live shorter lives than their parents.

Even 30 minutes of brisk walking each day improves health, Fenton said, but less than a quarter of American adults maintains that level of activity. He said study after study shows that the best way to encourage exercise is not to build trails just in parks or run short-term reward programs, but to have paths for walkers and bicyclists that are part of a network and lead to destinations where people need and want to go.

"The design of our communities influences how active we are as part of our routine daily life," he said.

Bloomington, Edina and Richfield are fully developed, with neighborhoods and roads that were laid out decades ago. Fenton said that healthy design need not entail million-dollar projects. Sometimes redesigning or restriping roads is enough.

"Paint can do a lot," he said.

That's what Bloomington did this year to a large portion of 86th Street. The road was included in the city's alternative transportation plan as a major east-west bike crossing. After seal coating and restriping, the four-lane road now features two lanes of traffic, a center turn lane and bike lanes on either side.

Traffic flowed smoothly on 86th Street one afternoon last week, but not everyone is happy with the change. At a recent City Council meeting, a woman complained that she didn't understand the new design, couldn't drive as fast as before, was confused by the center-turn lane and was getting stuck behind school buses that she wasn't sure she could legally pass.

Bloomington Public Works Director Karl Keel said slower traffic is a good thing, because the restriping was intended to calm traffic. Some drivers like that the pace is less frantic and that left-turning vehicles no longer block the flow of traffic.

But he's also heard from people who complain about slow-moving traffic. Some drivers are thrown by the center-turn lane, which can have cars facing each other to turn left in opposite directions.

"These things tend to resolve over time, we hope," Keel said.

Bicyclists say they feel the new design makes it clear they belong on the road, he said. Though sidewalks on 86th were not altered -- they still hug the road edge -- pedestrians who once felt threatened by traffic that whizzed by at arm's length now have the buffer of a bike lane to make them feel safer.

Richfield's reworking of 75th Street and next year 76th Street is linked to replacement of the sanitary sewer. The roads had to be torn up, and the Three Rivers Park District was looking for a route for what eventually will be part of the Nine Mile Creek Regional Trail, stretching more than 17 miles from Hopkins to the Minnesota River in Bloomington.

The project is complex, but the hardest part is getting residents engaged, said Richfield City Engineer Kristin Asher. After a citywide mailing attracted just one person to an informational meeting, city employees stuffed fliers in doors in the neighborhood.

"It was very frustrating because this is a big deal," Asher said.

Wright said she did not feel that the city listened to neighbors' concerns about trail development, but city officials said features along the road change because they tried to adapt the road design to what residents wanted.

While the new biking and walking trail now dead-ends at the Edina border -- one of the reasons Wright doesn't see how the trail will connect outside her neighborhood -- other Richfield residents such as avid cyclist David Gepner have been vocal supporters.

"I'm sure people will use it," he said. "If it's completed through Edina, it's a major trail."

Fenton knows the barriers such projects face.

"The idea that we may create an upswell on this isn't necessarily true outside this room," he said. All the "usual advocates" -- cyclists, runners, health boosters -- will flock to the idea of reworking streets and building trails.

The trick, he said, is getting everyone else to go along.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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