Thinking pedestrian thoughts

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2010 - 8:01 PM

Amid an urban design push to emphasize walking, Edina plans to look harder at how to increase its pedestrian appeal. Minneapolis is already a national leader.

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Unlike most residential parts of Edina, the shopping area of 50th Street and France Avenue S. has plenty of accessible sidewalks.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Month after month, requests for new stop signs come to Edina City Hall. People emotionally plead with the City Council for safer road crossings to parks and schools, or recount how kids nearly dashed into traffic to reach a dog that had been hit by a car.

Then city engineers step forward to explain why no stop signs are needed: There aren't enough accidents, average vehicle speed isn't too high and traffic volume doesn't meet the threshold for a stop sign.

Council Member Mary Brindle heard these appeals last spring. She thought that sometimes traffic analysis is too clinical to reflect how people really live and want to live.

"It's about healthy living, neighborhood connectedness and livability," she said.

Brindle wants Edina to consider developing a "pedestrian master plan,'' which lays out how to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles, tries to improve accessibility for people on foot and make walking in the city more pleasant.

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland shares Brindle's interest in making it easier to be a pedestrian in Edina, saying he wants to make his city "the most walkable community in Minnesota.''

Last year Minneapolis approved what is believed to be the state's first such city pedestrian plan. The city now has a permanent citizen advisory committee that gives officials feedback on street reconstruction and design from a pedestrian point of view.

Cities such as Seattle, Denver, Portland and Boston also have pedestrian master plans.

The goal is urban design that encourages walking, not only for residents' health, but to create an active street life that makes neighborhoods feel welcoming and safe.

'Not so auto-oriented'

Minneapolis transportation planner Anna Flintoft, who was project manager for the city's pedestrian master plan, said that until recently cities often lumped planning for pedestrians with planning for bicyclists. They are not the same thing, she said. That means a new way of thinking for city officials.

"There's a definite shift happening," she said. "There's so much more public engagement now ... more recognition of livability, health and transit issues. They're all pointing in the same direction: not so auto-oriented."

In Minneapolis, 92 percent of streets have sidewalks, and much of the city is easy and pleasant for pedestrians to navigate. The city is among the top 10 nationwide in the proportion of residents who walk to work, and 13 percent of all the trips people make in Minneapolis are made by walking.

But 56 percent of adult Minneapolis residents are overweight and 20 percent are obese, and people don't walk where they don't feel comfortable.

Flintoft said some intersections are so wide that they're difficult or intimidating to cross on foot. Other areas with sidewalks are unappealing, and people don't want to walk there.

In the Warehouse District, where sprawling buildings are being converted to housing, very long blocks and the presence of loading docks present challenges for sidewalk design.

"It's about creating appealing places ... whether it's a vibrant place to walk or a place to hang out and socialize," Flinftoft said.

A goal of Minneapolis' pedestrian master plan is to create a culture of walking. It suggests creating walking maps and better signs in areas like the downtown skyways. It talks of getting people to advocate for themselves as pedestrians much as bicyclists already do. Many people simply don't think of themselves as pedestrians, Flintoft said.

Where sidewalks don't rule

If Minneapolis is blanketed with sidewalks, Edina has very few.

When Edina residents take a stroll, they often walk along the edge of wide, quiet residential streets. But not all of those streets are quiet. In neighborhoods like Brindle's, roads are so curvy that a driver rounding a turn may not see a pedestrian until the last second. Brindle said that rather than walk along a road with hairpin turns to reach a nearby school, she bikes or drives.

Some of Edina's 39 parks are on very busy roads, like 50th or 70th Streets.

"I had someone tell me that when they take their kids to Arden Park, they have to cross 50th Street in a car," Brindle said. "Their kids can't just go to the park."

Edina a pedestrian danger?

Recently Edina council members received an e-mail from a resident with children who complained about how fast traffic was near schools. The resident added that though they had lived in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, "Edina stands out as the most dangerous and stressful place I have ever attempted to be a pedestrian."

The city already has school safety zones where drivers are supposed to slow to 25 miles per hour and marked crosswalks help people cross the street. Brindle wonders if perhaps similar zones need to be set up around parks.

"We need something to make parks a center point in their neighborhood, to celebrate the park and make it easier to get there," she said.

Much of Edina was purposely developed without sidewalks. Adding them is controversial. When streets are replaced, residents are assessed for almost all of that cost and few want the added expense of a new sidewalk, Hovland said. He would like to see the state allow cities to assess a citywide sidewalk utility fee to lighten the financial load on individual residents.

Brindle said the City Council will meet soon with the city's Transportation Commission to discuss the issue of how pedestrians get around in the city.

"I'm just looking for ways for people to really enjoy where they live and stay in Edina," she said. "I think we can improve the quality of life."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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