Hennepin County plan to make walking a safer option

Hennepin County is adding sidewalks along county roads.

County roads typically aren't thought of as good walking routes, especially in rural and suburban stretches where there's often little room along the road to stroll. But Hennepin County hopes to change that.

The county is developing its first pedestrian plan to go with its other transportation strategies, to make walking a realistic and attractive alternative to hopping in the car all the time. A draft plan is expected to go to county commissioners early next year.

The main goals are to improve health and reduce pedestrian/vehicle accidents along county roads, which numbered 145 in 2009.

County officials want a blueprint to build and improve sidewalks along county roads and make intersections and roads easier and safer to cross. For the first time, the county this year has earmarked $200,000 to build sidewalks and improve crossings.

The need is especially acute in the suburbs, where county roads typically provide the arterial streets used to get from one point to another.

Strategic sidewalks

Rose Ryan, the county's new pedestrian and bicycle planner, granted that it's uncommon for a county to focus much attention on pedestrian traffic.

Walking is "generally thought of as a local concern because the municipality is responsible for maintaining sidewalks, and because many pedestrian trips are local," she said. "That doesn't mean it's not useful. Many county roads serve major destinations."

Since sidewalks can't be built along every road, they should be planned strategically to link well-traveled areas as well as paths and trails that already exist, she said.

"We want our sidewalks to connect to something," she said.

Hennepin County has 573 miles of county roads, but only 266 miles of sidewalks. As of 2009 the county also had about 82 miles of multi-use trails along county roads, a figure that likely has grown since.

Walking: A priority

As a matter of public policy, walking has been a going concern for several years.

Minneapolis released a pedestrian plan in 2009 with the goal of making the city more walkable, a plan that Ryan said she has frequently consulted.

Other cities in the county, including Bloomington, Edina, Hopkins and St. Louis Park, have similar plans or are working on them. Dakota County has no dedicated plan for pedestrians, but its transportation plan aims to fill in trail gaps along county roads and develop a 200-mile countywide greenway network that includes trails.

This fall, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other agencies are launching a pedestrian safety campaign that can be adapted for use by different communities across the state. October is considered the deadliest month for pedestrians.

Ryan said that one of Hennepin's main goals is to reduce to below 100 the number of pedestrian/vehicle accidents along county roads by 2030. In 2000, that number was 184; it was 127 in 2008.

A fraction of those crashes resulted in fatalities. From 2005 to 2009, 14 pedestrians were killed along Hennepin County roads.

Ryan said that more walkers will make motorists more aware of their presence. "We'll get better behavior from everyone," she said.

Last year, Hennepin County received a $5 million grant for a five-year period from the Centers for Disease Control to promote healthy living. Officials designated about $500,000 of the grant for pedestrian and bicycle planning, including development of a walking strategy.

Hennepin has hired a consultant, Minneapolis-based Community Design Group, to conduct a number of workshops in the next few weeks to get public input on which areas of their towns and cities are in need of walking improvements.

Safety is an issue

Last week, a handful of people gathered in a West Broadway meeting room for Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels' monthly constituent chat. They were given large maps of the North Side and asked to stick colored dots on destination locations and areas presenting walking problems.

"I want to go to the beach sometimes," a woman said. "Plymouth [Avenue] is tough to walk on and bike," said a man.

Samuels, who participated in the exercise, said the biggest issue when walking in the city isn't simply watching out for cars, but being alert for muggers. "Safety would be the number one thing," he said.

Ryan, a self-described "dedicated non-motorist" who bikes to work and likes to walk in her neighborhood, said that the final pedestrian plan will "really come down to implementation -- having a plan for your plan, in some ways. Setting goals and working on them."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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