One of many witty moments in the 1999 cult movie "Office Space" comes as the main characters return to their suburban office park after lunch at Chotchkie's, the local diner. They trudge along the shoulder of a busy road, then down though a ditch, up over a grassy mound and finally through a big parking lot, oblivious to the fact that there are no sidewalks.
Indeed, most Americans don't notice that their cities and towns are designed almost exclusively for driving. There's nothing really sinister about it; it's just that for 60 years governments have presumed a future of wider, faster roadways, and engineers have conditioned themselves to think mainly about accommodating cars. Only recently have the concepts of climate change, carbon footprint, energy independence, obesity and livability penetrated the world of infrastructure design to provoke second thoughts. But even so, the rules that govern design and construction are locked in place, and those rules specify the building of an autocentric world.
"Complete Streets" aims to change all that. Eighteen states and 103 locales have enacted laws that encourage building and rebuilding streets so that they can safely and harmoniously handle cars, sidewalks, bike lanes and transit stops. The Legislature should add Minnesota to those ranks by passing this session a bill sponsored by Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, and Rep. Mike Obermueller, DFL-Eagan.
The bill doesn't force change. Rather, it invites cities and towns to take advantage of flexible new state standards that would allow more variety in roadway construction and reconstruction, depending on local context. Maybe on a certain new road there's no foreseeable need for anything but auto traffic. That's fine. But maybe on another road there's a desire for slower auto traffic, walking, biking, transit use and storefronts. State rules would no longer prevent that.
Hundreds of examples illustrate past abuses. Small towns have been stripped bare by wide highways that eat away so much of Main Street that there's little space left for commerce and community life. Urban neighborhoods suffer similar fates. Residents of south Minneapolis spent years trying to prevent the turning of Lyndale Avenue into the four-lane thoroughfare required by state traffic-count standards. Only with extraordinary effort were they able to save trees and negotiate a more livable three-lane layout with slower traffic. Complete Streets would have offered that option from the start.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation supports both the bill and the concept as part of Commissioner Tom Sorel's shifting the agency away from a roads-only mentality. A new MnDOT report concludes that "the benefits of Complete Streets offset the incremental costs." That means the bill is revenue neutral. Adding an occasional bike lane or a sidewalk might cost more. But no longer having to build massive, freeway-style bridges on quiet, narrow streets would save money. It evens out.
Safety and health are primary concerns. More than 500 people have been killed and 20,000 injured while walking or biking along Minnesota roads over the past decade. Roadway design should encourage, not punish, healthy lifestyles. And Minnesota communities should have the option of restoring a more human scale to daily life.