When a new street is built in North Mankato — or even when one is reconstructed — the city will now carefully consider whether there is room and reason to designate space for pedestrians, bicyclists and other travelers.
The policy, called a ‘‘complete streets” initiative, was approved by the City Council this month as part of an effort to make the community healthier, safer and more attractive to potential residents.
“We are going to look at it through the lens of how users of all ages and abilities can take advantage of a street,” said city administrator John Harrenstein. “Having a street system that accommodates different users is important to having a vibrant community.”
It’s part of a push among cities around the state and the country.
“It’s a growing trend, certainly,” said Anne Finn, transportation lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities. “It’s been encouraged by the Legislature.”
A 2010 state law required Minnesota’s transportation commissioner to implement a complete streets policy within MnDOT. Now, on any MnDOT-built road or any thoroughfare for which the agency has principal responsibility, it documents its process of considering the needs of all potential users.
The agency also encourages counties and cities to adopt such policies, though there is no direct financial benefit for doing so, said Philip Schaffner, MnDOT’s policy planning director in the Office of Transportation System Management.
The process looks at safety and space for bike lanes and sidewalks as well as safe railroad crossings and considerations for buses and heavy trucks.
“Most of the conversation tends to be focused on bicycles and pedestrians, but transit vehicles and freight are part of complete streets as well,” Schaffner said.
North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen said the main factors in adopting the policy in his city were promoting health and bicycling tourism in the area, and making sure kids have safe routes to school. Leaders there believe that having a plan will give the city a better shot at securing grants or other funding, such as from the Minnesota Department of Health’s Statewide Health Improvement Program, he said.
So far, the city’s nearly 65 miles of paved streets are accompanied by 10 miles of bike trails and lanes, including in parks.
Though planners will consider trails and sidewalks in every construction job, they won’t necessarily be approved every time; in some places there may not be enough room, in some places the cost will outweigh the benefit, and in some places it simply may not be appropriate.
Officials will consider factors such as traffic volume, speed, safety and proximity to schools and public places in each project.
Schaffner said more than 40 cities and counties in Minnesota have adopted policies so far. Larger cities include St. Paul, Bloomington, St. Cloud, Mankato, Duluth and Rochester, according to a MnDOT list.
North Mankato Council Member Kim Spears said he was the only one to vote against adopting the complete streets policy in his city. He’s worried that two sidewalks and bike lanes on every project will become the default position, and that will prove to be expensive.
“It’s just two philosophical differences,” he said. “I’ve been annoyed by the lack of sidewalks in certain places myself. There are places for that, it’s just how do you approach it? … Do you want to approach it that every single street needs sidewalks? I don’t think so.”
He cited an upcoming project in which the city is redoing a two-block stretch of street. Most of the longtime residents there don’t see the need for a sidewalk, he said, though it may make sense to add one because of a nearby school.
Shaffner said many factors can weigh against adding the amenities — environmental impacts, safety and maintenance questions, to name a few.
The purpose of the policy, though, is “communicating to the engineers and the designers of the projects that the community wants to make sure that everyone … can safely travel and have connected routes,” he said.