Three Ways to Improve Walkability Without Touching the Street

Most US cities, Minneapolis and St Paul included, are in dire need of traffic calming and complete streets.  Critical streets are dangerously overbuilt: corners have been widened, lanes widened, streets widened. Over the last half century, Herculean governmental and financial efforts have been thrown at reshaping our cities for driving at the expense of those on foot.

We all know this. (Those of you who read this site probably do, anyway.) We all know that we should work overtime on traffic calming, road diets, sidewalk extensions, lane narrowing, and a whole host of other design approaches that might begin to undo some of the damage to our walkable urban fabric. City leaders say that this is one of their goals. Improving walkability is in every comprehensive plan that I’ve read, and it’s the premise of many of the debates we seem to have online, at seminars, and at meetings. We all know we need to make our cities safe for people on foot.

But when it comes down to any one particular project, the situation seems to change. A proposal goes out for traffic calming  (say, on South Nicollet Avenue), and all of a sudden each parking space becomes crucial to the city’s economy, each lane of asphalt becomes vital to the regional transportation network, and (I’m sorry but) there’s no money to do anything at this time. It’s rare to follow through on our good intentions, to turn words into actions. We might say we want to make our streets safer for vulnerable pedestrians, but talk is cheap, and change is hard, and that goes double for concrete.