Suburban Sidewalk Retrofits


59th-France: This is a classic non-ADA bus stop with no sidewalk.

The lack of suburban sidewalks has long been a legitimate urbanist complaint. While more new suburban developments are being built with sidewalks, it’s still a huge job to retrofit all the suburbs that grew up without them. For this discussion I’m not talking about trails. Trails get plenty of attention and have large, active constituencies behind them. Retrofit sidewalks, however, seem to be the overlooked cousin and fly under the radar. They’re more likely to be used by people who are transit dependent and tend to be ignored by city hall.

Since no one has the money to retrofit everything at once, it’s useful to set some priorities. While we’re doing so, I know that the cynics will still complain that providing a sidewalk doesn’t make it a pleasant walking experience. Point taken, but you have to start somewhere, and I submit that the person walking from the bus stop to his or her suburban job isn’t doing it for the esthetic experience.

So where to begin? The obvious place is to connect transit service with surrounding development. When you get off the bus, can you safely and conveniently accomplish the rest of your trip? If no sidewalks exist, where do spend your dollars first?


66th & France: Even though there’s a residential high rise across the street from Southdale, ped access is prevented by this sign, berm and landscaping.


66th-York: Compared to 66th-France, the 66th-York corner of Southdale is easily accessible.



Sdale-France: Ped access to the pair of office buildings across France Avenue from Southdale and its transit center is difficult, hazardous and illegal.

Start with the assumption that the bus route is on an arterial street with commercial development. If so, moving up and down that street safely is priority number one. It gets the first sidewalks.

Priority 2 is sidewalks along busy arterials that intersect the bus route. They should extend about a half mile from the bus arterial.

A special case within Priority 2 is to create access is all directions from suburban transit centers, park-ride lots and rail stations. When the region has invested in high levels of service converging at one location, it ought to be possible to conveniently walk half a mile in any direction. I always cite Southdale as an example of both good and bad. There are pedestrian connections on the north, northeast, east, and south sides of the Southdale property. All, by the way, were later retrofits. However, try walking west across France Avenue to the pair of office towers, or northwest to the intersection of 66th and France and the residential high rise. The property boundary is bermed, ditched and landscaped to prevent ped movement. The signalized intersections west across France are signed to forbid pedestrian crossing. These situations are the low hanging fruit.

Since we’re setting priorities, it’s only fair to define low priority sidewalks. I grew up in Fridley and my residential street had no sidewalks, or even curbs. But it also had miniscule traffic levels, just residents accessing their houses and the occasional garbage truck. Sidewalks would be nice, but walking along the edge of such a street is completely safe, so spend the money where it’s needed more.

Breaking the private property barrier

Having a sidewalk from the bus stop to the edge of a commercial property doesn’t mean you’re walking trip can be easily completed. Now you face obstacles entering the private property itself. The newfound willingness of suburbs to build sidewalks has not been transmitted to adjacent property owners. They continue to wall off their developments from the streets with berms, ditches, fences, retaining walls and dense landscaping. Often the only way for a pedestrian to reach the front door to is brave a busy and narrow auto entry. It’s both dangerous and unwelcoming.

It’s also usually inconvenient as well. Pedestrians want the shortest path. Even when sidewalks pierce the private-public boundary, they tend to be next to the auto driveways and therefore circuitous for anyone on foot.

Solving this is technologically simple—punch a short sidewalk through to the huge parking lot that undoubtedly starts just inside the property line. The problem is legal and institutional. Cities generally lack the ordinances to require such connections. They happen only of the property owner consents.

The current best example of this disconnect is along Cedar Avenue in Apple Valley, where the Red Line BRT is struggling to attract riders. Cedar has wide sidewalks, but there are extensive barriers that separate the sidewalks from almost all the adjacent commercial and residential development.

The problem is more difficult in residential neighborhoods. An egregious example is at the Northstar Coon Rapids station. A 1960s-70s single family neighborhood abuts the west side of the tracks, but you can’t walk directly from there to the station, which is behind a fence and through someone’s back yard. There’s no way to get to the tracks. It’s a stone’s throw, but a walk of over a mile. In contrast, Brooklyn Park reserved pedestrian access between houses that allows a quick and direct walk to the Metro Transit park-ride lot at Noble Avenue and Highway 610.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

16 thoughts on “Suburban Sidewalk Retrofits

  1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    Good ideas for transit related sidewalks, but what of schools, parks and business/activity centers?

    School zones especially are in need of at least arterial sidewalks, as the heaviest traffic for pedestrians and vehicles happens within the same half hour as each other.

  2. Matt Brillhart

    Can anyone point me towards a sidewalk shapefile for GIS? I’d love to map out sidewalks in first-ring suburbs (and the fringes of Minneapolis & St. Paul even). Minneapolis has a nearly complete sidewalk network, with the most glaring exceptions being along cemetery edges and probably a few industrial areas. I’ve heard in St. Paul that gaps are quite common in outlying areas. Columbia Heights probably has the most extensive sidewalk network of any suburb. St. Louis Park is making several additions to their network over the next 5 years and will probably continue to expand sidewalks after Southwest LRT is running. Richfield and Bloomington could stand to retrofit some areas with sidewalks, particularly those near transit routes. For the most part, transit runs on Hennepin County roads in these communities, which tend to have sidewalks (often horrifyingly narrow and in poor repair). Still, many suburban transit routes run on streets with sidewalks only on one side, and as Aaron mentions, there are no sidewalks on side streets that intersect the “transit street”.

    I’d love to see the counties (or Met Council) step up and apply for state and federal grants to add hundreds of miles of sidewalks, and soon. Cities won’t be able to do it alone, for both fiscal and political reasons (i.e. resistance by property owners). If the money were coming from the state or federal government, perhaps as a competitive grant that various first-ring suburbs would have to fight for, I think it could be very successful.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      From my casual observation, South St Paul seems to be the first-ringer with the most sidewalks (and alleys). I actually think the average sidewalk coverage is better in SSP than the City of St Paul — which you’re right, has many gaps in post-war areas.

    2. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts

      St Paul has a lot of neighborhoods without sidewalks. Quite a few streets in Desnoyer Park (between East River Rd and 94) lack them. Similarly Woodlawn and Stonebridge which run parallel to East River Rd near St Thomas.

      Down in the neighborhoods off S. Cleveland near the Ford plant are some more. Edgecumbe Rd and the streets between Montréal and St Paul Ave are others.

      Also, the part of ST Anthony Park which lies southwest of Como Ave and east of Eustis near Langford Park and the Health Partners facility off 280.,-93.202494,3a,75y,44.65h,71.37t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s0XB4TjDtuSB01s4yKwWZvQ!2e0

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele62

    On the other side of Xerxes, the entire town of Richfield is begging for sidewalks. They have a classical residential grid and neighborhoods similar to those across 62 in South Minneapolis. But no sidewalks. The city is planning to completely rebuild streets in the coming years, so now is the time to build sidewalks on the public right of way that would last for generations. And it would cost less than a single project city leaders are nuts about, the 77th Street Underpass to Nowhere near the airport’s cargo area. What would you rather have? An underpass for motor vehicles which doesn’t really create mobility but costs many millions of dollars? Or sidewalks on every street for the same price? Richfield city officials made their choice, and it confirms why I’d never consider living in a suburb even if that suburb looks and acts sort of urban – because deep down the planners want to be Maple Grove or Woodbury, not Minneapolis.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        You are correct.

        Which then leads to the conclusion that the Richfield city council and mayor are therefore NOT progressive or urban-minded. They are a hindrance to their own city.

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I think an interesting distinction is sidewalks that create value (and improve traffic safety) versus sidewalks that only address traffic safety — often in a minor way.

    It’s painting the picture with rather broad strokes to say “the suburbs” once constructed without sidewalks, but now they’ve learned the error of their ways and are resolving the issue. The problem is that the development pattern is radically different. Early expansion outside Minneapolis followed the same traditional development scale, with some variations (alleys are less-universal, lots are often larger). Today, the development pattern is centered around privacy and access management — avoiding intersections on major streets, often cutting a grid pattern short, if one exists at all. The modern development pattern much further separates commercial and residential.

    The troubling thing is that it’s in these new, especially-unwalkable places where you’re most apt to see new sidewalks. Although not a suburb, developments in Northfield really emphasize this. Traditionally built neighborhoods (in the vicinity of Woodley Street) lack sidewalks and curbs, despite being on a smaller scale with more walkable destinations. Yet new developments are sometimes drowning in sidewalks. Both serve an equal value in traffic safety, but the sidewalks actually being built create less value than the ones that remain unbuilt.

    The same seems to hold true in Minneapolis’s inner ring. The new sidewalk along France Avenue is critically important for traffic safety. But as you correctly detect, it still won’t make Southdale Center a remotely good place to walk to.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      So maybe the hierarchical road network is incompatible with walking, sidewalks or no sidewalks?

  5. Tenderfoot

    I don’t think you can emphasize “low hanging fruit” enough…as a walker/bus rider one of my irritations living in west Edina is how many of the main roads have sidewalks which inexplicably just stop…usually right when they are most needed. For example- what is the point of having a sidewalk on Blake Rd. that stops just short of a blind curve and the intersection with Interlachen? Same thing with Lincoln Dr. It will be interesting to see how the SWLR changes the perceived need for sidewalks and bike paths in the SW metro.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Edina seems to have particularly bad problems with missing sidewalks on really major streets, like Interlachen Dr, or the missing sidewalk on the east side of France. I work out of a coworking space at the NE quadrant of TH 100 and 77th St and walk at least a few times a week across the interchange to the Subway at Metro Blvd and Edina Industrial Blvd. Inexplicably, Industrial Blvd has no sidewalks on either side, despite being an undivided 4/5-lane with high traffic volumes and no shoulder. I can walk in the boulevard, but it’s half driveway cuts, so I usually walk behind the buildings in the back parking / loading areas.

      By comparison, I can only think of a couple examples in Richfield, SLP, or Bloomington, and none as bad as these gaps in Edina.

      1. Tenderfoot

        SW suburbs seem to have issues with having sidewalks near their borders- I’d throw out Ford Rd. on the border between Hopkins and SLP as another example where lack of a sidewalk is almost criminal (or least I wish it were).

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          That is pretty bad, although Edina beats it out — 11,800 ADT on Edina Industrial Blvd and 9000 on Interlachen. Ford Rd has about 3500 ADT. (A contest nobody should want to win.)

          Of course, the border sidewalk issue is easily resolved if both cities simply install sidewalk as a matter of course, unless there is a compelling reason not to.

  6. Keith Morris

    Sidewalks on residential streets sure, but along major corridors these burbs should opt for and prioritize multi-use trails every time over sidewalks until there is actually a comprehensive network to get around the entire area in a reasonable amount of time w/o a car. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve seen a lot of cyclists even in the burbs and they’re mainly all on these trails that parallel major roads: not on the sidewalks. They even leave the trail and ride in the lanes with traffic if it’s more convenient than going a whole looooong suburban block (1/2 mile or so) to get on another out-of-the-way trail to reach their destination. Peds also benefit by having a guaranted uninterrupted route along an entire (mega) block.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      MUPs versus sidewalks depend a lot on scale and number of accesses. Most of the inner-ring has similar block sizes to Minneapolis, but often even more driveway accesses — which means a shared-use path would be even more dangerous than it would be in Minneapolis.

      That’s probably not the case along high-speed roads where block sizes are larger, like Southdale District or newer suburbs like Eden Prairie. Even then, I think one-way cycletracks are probably the better approach.

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