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?
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.