Podcast #102: A Pedestrian Future for Downtown Minneapolis with Leif Pettersen

Leif Pettersen (the one pointing).

The podcast this week is a conversation with Leif Pettersen, a travel writer and tourist public relations professional who lives in downtown Minneapolis. We sat down a few weeks ago in the Minneapolis skyway system to chat about a recent op-ed he wrote in the Star Tribune, calling for the creation of pedestrian-only streets downtown. We had a great chat and I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Before we begin, the podcast this week is sponsored by Hourcar.

HOURCAR is a 100% local, non-profit car sharing organization serving the Twin Cities since 2005. Hourcar has vehicles at over 55 locations throughout Minneapolis and Saint Paul.  

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Whether you are an individual looking to lead a car-lite lifestyle, a business or non-profit looking to attract employees or a student on campus without access to a vehicle, HOURCAR is here to get you where you need to go.

Thanks to Hourcar for sponsoring the podcast, and if you would like to sponsor future episodes of the streets.mn podcast, please reach out to me, Bill Lindeke, for more details. The podcast intro music was written and produced by Dan Choma. Thank you so much for listening.

[Rough transcript follows.]

On Leif’s taste in cities:

I have a bias against the extra loud crowded cities like New York, Naples, places like that where after a few days I feel claustrophobic from people. I just want to have space. The noise starts to get overwhelming. This is one of the reasons why I love Minneapolis. We have a nice little balance between cosmopolitan space, and it’s still green and not all concrete.

On walking:

Walkability is important. I haven’t owned a car since 2003, and Minneapolis excels at that. Kichnu, Moldova is struggling with the public transportation, but fortunately it’s a walkable city and surprisingly green. Lately I’m picking up walking as a form of exercise and getting moving. Especially now that I am working for home, I need an excuse to get out of the condo. But at [my former job at the] the Mall of America too, I was walking laps. I was basically a mall walker, walking laps almost every day. Right now I don’t like anything about walking in downtown Minneapolis.

On Nicollet Mall:

We’re going through some growing pains right now, and we should be through that by Super Bowl time. I see the necessary evil in it, but it is rough. I won’t go anywhere near Nicollet Mall on street level right now. Every single day the detours for pedestrians are different. I like to walk in a straight line to get to where I’m going. Nicollet mall is a disaster right now, and I’m looking forward to that being done.

On the skyways:

The skyways I am… I love indoor spaces, the more unusual, the better. And you don’t get much more unusual than the skyways, a second-level of covered climate-controlled bridges. And its effectively turned the 2nd level of all of downtown Minneapolis into a walking mall, with food and other businesses on both sides. It’s pretty narrow. I like them a lot because I always struggle with winter, and now I can avoid winter to my heart’s content. I can go get groceries and don’t have to put on my shoes and walk to target.


On pedestrianizing downtown streets:

We’re one of the few cities in the country where the urban population is growing and downtown in particular there’s going to be a lot more people living downtown. And it occurred to me, “why don’t we just go european and turn a bit part of the downtown core into a pedestrian only downtown?” There are a lot of precedents for it. I think it works a lot better in Europe, and one reason why it’s working there is they are true pedestrian streets here one of the things that drives people off the streets is the traffic. Even if you have a compelling sidewalk, the traffic is inordinately loud: honking sirens, or people with their stereos thumping. That’s a deterrent to people, I know it’s a deterrent to me.

A pedestrian downtown is a lot better way to walk and get around without having to worry about traffic or going in the skyways. Mostly I think its possible for any human being, unless they’re frail or immobile for whatever reason, they can walk five blocks. And if not, there are buses and a train and you can make the pedestrian zone free. You can hop on a bus and get to the 5 blocks to the building you work at. I think the mere concept of opening up the streets to pedestrian only traffic and making this bold risky change might attract retail to certain spots. If we made a bold switch like that at street level it might attract people, and maybe we can fill up those street spaces.

On his hot spots to take tourists in Minneapolis

Every town has a football team, every town has a flourishing brew pub scene. The things that everyone has are the things that I would put second. So one of the things that are very unique to Minneapolis is the skyway, particularly if it’s poor weather if it’s fall or winter I would take people through the skyway. Travelers lose their minds especially travel writer and there’s a travel apathy that sets in but they see the skyway and travel writers get really excited about it. Then there’s our parks, no Minneapolis resident lives farther than 6 blocks from a park. There’s no other city like that in the country. We also have the only national scenic byway located entirely within an urban area especially if the people coming to town were cyclists or something. that’s a unique obviously the lakes are another things a unique culture that we have going on, especially now that every lake has their own fancy food place. When you’re done you sit down and have a fish taco or whatever. The Mill city Museum, I love that place, it’s right on the river and has the whole city right there, its kind of fascinating. The waterfall and the ruins they’ve maintained there. Its no secret but that’s a unique place as well.

Predictions for the future of downtown:

Recently I was on a committee for the Minneapolis 2030 plan for changing our national awareness, the Transportation and Wayfinding subcommittee. It was run by Meet Minneapolis, and we had the tourism perspective. I think that locals and tourists alike would benefit from changes and improvements in way finding, like the bus stops having actual digital information. When I brought in travel media, I urge them to take a day and go into the city, get out of downtown and the mall and into the neighborhoods like Minnehaha Parkway right along the train, things like that, places people can get to easily. Eat Street would be great if it was more accessible, or the Chain of Lakes. We got to get people outside of downtown someway somehow.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.