An Easy Way to Make Suburbs More Walkable: Sidewalk Shortcuts

Making the suburbs, especially outer ring suburbs, walkable will require a significant shift in how we treat pedestrians in terms of infrastructure investment and in terms of interacting with them while driving. However, there is an easy way to make the suburbs more walkable without requiring significant investment: simply adding a sidewalk connecting streets and neighborhoods can incentivize walking for more purposes than just recreation.

Success Stories of Simple Paths

I have two personal examples where a simple path saved me a significant amount of time and energy walking to/from the bus stop. At my parent’s home in Bloomington, walking to the express bus is just over a quarter mile thanks to a seemingly random sidewalk connecting our neighborhood with another neighborhood. Without that sidewalk it would be a nearly half mile walk to/from the bus stop and I would likely either choose to bike or not take the bus at all.

The other example is in a suburban area of Oslo, Norway. While studying there in 2015 I frequently (pretty much everyday) took the local bus to get to/from the city center and my classes. The bus stop was 800 feet from my dorm building with a shortcut connecting the student dorm buildings with the road where the bus operated. Without that shortcut it would be an extra 700 feet of walking and walking back from the bus stop would require climbing up a steep hill. Everyday that short sidewalk helps hundreds of students going to/from the bus.

Screen Shot 2019 01 09 At 6.52.10 Pm

The little sidewalk that made a big difference in my commute to/from the student dorms in suburban Oslo.

Screen Shot 2019 01 09 At 7.12.19 Pm

This sidewalk in Bloomington provides a safe and easy way for children to get to/from school without having to walk along busy roads.

Truly Walkable

Suburbs may like to tout that they’re pedestrian friendly with their investment in trails, but some of these trails are only for recreation, not accessing places such as schools, bus stops, stores, etc. Building trails does not mean a suburb is walkable. A suburb can have numerous trails, but if they’re next to busy roads, crossings are dangerous, and motorists aren’t yielding to pedestrians, then those trails make little difference.

For suburbs to be truly walkable, they need good walkability in all areas, not just recreational areas. While a quarter mile sidewalk probably won’t receive a ribbon cutting ceremony and won’t have as many users as a trail, a system of numerous sidewalk shortcuts can improve walkability in suburban areas and provide incentive for people to walk and bike to the places they need to go in addition to recreation.

With the majority of our suburban area having windy street grids, the status quo will discourage people from walking to places due to the distance and time required despite the distance being short, as the crow flies.

Like all sidewalks, these shortcuts need to be ADA compliant and should be clear of snow and ice in the winter. A lot of cities seem to assume everyone stops walking and biking in the winter, but I’ll save that rant for another day.

Major Change Needed

While more sidewalk shortcuts would be good for suburban areas and they’re easy to implement, it would definitely be a small step towards a major shift in how suburbs treat pedestrians and bikers. Laying down concrete or asphalt isn’t enough; drivers need to accept and respect the existence of bikers and pedestrians, crossings need to be safe, and there needs to be multiple paths to get from point A to point B so people have safe alternatives.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.

12 thoughts on “An Easy Way to Make Suburbs More Walkable: Sidewalk Shortcuts

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Agreed with this idea, it is great to create a more complete “grid” for pedestrians even the choice has been made to deliberately not do this for cars.

    The oddly Woodbury-like Hall Park area of North Minneapolis has quite a few of these handy shortcuts that provide access back to Lyndale, via the park. Although there are certainly missed opportunities: like it seems like Harry Davis Ln ought to have access out to the corner of Lyndale and Plymouth.

    Doing this a retrofit is a big deal, unfortunately. In the neighborhood I grew up in, there was an informal path between two culs-de-sac, that were 400 feet apart as the crow flies, but 1.7 miles apart by the roadway network — much of that along an exceedingly unwalkable high-speed county road. Despite a neighborhood effort for two years, we weren’t able to get any momentum on getting land purchased and a trail constructed. Neighbors continued to tolerate the informal path, but were not interested in selling or donating easements for a permanent path.

    But some neighbors get more into it than others. In a pretty tony part of Edina, this homeowner built a beautifully maintained gravel path between two culs-de-sac.

  2. Scott Walters,-93.165811,1201m/data=!3m1!1e3

    Here’s a really nice example. Anything a bicyclist would ever want to get to is south of this subdivision on Illinois Ave. All of the MUPs run between the streets, with connectors to the cul-de-sacs at the round end – away from the feeder street. They all then feed pedestrians and bicyclists to Birch Street…running along the river. Birch Street receives very little motor traffic, and connects to Illinois Ave. and the junior high, high school, and the mall a little farther south.

    A weird memory this bright up…if you follow Sumac Road to the east, you’ll see a pond. On the north shore, what looks like dirty snow is actually a huge pile of abandoned glass. Hiking to the glass pile as a kid and then wading among piles and piles of jumbled sheets of whole and broken glass, turning big pieces into small pieces, was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

  3. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    The most frequent missing in the suburbs is the connection from the public sidewalk to adjacent commercial and business developments. Most are separated by berms, ditches, retaining walls and landscaping. Penetrating these barriers should be written into the zoning codes.

    1. Brian

      I thought the trend is towards loosening zoning codes rather than adding to them? The irony is that zoning codes in suburbs generally require certain types of landscaping for new commercial developments.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I think the trend is about “right-sizing” regulation. In particular, we shouldn’t require things that add no value to the community (like setbacks that are larger than necessary) and shouldn’t require things that market demands do a great job of supplying on their own — like parking.

        Especially in the suburbs, pedestrian customers, visitors, etc, suffer from being a distant minority — when the vast majority arrive by car, retailers have little incentive to care about people who bus or walk. To me, it makes sense for the city to use zoning to ensure pedestrians also have equal, safe access to stores, apartments, etc, and this is an appropriate use for zoning.

        Some suburbs do a better job than others. Bloomington, despite its many flaws in accommodating pedestrians, is very consistent about providing some sort of pedestrian path from the sidewalk. Richfield does a pretty good job, but there are some weird misses. One that really gets me is Richfield Mitsubishi, a somewhat urban-format car dealership with nice street presence on 77th, and a minimal setback (just a small display plaza of new vehicles). But there is no path whatsoever from the door to the sidewalk.

        And the most aggravating of all: the completely renovated Penn Avenue Richfield liquor store — on a bus line, in a district the city has envisioned as walkable small-business node — has no access from the sidewalk to the new store. That’s embarrassing.

  4. Brian

    I live in a far flung suburb and a lot of the sidewalks are a joke. Most of the sidewalks that exist don’t actually go anywhere. There might a sidewalk for a block or two and the sidewalk just ends at intersection with no other sidewalk for a mile or more.

    The county installed a stoplight five years ago and put ADA compliant ramps at the corners. The ramps are worthless as they go nowhere! Two of them are surrounded by tall weeds/grass. The only place to walk is in a ditch full of tall grass.

    Next summer the county is putting wide shoulders on a county road supposedly for bicycling and walking. There really isn’t the population density or any place to go so the shoulders probably won’t get used much. What will likely happen is drivers will go faster on that 55 MPH highway since it will have those wide shoulders now.

  5. Allen

    With the majority of our suburban area having windy street grids, the status quo will discourage people from walking to places due to the distance and time required despite the distance being short, as the crow flies.

    I fail to understand how a shorter walk is going to get a busy parent of a family of 5 to walk to the grocery store instead of driving. If they drive, they can get a week or two worth of shopping down in one trip. If they walk, they’ll barely be able to carry enough food for a day for the family.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Then a busy parent of five kids can take their car? You can make walking more convenient and practical without the need for it to replace 100% of all trips in all other modes.

      For example, maybe those parents have a date night and walk to a restaurant. Maybe some of those five kids are under age 16, or the family can’t afford to keep seven cars (one for each member). They may appreciate being able to walk places with dignity and convenience.

    2. Rosa

      If it were safe enough to walk, a busy parent of five could send a middle schooler or high schooler to the store and not have to go at all.

  6. Jeremy HopJeremy H.

    Our family routinely walks to our grocery store. We have a large insulated bag as well as a backpack. We get a week’s worth of groceries in that trip. We plan this as our time together to walk along Central Avenue. We generally ride the bus back home as to avoid the 15 minute walk with groceries. It boils down to lifestyle. We arrange our lives around making seemingly meaningless errands into time together. Our walks, even during the winter help us to stay active. One does not have to warehouse multiple weeks of food in the house. The grocery store will be available to you as needed.

Comments are closed.