Sidewalks are Public Health

Sidewalk Poem Bicycle

Even the better sidewalks are still too narrow. | Bill Lindeke

Today’s homebound pandemic makes it obvious that our sidewalks are inadequate. They are too narrow and often incomplete, and are not giving people safe, comfortable spaces to walk. This matters because our streets and sidewalks are our most important public space. Sure, we have city parks, and they are the gold standards of our public space network. Parks offer scenery, recreation, and urban habitat. But if you’re driving to a park just to walk around every day, you’re doing it wrong. To say the least, crowds can be a problem.

But for every acre of public park land there are a hundred acres of public space on streets and sidewalks. It is these urban spaces, owned collectively by the people themselves, that must be the foundation of our everyday life. In more ways than one, our health relies on how we shape these spaces and what kinds of freedoms they afford us.

Honest questions: When you look around at the sidewalks in your neighborhood these days, what do you see? When you walk around, how do you feel? How are our streets and sidewalks designed, and are they serving us well?

If you’ve been walking around lately, I am really curious what you think. Many of my older, more vulnerable family members live close to me in Saint Paul. These days, I’ve been asking them about their daily walks, and the situation is not good. In some parts of the city, older folks are crossing the street to avoid people. Often that’s impossible, and they go out on walks only in the early morning when nobody else is around. In other parts of the city, there aren’t even sidewalks to use.

Franklin Sidewalk Pole

Franklin Avenue. | Bill Lindeke

The lack of quality sidewalks is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and I promise you that it does not have to be this way. For the past few generations, we’ve consistently narrowed and disinvested in sidewalks. We’ve designed our streets to minimize the comfort and mobility for people trying to walk, and only very recently have we begun to reverse this pattern in our cities.

Examples abound. In fact, it’s far easier to list the places that have sidewalks wide enough for two people to pass each other with adequate breathing room than the converse. Let’s see, streets with wide sidewalks in Minneapolis: Hennepin Avenue downtown (but not elsewhere), Nicollet Mall (but not elsewhere), much of downtown Minneapolis, Lowry Avenue North (but not Northeast), East Lake Street (but not West), and that’s about it. In Saint Paul, the list is shorter. Let’s just say that Snelling Avenue is much better than it used to be, and Wheelock Parkway is very nice now.

Almost everywhere else you turn, sidewalks are too narrow, often 6’ or less, if they exist at all…

Here are just a few of highlights from over the years I’ve been taking photos of Twin Cities sidewalks.

Stp Sidewalk Vehicular Traffic Sign

Narrow sidewalks in downtown Saint Paul (Wabasha Street). | Bill Lindeke

Stp Robert Street Sidewalk

Narrow dangerous sidewalks on the West Side (South Robert Street). | Bill Lindeke

Mpls Hennepin Ave Sidewalk

Narrow dangerous sidewalks on Hennepin Avenue. | Bill Lindeke

Rondo Lexington Sidewalk 1

Sidewalk width on chokepoints like bridges is even more important, like this one on Lexington Parkway. | Bill Lindeke

Stp West Side Sidewalk Ends

Sidewalks often just end, like this one on the West Side. | Bill Lindeke

The unhealthy and inhumane way we allocate public space on our streets has been thrown into the spotlight during this life-altering pandemic, and it’s a huge public health problem. We need more space in order to keep the virus from spreading. But on top of that, we need space for people to walk or bike around, in order to keep obesity, diabetes, and depression at bay.

So what do we do?

Stp Sidewalk Gaps Map 2018

Streets without sidewalks in Saint Paul. | City of Saint Paul

Reconstructing and rebuilding our dilapidated sidewalk network is expensive and time consuming. For example, Saint Paul is slowly trying to fill in the gaps in its network. But even there, there’s lots of pushback and, at our current pace, it will literally take my lifetime to complete.

The clear answer here is to do what they have done in Oakland, California, where at minimal cost, the city has created a “slow streets” network where through traffic is nearly eliminated and speeds are (hopefully) reduced.

We’ve tried and failed to create streets like this in Minnesota in the past. For example, read about the proposed, never-built Northside Greenway, or think about the scant, haphazard “bike boulevard” network that exists in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. In almost all cases, quality projects were stymied because of community pushback, mostly by people concerned about traffic and parking.

Well, things have changed. Traffic and parking are not meaningful problems in 2020. Now is the time to re-think our streets, focus on people, and make sure we prioritize public health, personal health, active living, and safety for everyone.

Screen Shot 2020 04 14 At 10.30.32 Am

With the measure “Oakland Slow Streets” the city is closing 74 miles of streets to create more space for people to get outside for safe social distancing. | Jeff Chiu/AP

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19 Responses to Sidewalks are Public Health

  1. Bob Roscoe April 20, 2020 at 2:25 pm #

    I was the principal project designer for Milwaukee Avenue in south Minneapolis, which is a former obsolete narrow street that our neighborhood group converted into a car-free pedestrian
    landscaped walkway. We had to fight several Minneapolis public agencies to create it.

    I have joked that once the Milwaukee walkway was finished, I went home to my studio and wait for the phone to ring, asking me do design the next one.

    The next one has not happened. But I am still waiting……

  2. Sarah Myers April 20, 2020 at 4:48 pm #

    To be clear traffic and parking are not problems right now, but they very much will be as things start opening up and people opt for SOVs instead of mass transit.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 20, 2020 at 5:50 pm #

      I am not giving up on transit yet.

    • Lou Miranda April 21, 2020 at 11:16 am #

      But the point is that we need to stop worrying about traffic & parking, and prioritize everything else ahead of SOVs.

      • Sarah Myers April 21, 2020 at 3:54 pm #

        Oh absolutely. But that just became exponentially harder with the pandemic effectively gutting elective mass transit use for the next 12-18 months, coupled with gas prices plummeting as oil collapses. Just wait for Trump to resurrect Cash For Clunkers.

        • Brian April 21, 2020 at 8:35 pm #

          Another Cash for Clunkers would not increase the number of cars on the road. For every new car sold an old one is destroyed.

          There are lots of other reasons not to do another CFC program.

          • Monte Castleman April 22, 2020 at 8:34 pm #

            Yes, Cash-4-Clunkers probably even decreased the amount of cars on the road since one car is destroyed for every new one sold under the program, while some of the new ones sold would have been sold anyway without the destruction of the old one. Ultimately poor people were the big losers in the program because even with a rebate they couldn’t afford a new car and meanwhile the supply of old cars they can afford is artificially reduced and the prices increased.

            I wouldn’t mind a new stimulus directed at new car purchases, but I’d want it to be just to stimulate the economy rather than also mandate the destruction of an enormous amount of the nation’s wealth. Also reserve it for cars with a certain percentage of American components so it benefits American factory workers as well as salespersons and dealership owners.

  3. Scott April 20, 2020 at 4:53 pm #

    Even in this time of huge increases in sidewalk traffic in our St. Paul neighborhood, I’ve never once thought that the sidewalks need to be wider. Obviously the disasters-masquerading-as-sidewalks in your photos need to be obliterated, Covid-19 or no Covid-19. Covid-proofing our neighborhood sidewalks would mean minimum 10 feet wide strips of concrete, and even then people would be diving into the shrubbery to avoid too-close contact. As it is, folks who can slip onto the grass or onto the street for short stretches when passing others less able to do so. Strangers exchange friendly smiles and hello’s, and an occasional thank you. We adapt. Weren’t most of the St. Paul neighborhood sidewalks, after all, laid out during the street car era, with presumably much heavier foot traffic? This disease will pass. Designing Covid-proof neighborhood sidewalks, it seems to me, is like designing a freeway system to handle peak rush hour traffic with zero congestion. Let’s keep the focus on great projects, like the Ayd Mill Road Conversion.

    • Pete Barrett April 20, 2020 at 5:50 pm #

      In my experience, most of the sidewalks on basic residential streets in Saint Paul are fine. There are some in more commercial type areas that could be wider.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 20, 2020 at 5:52 pm #

      Some sidewalks should be wider, mostly in commercial areas. And in residential areas there are many alternatives that would not necessarily widen sidewalks, such as slow/closed streets, bike boulevards, or the neighborhood greenways proposal I linked to.

      • Bob Roscoe April 21, 2020 at 8:06 am #

        This morning when I walked my dogs in my Minneapolis neighborhood, I instinctively stepped into an adjoining yard for a few steps with no ill Covid-Free effect.

        In a related issue, perhaps neighborhood streets could be narrowed to induce drivers to not speed, as what I see happening now, that may be a result of the pandemic that keeps more people at home.

      • Scott April 21, 2020 at 9:46 am #

        For sure there are many awful sidewalks/streetscapes in Twin Cities commercial areas. One example of how it could be done better is if you compare Portland, Oregon’s, Pearl District to the North Loop. Both were former industrial/warehouse districts converted to residential/retail neighborhoods. There are a couple of inherent advantages that Portland has over Mpls. One advantage being a climate that is much easier to grow street trees and other plantings, and the other being Portland’s small city block size (200ft by 200ft vs. 660ft by 330ft ?). Both make a huge difference, and offer a clear advantage, but the Twin Cities could do much better. Portland also planned and built 2 city parks in the district early in the process.

        One concern I would have in designating neighborhood greenways would be the concentration of vehicles on some streets and pedestrians on others. Really, my wife and I have walked and biked more miles in all directions over the last 5 weeks than we ever had before, and we have both commented on how pleasant the experience has been. Looking around at any given time, you’ll likely see at least 10 other people out walking or biking, even on less-than-ideal days. We hope this effect lasts long after the pandemic ends.

        I think traffic-slowing and traffic-calming on neighborhood streets would be a great goal – now and forever. Speeding on our street doesn’t seem to be a super huge issue, but 30 mph is the normal minimum, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be much slower. People don’t realize that, for short or medium trips, the difference between 20mph and 30mph might yield a 30 second time savings – maybe. Also, we need to crack down on the “rolling stop”. The single biggest offenders of both, currently, are the delivery trucks. Yesterday a FedEx truck flew by, going at least 50mps. It was quite the site.

        Thanks, Mr. Lindeke, for your continued work and advocacy. I’ve read many of your writings over the years, and agree with most of them! 🙂

        • Pete Barrett April 21, 2020 at 5:42 pm #

          Most people here in the US are so impatient they think arriving 30 seconds early is well worth speeding.

        • Brian April 21, 2020 at 8:39 pm #

          Minneapolis and St. Paul just dropped speed limits on city streets to a maximum of 25 MPH.

          I think delivery trucks speeding is a symptom of drivers being given more packages than can be delivered in a work day while driving within the law. Package volume is higher than the Christmas rush, but without the hiring of thousand of extra workers.

  4. Quinn Haberl April 21, 2020 at 10:46 am #

    Excellent article Bill!

    I used to work over at Franklin and Nickolet. The sidewalks along Franklin Avenue are absolutely atrocious. I hear that the city is looking at possibly reconstructing Franklin Avenue, let’s hope that they incorporate better pedestrian amenities along the entire stretch. not only do the sidewalks need to be widened, but given the speed at which traffic travels, I think a nice grass Boulevard between the street and the sidewalk would be beneficial. As a pedestrian, it would definitely make me feel a lot safer.

    • Lou Miranda April 21, 2020 at 2:46 pm #

      Hennepin County is working on the plan for Franklin with input from the city. It’s still a few years away. They currently have great ideas for pedestrians, but so-so solutions for people traveling by bike.

      More information here:

      https://www.hennepin.us/franklincorridor

      • Monte Castleman April 21, 2020 at 4:55 pm #

        One of the options looks to be 66th street style cycletracks with concrete curb and even a boulevard with trees between bikes and cars where space allows. Looks like a great option for for people traveling by bike to me. Less thrilled about the Oakland section where the only options are an unprotected lane or a cycletrack immediately adjacent to the street as in Washington Avenue.

        I’ve tried riding a bike on both. 66th I loved the cycletrack but absolutely hated the roundabouts on a bike as much as I hate them in a car. Washington Ave I felt grossly unsafe being right next to the car traffic lane, especially where the concrete curb disappeared before the intersections

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller April 22, 2020 at 10:23 am #

          Lyndale between 66th and 76th is going to be better even than 66th (although the cycle track is currently torn up in places as they’re finishing things up).

  5. Brian April 21, 2020 at 8:49 pm #

    Cities can’t reasonably be expected to have all sidewalks wide enough to keep everyone six feet apart. What happens if we rebuild all sidewalks to 12 feet minimum and the next pandemic in say 20 years requires everyone to be 10 feet apart?

    There are plenty of sidewalks that are in bad shape and need to be fixed. There should never be poles and other obstacles narrowing a sidewalk to almost nothing. There is a fairly new sidewalk on 2nd St in the North Loop where a natural gas valve of some sort takes up most of the sidewalk. I don’t understand why the gas valve didn’t go in the grass, but it probably had to do with not wanting to get an easement from the owner.

    I believe the standard sidewalk is 8 feet. 8 feet is often not enough even without the six foot rule. A person with a dog or a couple can take up most of the sidewalk making for awkward passing moments.

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