City Walks: Navigating Pedestrian Infrastructure from New York City to Minneapolis

Growing up in St. Cloud, I took trips with my family to the Twin Cities for Twins and Vikings games. We were partial season-ticket holders, so I attended more games than the average Minnesotan kid. These trips were my first glimpse of city life, even though the extent of my time in downtown Minneapolis was a walk from my parents’ favorite parking lot to the Metrodome and the walk back after the game ended. 

33 years later, I live only a few blocks away from the Dome’s replacement, U.S. Bank Stadium. It’s been a circuitous path to get here, including an early 2000s stint living in the Twin Cities before a work transfer took me to Los Angeles during the last term of the Bush years. In 2007, I sold my car and navigated Los Angeles by foot and public transportation. It was an experience that transformed the trajectory of my life.  

Starting around the beginning of the Obama administration, I spent 12 years in New York City. It was there that I started to view myself as a pedestrian. The ability to walk everywhere for hours, traversing one of the most diverse and interesting cities in the world, sparked a desire to pursue photography projects documenting the ways we navigate cities on foot.   

In this article, my first for, I’ll share photos and some aspects of the pedestrian experience that have intrigued me over the years.

Minneapolis Skyway Scenes, 2023. Author photos.

From the Twin Cities to Car Free in Los Angeles 

Yucca St & Vine St., Los Angeles, CA, 2007. Author photo.

From 2000 to 2004 I lived in the Twin Cities. My first apartment was just off Grand Avenue in St. Paul. I recall walking the informal path on the median of Summit Avenue, and around the river, but beyond that I got around mostly by car. 

After a few years, I decided to move over to Minneapolis, landing in the Uptown area. I would jog around the lakes, attend improv classes and hang around Northeast with college friends.

In 2004, a job transfer took me to Los Angeles. I decided that if nothing else, I could spend a few years in California before I turned 30, and come back with a few stories.

I drove my car out there and eventually settled in West Hollywood. My office was in downtown LA, so during lunch breaks and after work I would spend time wandering around, eventually bringing along a camera to take photos. Most are now lost on some hard drive. 

Beacon Overlook, Santa Monica, CA, 2008. Author photo.

I got hooked on photography, and started studying and meeting other novice photographers on Flickr. It was the combination of walking and photography that started to focus my attention on public spaces. Initially I was interested in street photography, often making candid photographs of pedestrians going about their day. 

After a series of car repairs and some deliberation, I decided to try to go car free. I was a short walk or bus ride away from a new job, making this switch possible. I was mostly fed up with the cost of car dependency at that point; issues around climate change, road safety or public transportation didn’t play much of a role in that decision. 

That started to change once I learned how much I enjoyed navigating the city on foot and by public transportation. What emerged was a totally different perspective on Los Angeles, one of the most car-centric cities in America. 

Going car free in Los Angeles sparked a desire to see what it’d be like to live in a highly walkable city. In January 2009, I sublet an apartment from a photographer I’d met on Flickr and moved to New York City. I thought it would only be for a month, but it turned into 12 years.

New York City Pedestrian

Hunters Point Park South, Long Island City, Queens, 2020. Author photo.

The pedestrian experience in New York City dramatically changed my perspective on public transportation and walkability. It was a slow process at first, but over the years, I started to understand how to incorporate photography and art into my interests around the pedestrian experience, especially around infrastructure, parks and green spaces. 

Atlantic Ave & Van Wyck Expressway, Queens, New York, 2013. Author photo.

In 2013, I made a project called Skyway, in which I explored the landscape between New York’s two major airports, La Guardia and JFK.  After this project, I became fascinated with infrastructure and how it shapes our experiences in the city. I worked on another project where I took the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) for day trips where I’d walk the Long Island coastal towns.

Montauk, Long Island, 2016. Author photo.

I studied the park and trail system in New York City, setting out to walk every mapped trail, which sparked my interest in city hiking. It was this project that first instilled a fascination with desire paths. These trails, sometimes referred to as cowpaths, are formed when people (and, to a lesser degree, animals, hence the name) use them repeatedly, eroding the landscape. Essentially, desire paths are unofficial routes that evolve naturally due to the foot traffic of pedestrians choosing the shortest or most convenient path between two points, often in defiance of the paved or designated pathways.

I started to map them with Google Maps, and would walk them every time I found them. I loved how they were a collaboratively created piece of pedestrian infrastructure. These paths are places in the landscape where the public determines where the infrastructure will go. No meetings, no votes, no policy.

Gothic Bridge Informal Path, Central Park, New York City, 2020. Author photo.

In a dense urban landscape where almost every inch has been developed and engineered, these paths were a physical manifestation of the pedestrian experience. From there I started to look at pedestrian infrastructure holistically, and knew I wanted to integrate it into my projects.

Hudson River Greenway Entrance, Bronx, New York City, 2020. Author photo.
Cherry Walk, Riverside Park, New York City, 2019. Author photo.

In 2019, I mapped all the pedestrian bridges in New York City that I could locate on Google Maps and attempted to walk them all over several months. It was easier than I thought. During one long walk, you often cross several bridges; they are almost always centered around crossing freeways, and often they take you over roads and into parks. All of the connections started to make sense.

Pedestrian Bridges, New York City, 2019. Author photo.

Pandemic Relocation to St. Cloud, Minnesota

Water Tower Informal Path. St. Cloud, MN, 2021. Author photo.

Everything changed in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in New York. The city emptied out and was covered in a foreboding doom that I’ll never forget. New York’s dense working-class neighborhoods had some of the most tragic outcomes. 

Ritual walking was the best medicine. I wasn’t the only one. Walking became a trend, and suddenly it seemed more people were awakening to the importance of open public spaces and parks, where they could find space away from cars and respite from the fear of Covid. 

After my father passed away in January of 2021, I decided it was time to leave New York and head back to Minnesota. I spent two years back in St. Cloud because I wanted to experience my hometown as a pedestrian and spend time closer to family. I hadn’t lived there since 1999, so I wasn’t sure what it’d be like to live there again. Growing up, we were totally car dependent and I didn’t spend much time in the parks, let alone walk anywhere. 

Those two years did teach me an important lesson about how you can go car free in any city and embrace walkability where you can find it. 

In my free time, I continued working on my projects and pushed myself to better learn about the pedestrian infrastructure of a smaller city. I mapped the pedestrian bridges, idiosyncratic green spaces, inspiring trees and other locations I felt were significant.

Moving to Downtown Minneapolis 

Downtown Minneapolis, 2023. Author photos.

While in St. Cloud, I made a couple of three-day trips to Minneapolis to satisfy my itch to walk the city. After those experiences, I knew I wanted to be back in the city, especially after I started to research what was going on with urbanism and transportation. 

I wanted to live in a place where people were excited about the possibilities of transforming the transportation system and making the city more accessible by foot and bike. Given the Twin Cities’ reputation for top-tier parks, I also knew there would be plenty to explore and learn by spending time in these green spaces.

I was intrigued by downtown Minneapolis because it presented an opportunity to live in a high-density, mixed-use neighborhood. 

Downtown Minneapolis felt vibrant to me, despite the torrent of negative news about downtown in the post-pandemic era. Since I was car free and worked from home, it would be perfect. I was excited to be centrally located and close to the public transportation hubs. I knew this would inspire my work as well.

Mill Ruins Park Informal Path, Minneapolis, 2023. Author photo.

After only six months, I’ve already started to build a new stack of photos, maps and locations I plan on re-visiting. 

As a pedestrian, I feel a responsibility and obligation to other multimodal transportation users to fight to make our cities even more equitable. The first step in that process is to connect with the thriving urbanist and climate-conscious community here in the Twin Cities, which already has inspired me. 

Here are a few locations I’ve mapped in my first six months, each of which I plan on documenting further as I continue to cross paths with them on future walks. 

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Informal Path, Minneapolis, MN, 2023. Author photo.
East River Pkwy & Huron Blvd SE, Minneapolis, MN, May 17, 2023. Author photo.
Tree Stump, West Bde Maka Ska Parkway & Xerxes Ave, Minneapolis, 2023. Author photo.
Bluff St. Bikeway – 10th Ave Bridge, Minneapolis, MN, 2023. Author photo.
29th St. Informal Path to Midtown Greenway, Minneapolis, MN, 2023. Author photo.
246 Cedar Ave S Parking Lot, Minneapolis, MN, 2023. Author photo.
Plymouth Ave N, North Loop, Minneapolis, 2023. Author photo.

See You on the Trails

After six months in downtown Minneapolis, I’ve filled my sketchbook with ideas and dotted my map with interesting public spaces, desire paths, trees and green spaces. I’m curious whether these locations will look familiar to those viewing them, and if others have their own photos and stories. I am excited about potential future collaborations and learning from the community that has helped develop this thriving network and dynamic landscape. I look forward to running into you on the trails. If you’d like to connect or collaborate, reach out to me on Instagram or at my website where you can view more of my projects.

About Bryan Formhals

Bryan Formhals is a marketing strategist and photographer based in Minneapolis. Living car-free since 2007, his photography projects focus on long city walks, pedestrian infrastructure and idiosyncratic green spaces.