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Will Saint Paul do the right thing for pedestrians?

A sidewalk leads from streetscape to Walmart front door
A sidewalk leads from streetscape to Walmart front door
copyright MDMR 2014

This week is Pedestrian Awareness Week in Saint Paul. Various activities are planned by neighborhood organizations to get people out exploring their neighborhoods. Of course, with these kinds of activities, phrases like “walkability” come up.

What is walkability? Steve Abley, Chartered Traffic and Transportation Engineer, defined walkability in 2005 in his paper, “Walkability Scoping Paper.” His proposed definition states that walkability is “the extent to which the built environment is friendly to the presence of people living, shopping, visiting, enjoying or spending time in an area.”

Many factors go into making an area walkable, but it seems that some factors may be more detail oriented while other factors account for a larger picture view of community improvement.

Destinations

This would seem to be the number one factor to building walkability. Street front businesses give people in the neighborhood a reason to be out walking. To improve walkability, it would behoove Saint Paul to attract businesses, especially locally owned businesses that have a reason to invest in the neighborhood and especially in those dense corridors like University Avenue where the light rail recently began running.

For example, at the Habitat for Humanity groundbreaking ceremony, Mayor Chris Coleman commended the corporate non-profit Habitat for Humanity for their “choice to locate their headquarters on the Green Line as a demonstration of the momentum the light rail project is having and as a great way to provide easy access to their programs and services.” However, results since the light rail opened are not good.

Habitat for Humanity’s purchase of a building at the corner of Prior and University Avenues displaced several small businesses. One business, the family owned Midway Liquors, used to have an open street front door with an owner who stood on the stoop greeting those passing by. They have since moved to the northeast corner, fronted by a parking lot while Habitat for Humanity’s closed and locked street front doors offer a cold contrast. Even colder and less inviting is the clearly visible receptionist who ignores people trying to enter the street front door during business hours. Neither move seems to be a positive for the walkability of the neighborhood. One wonders, too, if Habitat for Humanity is so closed off from the community, why would it have chosen to move to the area? Does a neighbor have to make a call to Atlanta if they want to volunteer or learn more?

Just a block to the east, a large city block has been developed by Episcopal Church Homes of Minnesota, Inc. This campus holds senior apartments, memory care, nursing home care, and assisted living. The newest development, which is still under construction, happened when the corporate non-profit purchased Porky’s, a locally owned drive-in restaurant. Though the drive-in era is fading, Porky’s, which was famous for its burgers and malts, did see quite a bit of pedestrian traffic during the summers. Its street front patio invited all ages.

What Episcopal Church Homes does with its new development remains to be seen, though its past development on the block has basically become a gated community in the middle of an urban setting. Not quite a vision of walkability that would provide growth for a neighborhood.

Some for profit corporations have maintained and improved pedestrian access to their developments along University Avenue. Walmart has an accessible sidewalk from the bus shelter to its entrance. Verizon Wireless and Noodles & Company, located in the parking lot of Target have also removed shrubbery to allow a sidewalk and crosswalk to their entrances. CVS added a shopping cart room and now has three outdoor entrances, one on University Avenue, that lead to the store’s one entrance.

But, for an inviting feeling, one really can’t beat a business that believes in its investment in the neighborhood. On many given days, Ax-Man Surplus Store on University Avenue has doors wide open with friendly staff on the inside. Mr. Michael Recycles Bicycles invited the community to celebrate National Night Out with them up to their closing time of 9 p.m. Let’s hope Saint Paul encourages more business owners like those who own Ax-Man, Mr. Michael Recycles Bicycles and Midway Liquors to invest along dense, walkable corridors.

Encouraging open businesses has the potential to bring out more people from the neighborhood. A larger mass of pedestrians seems likely to be the number one way to make pedestrians visible to drivers.

Construction

With all of the new development happening around town, one would think the city and state could work out arrangements with the developers to maintain some level of pedestrian safety. Yet developers continuously tell pedestrians “you don’t matter” when they close sidewalks, placing pedestrians in the middle of a car lane or forcing pedestrians to make unnecessary reroutes of their path to their destinations.

The Vintage development closed a sidewalk for weeks at an area on Snelling Avenue that really was not a safe place to cross if one was walking from the North. Other recent developments have closed pedestrian access in a similar manner. It seems like for the amount of time that the closure was necessary, a new pedestrian path could have been made out of a lane of traffic using barricades or sidewalk covers could have been used to keep pedestrians safe.

As positive examples, Bremer Bank on Snelling and Habitat for Humanity did use sidewalk covers.

Visibility

Saint Paul struggles with visibility. The city seems to want planted medians everywhere. These planted medians are on busy streets such as Snelling and Marshall Avenues. The light rail also has numerous planted areas along its eleven miles of concrete and fenced barricades that separate the north side of University from the south side of University.

As the grasses get taller and the trees spread out, pedestrians need to move out a little further to check for cars. As the plants hide pedestrians, the drivers a lulled into complacency and likely miss that camouflaged pedestrian. It’s as if Saint Paul thinks its citizens want to act out a real life version of a video game. Win this and you get to keep your life. Lose, and well, it was good to know you.

If Saint Paul wants to hide its pedestrians while also having a better reputation of protecting them, it could follow the leads of world class cities such as Paris or Moscow which have under passes and elaborate tunnels that not only protect pedestrians from heavy traffic, but encourage subterranean interaction between the public and independent businesses.

Maintenance

Much has been talked about recently regarding the poor conditions of streets in Saint Paul. Crosswalks are in those streets, so street maintenance plays a role in pedestrian safety.

But sidewalk maintenance is also huge. Many areas of Saint Paul have uneven sidewalks, areas where sidewalks abruptly end, and in the winter, those medians that hide pedestrians get neglected by the city and the Metropolitan Council. Last winter, mounds of snow blockaded the crosswalk at busy intersections like Snelling and University Avenue in the median sections where the light rail would run. Able bodied pedestrians climbed the snow banks while those most vulnerable, those with walkers, wheelchairs, strollers, were put out in the middle of some of the busiest intersections in Saint Paul. Though the station platforms are Metro Transit’s responsibility, a customer feedback response claimed that the city was responsible for clearing snow in the crosswalk section of the median.

Winter happens for a long time each year in Minnesota. Snow removal is an important step toward a walkable community. The responsible parties need to own up.

Will Saint Paul get it right?

Much of the advocacy to improve pedestrian safety these days tries to reinvent the wheel. Stories of yore are told about how children used to play in the streets and though many of the advocates were not actually alive during that time, they insist that is the way to “take the streets back.” They insist that traffic calming medians and speed bumps will make neighborhoods walkable.

Cities like New York and San Francisco are not traffic calmed via planted medians. Big city streets are not closed streets for the enjoyment of children. Yet drivers understand in these places that pedestrians will be approaching at any given hour.

Saint Paul can achieve this critical mass, too, by focusing on the big picture-- bringing welcoming destinations to dense areas, increasing pedestrian visibility or providing grade separation for pedestrian crossing, and improving infrastructure maintenance.