Is a Walkable Midwest Possible?

In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 91.55% of U.S. households had at least one car, with the rate steadily increasing each year. But is this purely out of convenience, or is it a forced necessity? Recently implemented policies to make walking safer in Minneapolis may serve as a guide to other Midwestern cities looking to reduce reliance on cars. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

When compared to other countries, America receives consistently low walkability scores. A recent study released by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy found that, of the 1,000 cities surveyed, only one U.S. city – Washington, D.C. – placed in the top 25 on any index that measured walkability. Urban sprawl and the suburbanization of America have made walking difficult in many cities and towns and nearly impossible in others, and the country’s outdated infrastructure makes travel more risky for pedestrians. While a handful of major urban centers in the U.S. rebut this phenomenon, they are more outliers than the norm.

“Walkability” is a fairly expansive concept that takes into consideration the ease and safety of foot traffic, the proximity of amenities and businesses, and the practical design and aesthetics of walking areas. Cities and neighborhoods considered to be “walkable” enjoy a host of economic, health, sustainability and community benefits, so facilitating and maximizing an area’s walkability is top of mind for many urban planners and designers.

“It’s hard for me to underscore the importance of walkability … it’s such a no-brainer,” Elizabeth Ellis, studio director of the Toledo Design Collective, an urban planning and development non-profit in Ohio, said. “Your perception of an area or neighborhood changes completely when you’re actually down on the ground walking versus driving. When you’re walking, you’re breathing in the city.”

Walkability has become such a hot-button topic in recent years that organizations have emerged specifically to quantify it. Walk Score, arguably the best known of these organizations, measures not only walkability, but also factors like transit effectiveness and bikeability in U.S. and Canadian cities on a scale from 0 to 100. The organization ranks three coastal urban centers – San Francisco, New York and Boston – as the nation’s most pedestrian-friendly cities, with walkability scores of 89, 88 and 83, respectively.

But the picture Walk Score paints of walkability in a majority of Midwestern cities is fairly bleak. In the organization’s 2021 City and Neighborhood walkability ranking, the only two Midwestern cities with top ratings were Chicago and Minneapolis, with respective scores of 77.2 and 71.4. A majority of the region’s remaining cities have scores in the 30s and 40s. Indianapolis has a score of 31, despite being Indiana’s capital. Springfield, the capital of Illinois, has a score of 38. Ohio’s capital, Columbus, scores 41.

Toledo clocks in at 46, which Ellis believes is the product of disinvestment and low density.

“Walkability is generally really low in our disinvested communities, mainly because there's a lot of vacancy within our disinvested neighborhoods,” she said. “The walk score is measured by distance and how long it's taking you to get somewhere. And when you're having to cross a lot of vacant land, obviously, things are more separated.”

These disinvested communities include neighborhoods but also swaths of downtown areas that may once have been booming but have now fallen victim to corporate exodus. In cities where storefronts lay empty, businesses are far apart and transit is limited, and walking is impractical or sometimes impossible. Compounded with spreading suburbs, it’s no surprise that many Midwesterners are dependent on cars.

As major East Coast cities tend to be more densely populated than many Midwestern cities, they are also less reliant on cars. According to a 2020 U.S. Census Bureau report, only 62.7% of households own a car in Washington, D.C. This statistic decreases to 59.7% in Newark, New Jersey. In the nation’s least car-dependent city, New York City, only 45.6% of households own a car.

But Jordan D. Kocak, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Hennepin County, Minneapolis, said things are changing in the Midwest, especially in urban areas.

“Some people are already [becoming less reliant on cars], particularly in cities easy to get around,” Kocak said. “Me and my wife only have one car; if someone else is using the car, we either walk, bike or take the bus to where we need to go.”

While the task of increasing an area’s walkability is multifaceted and complicated, it is not impossible. Midwestern communities with lagging walkability scores may consider looking to Minneapolis.

With a score of 71.4 and a national Walk Score rank of 11, Minneapolis is an outlier compared to its similarly sized Midwestern peers.

Notably, Walk Score also ranked Minneapolis the most bikeable city in the U.S., likely because of its incredibly robust biking infrastructure: the city has 98 miles of bike lanes, 16 miles of on-street protected bike lanes and 101 miles of off-road bike trails. While only tangentially related to walkability, Minneapolis’ commitment to being a bike-friendly city indicates a generally benevolent attitude towards non-motor forms of transportation overall.

Above the streets, Minneapolis is famed for its Skyway System: 9.5 miles of enclosed, second-level pathways that allow city-dwellers to walk comfortably around the city year-round. The Skyway connects 80 city blocks and is the largest continuous enclosed walkway system of its kind in the world. By shielding pedestrians from the ravages of Minnesotan winters, the Skyway makes downtown walking feasible even when the temperatures turn subzero.

But, beyond these uniquely Minneapolitan features, the city and Hennepin County have recently implemented a slew of replicable policies and infrastructural improvements that have made streets and walkways safer for pedestrians and, therefore, more walkable overall.

In late 2019, Minneapolis adopted their Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries by 2027, while Hennepin County adopted a similar Towards Zero Deaths campaign. Planners conducted crash studies to pinpoint the most dangerous intersections in the city, then devised and implemented plans to make them safer. These practices include delaying traffic lights, restricting left turns and building center refuge islands.

“In the last couple of years, pedestrian deaths have been on the rise across America, and that’s a troubling trend,” Kocak said. “So that’s [what] we’re trying to combat.”

Left: Traffic calming bollards at Chicago Avenue and Lake Street in Minneapolis installed as part of the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan. Image courtesy of the City of Minneapolis. Right: Pedestrian crossing improvement bollards on 2nd Street and 10th Avenue in Minneapolis installed as part of the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan. Image courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

Unsurprisingly, these improvements come at a price.

“If you do a bump out or a refuge island with concrete, that tends to be [quite] expensive,” Kocak said. “So the city is trying to use more temporary materials to do a lot of safety improvements faster.”

While these solutions (which include delineators such as cones and bollards) may be temporary, they have transformed intersections and crosswalks citywide. According to Vision Zero’s 2021 Annual Report, the city installed 101 curb extensions and made 29 intersections more pedestrian-friendly in 2020. Notably, 17 of the 29 intersections were in disinvested communities that were previously designated as “High Injury Streets.”

In addition to restructuring unsafe intersections, the city has decreased speed limits on over 900 miles of streets and converted some four-lane roadways (which tend to be the most dangerous for pedestrians) into three-lane roadways. By slashing a road’s fourth lane, the city has created several new center left-turn lanes that allow drivers to turn under less pressure. This allows motorists to keep a better eye out for pedestrians, even if it might mean slightly longer queue times during rush hour.

While these changes have made streets safer for pedestrians, they have been met with resistance from some Minneapolitan motorists who are unhappy about their slightly longer commute times.

“There’s kind of a tension sometimes or a balancing between vehicle operations and making sure we aren't creating a lot of congestion by creating safe places for people who are walking and biking,” Kocak said. “It often means there are trade-offs, [such as] a little more congestion during certain times of [the] day. But we know also it could be a big pedestrian safety benefit twenty-four hours a day.”

To head off criticism, Kocak engages with individuals prior to the enactment of policies so they know why changes will be implemented.

“It can be challenging to explain to communities why we’re making certain changes or what the safety benefits are,” Kocak said. “Several years ago we did a restriping project on a road in South Minneapolis where we went from four lanes to three lanes, and there were some people who were really upset about it. … But then we actually implemented it and things worked really well. … Those people just kind of disappeared.”

Despite occasional pushback and the financial cost, pedestrians in the county have benefitted from altered intersections and restructured roadways. Metrics to track the progress of the two plans have been imperfect due to COVID-related travel impacts, but, according to Vision Zero’s 2021 Annual Report, the total number of traffic deaths and severe injuries in Minneapolis was down 17% in 2020 compared to the average of 2016 - 2019.

While not the focus of Vision Zero and Towards Zero Deaths, Kocak also emphasized the role public transportation plays in walkability. Strong transit systems reduce overall reliance on cars and the safety risks that come along with them. This not only makes walking safer for pedestrians but also encourages foot traffic of transit riders (from the station to a destination, for example).

Echoing Ellis’ sentiments about the role investment and density play in walkability, Kocak said even the most advanced infrastructure means very little without thoughtful land use and the availability of amenities.

“If you have destinations where people want to go, where it's easy to get to a bus station or train station, that makes [them] more likely to want to use it,” Kocak said. “A lot of Hennepin County is built out already … [so we’re] trying to create transit-oriented development, focusing on higher-density development around train stations … which then supports more people riding those trains.”

Thankfully, overhauling transit systems and restructuring roads and intersections are not prerequisites for increasing an area’s walkability. Change can start at the neighborhood level. That is what Ellis and her team in Toledo have focused on.

In March 2022, the Toledo Design Collective developed a plan to revitalize six blocks of Toledo’s Junction neighborhood. After closely examining those six blocks, plans were made to address vacant lots, repair crumbling sidewalks and install street lamps. The plan also included the development of a business corridor where amenities can, according to Ellis, “piggyback” off of one another and encourage foot traffic.

“My thing is trying to encourage people that there’s more out there,” she said. “There’s more to see when you’re walking it versus driving.”

Logan Sander contributed reporting to this article.


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