Walkability for ‘real Americans’

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It’s common in autocentric polemics to dismiss walkability as a plaything of chic-chic urban elitists, having nothing to do with real Americans’ modes of (motorized) living. As usual, this kind of ad hominem attack is but a lame attempt to mask the weakness of the fundamental argument.

In fact, walking is the most basic form of human transportation, and promoting it with appropriate infrastructure and community planning can lead to healthful, efficient and economical social change. In cities large and small, street work for both driving and non-motorized uses is funded mainly by general property taxes, not automobile user fees such as fuel taxes.

So why shouldn’t public policy pivot to support of walking amenities, neglected for decades in favor of right-of-way designed and regulated mostly for motor vehicles? It turns out this is exactly what is happening in many places far from the habitats of the hip and rich.

Two recent examples come from southern Minnesota corn country, Albert Lea and Mankato. Another is from cities all over Texas, widely known as an oil-glutted epicenter of conservative car culture.

Albert Lea has made “important improvements to the city’s streets,” according to a recent study of complete streets policies and implementation by Carissa Schively Slotterback and Cindy Zerger of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Under “an innovative project called the Blue Zones City Health Makeover,” they wrote, “many residents see Albert Lea’s streets as important places to encourage community connections and active living.”

The initiative has produced more than four miles of new sidewalks, traffic calming on arterial Front Street and Albert Lea’s first bicycle lanes. Planning to improve Broadway Avenue with pedestrian-friendly corner bump-outs, dropped curbs and decorative walkways is underway.

Mankato’s Front Street, once bustling with streetcar and foot traffic, had devolved into a desolate “stroad” — a street-road hybrid that did a lousy of job of either function. Now, according to Matthias Leyrer in streets.mn blog, the city has committed $1.3 million to redeveloping it with wider, tree-shaded sidewalks, bump-outs and traffic calming. Support from local merchants was key to launching the project, Leyrer reports.

And in the Lone Star State, walkability is bustin’ out all over, according to the Texas Tribune. The article features a five-acre platform park built over an eight-lane freeway to connect downtown Dallas and its Uptown neighborhood.

“The bustling patch of urban parkland may seem unlikely in a state still largely seen as a sprawling, highway-laced land of car-centric cities and dispersed suburbs,” writes reporter David Muto. “But … interest in making Texas cities more walkable … is on the rise — a subtle shift spurred in part by changing demographics and the state’s growing population.”

The article also notes pro-pedestrian developments in Dallas suburbs as well as in Austin, Fort Worth, Houston and its major suburbs and San Antonio. It’s even happening in El Paso, a sun-baked slice of Middle America where Muto notes that the city planning department “offers courses on New Urbanism to city officials, staff members and the private sector.”

If walkability is catching on in conservative Texas and southern Minnesota, its time on the fringe of American culture is all but over. It’s mainstream now, and we’re all better off because of it.