PRAIRIEFORM

Everyday excursions in the urban landscape

Walkable American cities: narrative vs. reality

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There has been much hubub of late in these parts over some recent “most/est” tags Minneapolis has received: best night’s sleep; most well read; fittest; gayest; most bicycle-friendly. To add to the proverbial -est-list is now walkable. While not considered the most walkable, Minneapolis is thought of as quite walkable, with Walk Score ranking it as the ninth most walkable city in the country. And it is true that through certain lenses Minneapolis is walkable: good network of continuous sidewalks, relatively few mega-streets that are impossible to cross, extensive boulevard tree canopy. However, too much of the discussion of walkability centers around the sidewalk itself and whether they are clean, uninterrupted, well-lit, and within a well-connected network. While these are indeed building blocks of a walkable city, they alone don’t induce people to walk. As a result of this limited discussion, we are stuck in a narrative of a city being great and fabulous and walkable because it appears so (i.e. those sidewalks look pretty and nice, and I would walk down them if I felt like it and wasn’t driving to the store right now), not because it actually is. This is particularly problematic when it comes to the real work of crafting policy to genuinely improve walkability in the city, as an examination of the true elements that encourage walking are never explored, and the result is much wishful thinking, self-congratulatory rhetoric, and policy efforts that may not at all increase the number of people walking as a means of transportation.

Minneapolis, like so many American cities, suffers from the simple fact that it is relatively spread out in comparison to cities in other parts of the world. As a result, trips one must make to accomplish everyday tasks – grocery store, hair salon, etc. – are by and large simply too time-consuming for most residents to consider making on foot. And herein lies the problem: it does not matter how clean and uninterrupted the sidewalks are; if the door-to-door time and level of convenience cannot approximate what one could accomplish by car, many people, when given the choice, will simply drive. And this simple fact of distance needs to be discussed and tackled, otherwise we are simply never going to be able to move policy in a meaningful direction towards real and genuine walkability.

Discussion to be continued. For more on the topic, see this article.

John Kamp

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