03/26/13

Biking and Walking Beginning to Take Off as a Transportation Option in Twin Cities SuburbsBiking and Walking Beginning to Take Off as a Transportation Option in Twin Cities Suburbs

By Jay Walljasper

Josh Sprague grew up near the Cedar Lake Trail, where walking and biking were a natural part of life. In 2006, he moved to Edina for its family-friendly qualities, which he knew well as a realtor selling homes there. He loved his new neighborhood except for one thing: it was harrowing for him and his young children to cross 70th Street on the way to Arneson Acres Park.

"That's what got me involved in the community," Sprague explains, "and propelled me to the city council. 70th Street was like the wild, wild west before we did something about it."

What Sprague and a group of neighbors did was convince the city of Edina to reign in speeders on the street. This was accomplished with a road diet-converting the 4-lane street to 3-lanes with alternating left turn lanes to keep traffic moving smoothly. Bike lanes were also added, not only provide better access for two-wheel travelers but to calm vehicle traffic, making it simpler and safer for Sprague, his four kids, and everyone else in the neighborhood to walk.

Edina is at the forefront of a trend throughout the metropolitan area to make suburbs-once seen as auto-only zones-better places to walk and bike. From Crystal to Roseville to Richfield, projects are popping up to give people more options beyond driving to get around. Steve Elkins, transportation chair of the Metropolitan Council and former Bloomington City Council member, says, "We're to the point where the Met Council is going to study all the local bike plans to do a metro bike plan, where we help connect the bike lanes between cities."

Elkins credits Bike Walk Twin Cities (BWTC) for boosting these trends through its financial and technical support for bicycle and pedestrian improvements in Twin Cities suburbs. A program of Transit for Livable Communities, BWTC administers a $25 million federal grant to find strategies for increasing bicycling and walking as a means of transportation-of getting around, whether to work or for other trips. A number of their recent projects and partnerships showcase the potential for biking and walking in the suburbs:

*On-road new bike lanes and separated pedestrian walkways along Fairview Avenue in Falcon Heights and Roseville connecting the University of Minnesota-St. Paul campus to the Rosedale shopping center. Connecting on-street bike lanes have also been added to Larpenteur Avenue.

"It's quite successful-I've seen a lot more people biking and walking," says Falcon Heights mayor Peter Lindstrom, who led his city to adopt Complete Streets legislation-a commitment to creating safe and accessible road conditions for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists and motorists. (St. Louis Park, New Hope, North Saint Paul, Eagan, and Bloomington as well as Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota have adopted similar measures.)

*A road diet with bike lanes and reduced speed limits running for more than 3 miles on Douglas Drive through Crystal and Golden Valley, near the Luce Line trail.

* Transforming Fridley's Main Street to a "Complete Street" by narrowing travel lanes to add bike lanes and filling a gap in the sidewalk network on provide safe and convenient access for people to walk and bike to the North Star Line train station, which is planned for this summer.

*Paying for a study that paved the way for a road diet on Portland Avenue in Richfield from 66th to 75th Street, leading to a cross-town bikeway on 75th and 76th streets. The community also hosted an Open Streets event last fall where Penn Avenue was shut to traffic for part of a day, bringing 7000 people into the streets. David Gepner, who runs a car leasing business and chaired the city's bike force, points out that Richfield has a long history of bicycling. Two of the metro area's biggest bike dealers, Penn Cycle and Erik's, both started there.

Edina is the leader among Twin Cities suburbs in creating new opportunities for people to walk and bike for fun, exercise, and transportation. With help from Josh Sprague and other city council members, Bike Walk Twin Cities helped create connecting bike facilities on Wooddale Avenue, Valley View Avenue, and 54th Street, which might soon connect to the bike lanes on 70th Street and Antrim Road. "It's looking like a network now, not just disparate projects," says Sprague.

One stretch of these new bikeways, completed last fall, ignited community discussion. Residents did not want to lose parking on Wooddale Avenue, so "advisory bike lanes," a relatively recent innovation from Europe where a dotted line marks space on the roadway shared by bicyclists and motorists, were installed. This confused some drivers, which Sprague sees as a sign that further education about advisory lanes is needed. But, he notes, "there have been no incidents that would tell us we need to stop the experiment."

"I know not everyone wants to bike," Sprague acknowledges. But he believes bike lanes benefit them too. "It makes a calmer street when you walk and drive. People spend time in their front yards again. It makes the street civilized." Those are reasons Edina recently passed a franchise fee on utility bills to finance further bike and sidewalk improvements.

At 41, Sprague is the youngest member of the Edina City Council and sees biking and walking as crucial to the city's future. As a real estate agent, he is keenly aware of what today's homebuyers are seeking in a community. "Young families want a place that's walkable and bikeable. And it's not just about transportation, it's about health and wellness, a sense of community, the chance talk to your neighbors, the feeling of living in a town, not an anonymous existence."

Steve Clark, Bicycling and Walking Program Manager for Bike Walk Twin Cities, foresees a transformation of suburban life throughout the region. "More and more, in the first ring suburbs and beyond, people want more choices. They don't want to drive all the time. "

Jay Walljasper writes and speaks frequently about how to create better communities. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com.

 

Update: On March 19, the Edina City Council voted to pursue a variance to modify the existing bike facilities on the section of Wooddale Avenue between 50th Street and Valley View Road. The vote includes a plan to remove the BWTC-funded advisory bike lanes currently in place and repaint the street's center stripe, and install a dedicated, southbound bike lane between 50th and 56th streets and sharrows on the remaining portions of Wooddale Avenue. The advisory lanes with no center stripe received mixed reviews from community members. Although the agreed upon evaluation is not yet complete, preliminary data suggests that crashes (for all road users) as well as traffic speeds have fallen since the treatment was implemented last fall.

Updated 3-27-13.