Close roads for more pedestrians

Streets near campus could be pedestrian routes in the future.
By
  • Chris Iverson
April 21, 2014

The increasing number of options to live near the University of Minnesota campus means that more people are in the area at all times. And with more people, there’s more demand for space to live, study, shop, work and eat happily.

Pedestrian and bicycle counts continue to increase, illustrating the increased population in the area. Compared to the 2012-13 academic year, the University noted an increase of more than 1,000 bicycle commuters to campus this year, a 13 percent increase. In an interview with the advocate group Bike Walk Twin Cities, the University of Minnesota Campus Bicycle Coordinator Steve Sander noted large, sometimes double-digit bike and pedestrian percentage increases in the several decades he has been at the University. The percentage of bikes and the percentage of pedestrians on 15th Avenue, north of University Avenue, increased by 68 percent and 35 percent from 2007 and 2013, respectively.

Parallel with this trend is the infrastructure around campus, which caters toward vehicles. Since the 1960s, the University had been a commuter campus with many students driving from outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. According to the Office for Student Affairs, approximately 75 percent of students commute from off campus. The infrastructure in the campus’s proximity historically matched this mode share, with a majority of road space and land use catering toward vehicles. The three one-way traffic lanes on University and Fourth avenues southeast and the large parking lots near TCF Bank Stadium illustrate the continuing desire for vehicle priority.

Recently, this car-centric trend has started to reverse, and in my opinion, this is for the better. Sanders said the University is constantly trying to reduce the single-occupant vehicle mode share from its current 30 percent stake. Taking space away from vehicles is one way to encourage this, and the University has made strides in this regard. The implementation of the Green Line permanently closed off a major vehicle artery in Washington Avenue after construction began. It is difficult to describe the former road situation circa 2011 to a current freshman. What was once a terrifying and painful four-lane highway blockade between the Superblock and the majority of campus is now an amenity for the pedestrians, bikers and bus riders (the somewhat poorly timed stoplights aside). Other non-motorized infrastructures near campus, such as the green bike lanes and greater sidewalk space in Northrop Mall, reaffirm this trend.

As the trend to add space for non-motorized traffic continues, I still see potential for a reduction in vehicle access in a couple commercial areas near campus. These streets contain low enough vehicle traffic that a project wouldn’t disrupt drivers. Creating a non-automobile strip, much like Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, would give more desirable space to walkers, bikers and transit. It would also give the University of Minnesota a competitive stake in commercial-based pedestrian malls, rivaling the likes of State Street in Madison, Wis., Pearl Street in Boulder, Colo., and College Street in Iowa City, Iowa.

Stadium Village ped mall

Currently, the Washington Avenue pedestrian mall stretches from Pleasant Avenue near Coffman Union to Walnut Street. Since Washington Avenue closed, most businesses between Harvard Street and Walnut Street have stayed open and reaped the benefits of the local population boom, even with the Washington closure. Extending this pedestrian mall all the way to the Huron Street and University Avenue triangle intersection near the WaHu apartment construction would create a unique, relaxing and attractive space for all visitors.

Currently, only two vehicle lanes, one for each direction, traverse along Washington Avenue. All businesses in this stretch would still have delivery access through alleyways or through the cross streets on Oak Street and Ontario Street. Since the Green Line chokes pavement space through the roadway, there is no on-street parking. Closing the road to vehicles would not affect parking. Of all the places near campus, I find the closure of Washington Avenue the most attractive option.

Dinkytown ped mall

The density of hockey fans that caused the riots earlier this month was a sign that there isn’t enough space for pedestrians in the area. Closing 14th Avenue Southeast between Fourth and Fifth streets could help alleviate the lack of walkable space. This specific block does not carry large amounts of rush hour traffic, unlike the one between University Avenue and Fourth Street. This block also contains many storefronts that could warrant a pedestrian-only space.

The biggest issue through this block is the amount of meter parking that would have to go. There are a couple dozen spaces in this block alone, so attempting to remove vehicle access to this block would be a tough, politically unfeasible sell.

As space for vehicles consolidates to major arterials, the University community should continue its progressive approach and create beautiful spaces that the increasing pedestrian and biking population will be able to luxuriate. Shifting these blocks to pedestrian-only spaces would be a vital landmark in that movement.

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