Feet First asks neighbors to ‘Shovel It Forward’

Alex Bowen (l) and Abigail Johnson are launching Feet First.
Alex Bowen (l) and Abigail Johnson are launching Feet First.

A couple of fast-walking former New Yorkers experienced commuter culture shock upon returning home to the Wedge. They noticed people here hopped in cars by default, even for short distances. Drivers making a turn didn’t always look for pedestrians, especially with fewer walkers in the crosswalks. Traffic lights seemed timed to favor vehicles, rather than shivering pedestrians.

A 2017 pedestrian crash study caught their attention. They were shocked to learn six of the city’s 10 intersections with the most crashes lie within the Wedge, Whittier, Lyndale and South Uptown (formerly CARAG) neighborhoods.

2017 Pedestrian Crash Study-page-028
Image courtesy City of Minneapolis

So Alex Bowen and Abigail Johnson decided to do something about it.

“Anything within a two-mile radius, we bike and walk first,” Johnson said. “The car is a last resort.”

The Feet First initiative aims to promote walkable, safe and interesting neighborhoods, starting with a campaign to #ShovelItForward. While the city is stepping up enforcement of laws to shovel 24 hours after it stops snowing, Feet First would like to see neighbors take the friendlier step of helping each other shovel out.

“If the streets aren’t clear, people won’t walk,” Johnson said. “Do the neighborly thing and get out there and shovel.”

By emailing feetfirstmpls@gmail.com, residents of Lowry Hill East (the Wedge) can volunteer to help shovel, access a shovel, or find help for a neighbor.

Minneapolis staff recently explored the cost to shovel all of the city’s 1,800 miles of sidewalks. But staff recommended against it after seeing the price tag. The annual cost to plow the sidewalks could range from about $4.5 million to plow four-inch snowfalls (typical for a snow emergency), up to $20 million for continuous service. Instead this winter city staff will conduct inspections, issue warnings and follow up with $149 fines if the sidewalk still isn’t shoveled.

Aside from shoveling, Feet First is promoting a new social media campaign called #FeetFirstMpls, which encourages people to walk and take photos with the hashtag to become eligible for giveaways.

Feet First _3

The founders of Feet First, a committee within the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, have a lot of other ideas: Street art to slow traffic, business discounts for walkers and bikers, letter-writing campaigns, pedestrian maps to find bike racks and Little Free Libraries, or challenges to commute without a car once a week all summer. Wayfinding signage could suggest the lake is a 15-minute walk, rather than a one-mile distance. Bowen and Johnson have reached out to South Uptown, Whittier and Lyndale neighborhood groups for potential collaboration.

To generate more ideas, Feet First’s kickoff open house is Feb. 23 from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. at The Wedge Table with food, a kids’ table, volunteer info and a corner for brainstorming the future of neighborhood streets.

Bowen and Johnson figure that Lowry Hill East is the perfect guinea pig for new ideas, where access to jobs, healthy food, parks and retail are steps away. According to Wilder Research, nearly 19 percent of households in the neighborhood don’t have a car. And 31 percent either work from home or commute via transit, walking or biking.

“By choice, I don’t have a car,” Johnson said.

Walking and biking is up citywide, and it’s increasing fastest in places where the population is growing fastest, according to city counts.

Across the city, streets are gradually changing to align with a “Complete Streets” strategy to prioritize pedestrians. Hennepin Avenue’s recent reconstruction widened the sidewalk between Lake and 31st by six feet on average, adding bike lanes and a mid-block crossing. City staff designed a 24th Street bikeway from Hennepin to 3rd Avenue, and staff expect to convert a Blaisdell Avenue bike lane into a protected bikeway between Franklin and 29th Street in 2019. Reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue from Douglas to Lake Street is slated for 2023, and reconstruction of Girard between Lake and Lagoon is slated for 2020. Hennepin County staff expect to overhaul the Lake & Excelsior intersection this year. As part of the 35W project, Lake Street reconstruction from Blaisdell to 5th avenue may yield narrower lanes, wider sidewalks and bump-outs at intersections.

2017 Pedestrian Crash Study-page-054Most Minneapolis pedestrian crashes happen during the evening commute, peaking on Fridays, according to the city. About half of pedestrian crashes involve turning vehicles, most often left turns, and often when the pedestrian and vehicle were traveling in the same direction.

2017 Pedestrian Crash Study-page-040
Information courtesy City of Minneapolis

As a member of the Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory and Vision Zero committees, Johnson said she’s seen research on safety strategies that work, including lower speeds. According to a city report, streets with 25 mile per hour speeds are under-represented in pedestrian crashes, and streets with 30 and 35 mile per hour speeds are over-represented when compared to their share of miles in the city. The city’s long-range “Minneapolis 2040” plan would lower speeds on streets with bike lanes, and pursue a state statute change to allow reduced speed limits. And the city is crafting a “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate crashes and severe injuries on city streets.

But rather than wait for government-led change, Feet First intends to take action now at the community level.

“In the meantime, we can test out ideas,” Bowen said.

The founders of Feet First say there are lots of reasons to promote walking and biking. It builds community by sending people out to meet neighbors. It promotes health and well-being. It helps support local businesses. And it addresses climate change — transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, due to reduced reliance on coal for electricity.

“It’s not an anti-car movement. It’s a getting-out-of-the-car movement,” Johnson said.

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