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Group seeks more walkable Duluth

Pedestrians cross Woodland Avenue from the University of Minnesota Duluth to the Shops at Bluestone last week. The crossing leads to a trail into the University of Minnesota Duluth campus and is an example of making Duluth more pedestrian-friendly, says James Gittemeier of the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council. (Clint Austin / / 3
Between 800 and 1,000 people use the crosswalk connecting the Shops at BlueStone to the UMD campus daily, according to counts taken by the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council. (Clint Austin / / 3
A lone pedestrian heads in the direction of the University of Minnesota Duluth as others cross toward the Shops at BlueStone last week. A group of Duluthians who attended a seminar in Georgia this month hope to find more ways to make walking and biking to destinations appealing. (Clint Austin / / 3

James Gittemeier sees the future at a particular point on Woodland Avenue.

"When we counted it, it's eight hundred to a thousand people a day are walking on that trail going to destinations," said Gittemeier, principal planner for the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council.

He was talking about the pedestrian foot path from the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth to the BlueStone housing and retail development. A well-marked crosswalk, controlled by traffic signals, bridges heavily traveled Woodland Avenue to connect the two where a drive enters the shopping area.

To be successful, the BlueStone development needed more than the traffic on Woodland Avenue, Gittemeier said; it needed the UMD population. That happened, but not in the conventional way.

"In the old paradigm they would have said we absolutely need a road going to UMD because we need people to drive from those apartments and those businesses into UMD and back," he said. "(Instead), the design is about people biking and walking between those two."

It's a microcosm of what Gittemeier and a group representing the city, public health and nonprofit agencies envision as the desired future across Duluth.

"We are returning to a way where we're planning our neighborhoods and our communities and our cities for people instead of for people in cars," said Russell Habermann of the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission.

Habermann, Gittemeier and four other people formed the Duluth team attending the "Walkability Action Institute" earlier this month in Decatur, Ga. The group was one of 10 chosen through a competitive grant application process for the institute, which was hosted by the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors.

All six already were enthused about seeking a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly community. They came back, they said in recent interviews, with a greater understanding of what's needed and specific ideas of how to get the job done.

It's certainly not a new idea. The Duluth City Council in 2010 passed a "complete streets" resolution noting that "automobile, pedestrian, transit and bicycle connectivity are all part of Duluth's goal of having an interconnected transportation system" and resolving that all aspects be taken into account in any future street construction or reconstruction.

But proposals to include pedestrian and/or bicycle amenities have met resistance:

  • In 2011, 26 neighbors signed a petition opposing a boulevard sidewalk in the reconstruction of Glenwood Street, advocating instead for a sidewalk abutting the curb. Gittemeier argued that sidewalks such as the latter often are left covered by snow and ice after city snow plows pass through. On a 5-4 vote, the council stuck with the boulevard sidewalk plan.
  • In 2015, the City Council rejected a proposal to include protected bike lanes in the reconstruction of Superior Street on a 6-2 vote and opted for a protected two-way lane on Michigan Street or First Street instead. Commuter bicyclists enthusiastically supported the bike lanes on Superior Street, but business interests, led by the Chamber of Commerce, were vehemently opposed — in part because of a potential reduction of on-street parking.

City Councilor Elissa Hansen, the only elected official in the group that went to Georgia, said the workshop sparked ideas of putting teeth into the complete streets resolution.

"The resolution ... called for putting together an ordinance over time," Hansen said. "That never happened. Resolutions are resolutions. They're not policies. They're not ordinances."

Working with city administration and staff, Hansen is preparing to submit three ordinances that will encompass a "transportation for all" policy, she said. That means not only all modes of transportation but all abilities, including those who are differently abled.

Decatur wasn't an accidental choice as the institute's location. The small city in the heart of the Atlanta metropolitan area is known as a pedestrian-friendly community.

"When we were in Decatur, it was hard not to get out every night because you could walk everywhere," said Josh Gorham, a St. Louis County public health nurse. "It was a great experience because there's trees and wide sidewalks and painted crosswalks and public art and storefronts."

That was by design, said Hugh Saxon, Decatur deputy city manager, in a telephone interview.

"Over the past 25 years or so ... we've widened sidewalks, increased the amount of pavement devoted to walking and biking and reduced the amount of pavement devoted to the automobile," said Saxon, a city employee since 1977.

Those sorts of decisions require thinking differently about how money is spent, members of the Duluth group said.

"When we make pedestrian decisions and/or bicycling decisions, we're always looking at, well, because we have potholes and all these roads to maintain, we've got to do it as cheaply as we can," Gittemeier said. "That does not give us, necessarily, the greatest return."

Members of the group, which also included John Kelley of the City of Duluth's Planning Department and Shawna Mullen of Zeitgeist Center for Arts and Community, say their goal is to create a more balanced transportation system.

"We certainly need to move cars, but if we can make it more appealing for people to move in other ways ... perhaps we can lessen that demand for automobile use, increase physical activity and ultimately save money and hopefully create a system that serves everyone," Gorham said.