My Point of View: More needs to be done for walkability, bikeability

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, October 31, 2023

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

A couple weeks ago, I was on Sheridan Street waiting to turn right onto Bridge Avenue in my car, and a woman was standing on the corner holding the hand of a small child wearing a backpack. They intended to cross Bridge, and a string of six drivers in large vehicles did not stop for them. The woman would likely not have felt safe stepping into the street to assert her right-of-way as a pedestrian, and she waited.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

I have previously witnessed several drivers illegally use the turn lane to pass drivers turning right off of Bridge, so I think it was doubly reasonable to use caution.

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My child at Albert Lea High School does not qualify for free busing because we live just under two miles from the school. It’s a perfect distance for biking, and it’s healthy physical exercise, but I only ask him to bike to school in the summer. The bike route is fairly safe except for when he crosses Hammer Road. Many vehicles turn right from northbound Bridge onto eastbound Hammer to get to the school at that time. That type of crossing conflict is one of the major reasons that drivers hit pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s called a “right hook.”

Instead of being anxious about that intersection every morning and every afternoon, especially because my child is still prone to getting lost in his head and not paying attention to his surroundings, I paid $475 for a bus contract this year. I refuse to be his ride service twice a day and contribute to more traffic congestion. If we didn’t have the money he also could have walked nearly four miles a day to and from school.

Sidewalks and bike trails have improved a lot since my husband and I moved to this community 18 years ago, and there is room for so much more improvement.

I have talked with numerous people at the city about making crossings safer, like the busy crossing between Eat’n Ice Cream and New Denmark Park during the summer. Many families with young children walk across Bridge Avenue to enjoy the lake while eating their treats. Last month I saw a man in the nearest crosswalk narrowly avoid getting hit by a driver who recklessly passed on the right around a car turning left.

There should be more visual cues for drivers to slow down in that area for pedestrians. Instead it’s pretty much wide open.

Driving in town is quite safe for people inside of cars, but outside of cars is another matter. We’ve lost two kids in this city in the past seven years to car/bike crashes, and a number of bicyclists and pedestrians have been injured. Parental vigilance can only go so far, vehicles maim adults too, and many, many close calls are happening.

In 2021, over 7000 pedestrians and over 900 bicyclists were killed in crashes with vehicles across the nation. Together this represents about 20% of the total number of people killed in car crashes that year. These deaths have been increasing for more than a decade and are both at 40-year highs.

How do we fix this situation so that adults and kids outside of cars in town can be safe, too?

Better street design, better signage, better lighting, etc, are really important. There are many good ideas already in use elsewhere that we could adopt here — narrower traffic lanes, pedestrian refuges, raised pedestrian crossings, roundabouts, pedestrian-only green lights, no right turn on red, more protected bike lanes, etc.

Even if drivers are not necessarily looking out for pedestrians as they should, reducing traffic speeds by means of road design is much safer for people outside of cars.

We could also be asking our elected leaders at the state and federal level to make grants available for more bike and pedestrian path projects rather than endless highway expansions that subsidize inefficient sprawl. “One more lane” thinking for cars drains resources away from downtowns, which generate the most tax value per acre. Instead we should be investing in making our downtown an easier destination to walk and bike to.

Walkability and bikeability are a big part of making a place an attractive place to live. I saw hundreds of people walking and biking around town this past summer, and it’s a sign of a vibrant and healthy community. It creates more interaction, builds community spaces, and reduces isolation. It’s a way to be less dependent on fossil fuels and expensive vehicles, and to get more exercise. Wins all around.

Albert Lea’s quality of life is better when we have these options, and people will choose to do it more often as they perceive that it is safe and easy to do. Our kids should also be free to get around and explore our town on their bikes safely.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.