How long has it been since you walked to the grocery store? We fret about being overweight, yet in Prior Lake, and most suburbs, it’s difficult to get to the grocery store, or anywhere for that matter, without jumping in a car that burns gas, not calories.
It’s sad and ironic that walking is considered recreation and not a routine part of our everyday lives. We obsess about exercise and keeping fit, yet we have to drive to the gym to work out.
My grandparents kept fit and trim and lived almost 90 years but never saw the inside of a gym or a health club. They walked with a purpose. Their home was on West Minnehaha in St. Paul, a block east of Fairview Avenue. There was a small grocery store on the corner that they’d visit every day. A couple of times a week they’d walk to Snelling and Minnehaha to the butcher shop, or the fruit and vegetable market, or the bakery. When I stayed with them, my grandfather and I often walked to the Hamline library with a stop at the drug store at Snelling and Minnehaha so he could buy the New York and Chicago newspapers. If it was very cold, or for a special treat, he’d spend a dime and we’d take the Hamline-Cherokee streetcar. It ran by their front door every 10 minutes.
I was told that grandfather bought his first automobile, a Model T, around 1920, but by the late ‘40s, when I was growing up, he’d given up on the automobile, and they used streetcars to get around. The service was frequent and they ran everywhere. They owned a car, but it rarely got out of the garage.
My wife and I lived in southwest Minneapolis for 20 years. Lake Harriet was close by, and we’d walk to the lake for a band concert or to the Boulevard or Edina Theatre for a movie, or to the library at 53rd and Lyndale, or our neighborhood hardware store at 54th and Penn. Distance wasn’t a problem. The leafy neighborhoods with their 1920s homes and the walking and bike paths along Minnehaha Creek were quiet and beautiful.
The difference between city and suburb is that 19th-century cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul were planned and built around people and streetcars. Twentieth and 21st-century suburbs like Prior Lake are scaled around automobiles with distances and destinations measured in miles, not city blocks. You can’t go from one place to another except by car.
Case in point, downtown Prior Lake and the nearby South Lake Village Shopping Center are about a half-mile apart. Yet there is no direct pedestrian or bike path between the two except the shoulder along busy Highway 13, or a sidewalk that parallels Duluth Avenue, a block away from downtown. Neither route is direct, and both require crossing busy Highway 13 and County Road 21. Only Highway 13 has signaled intersections.
There has been an off-and-on debate, and several studies, about closing Main Avenue at County Road 21 and extending Arcadia Avenue from downtown through an environmentally sensitive wetland and the former Digger’s property to an intersection with Highway 13 near the South Lake Village Shopping Center. Two years ago there were discussions between a developer and the city about building the road extension and putting a drug store on the Digger’s site — presumably with a large parking lot that would drain into and pollute and destroy the wetland. Nowhere in the studies, or the discussions, was there any consideration of building pedestrian and bike trails, protecting and preserving the wetlands, and doing an environmentally friendly and sustainable development project on the Digger’s site. It was all about cars and asphalt and despoiling a natural setting with more sprawled development.
Fortunately, it didn’t happen. The city, the county and MNDOT are now taking a fresh look at downtown traffic circulation. Hopefully, the outcome is scaled around people and businesses and has a strong pedestrian and bike component along with a system of trails that separate cars and people.
Prior Lake has an excellent system of walking paths in and around its park system, but they don’t offer meaningful connectivity to all parts of the city. It needs to do more. Promoting walking and biking as transportation, not just recreation, will make all of us healthier. We need good roads to get around by car, but we also need improved walking trails and bikeways to connect neighborhoods with commercial areas and businesses. It’s all part of sustainable development.