Hmmm, a week at the Minnesota State Fair? Or a week in Copenhagen, Denmark? Well, clearly for a Minnesotan the logical choice would have been the State Fair! Mini-donuts, animals, and as much people watching as your eyes can take…But when the Knight Foundation asks you to participate in a city tour, with business and civic colleagues from around the United States, you can’t say “no.”
So that’s how I found myself in Denmark for the last week of August, examining such diverse issues as transit, bicycle lanes, pedestrian walk-ways, sustainable development, and innovative public spaces. Guided by the staff at 8-80, who Saint Paul hosted earlier this year, we saw examples of ideas that worked and some that did not.
It is tempting to always rule out solutions by saying “Well, that wouldn’t work here” or “Sure, that works in Denmark, but our system just wouldn’t allow that.” What I got out of this trip is that while challenges in implementation or funding may be very real, the solutions are ones that any city can implement, given the political and civic willpower.
We saw bicycle commuters in levels as high as 56% of the downtown business community. Bicycling was not a lifestyle choice, it was a practical choice given the traffic, the cost of fuel, and the time savings that the commuters enjoyed. And the city was very upfront on how much money bicycle commuters save the city, both in street wear and tear and in the need for parking spaces.
We saw dense urban developments that provided both commercial and residential space, but with plenty of green space opportunities for both groups to take advantage of.
We saw a 21st century transit system tying the airport to the city center with multiple lines radiating out to the suburbs.
And all of this in a winter climate that, while the temperatures may not be as extreme, is certainly cold, dark, and with plenty of time to contemplate why you would live there versus, say….Miami!
So in short I saw a Copenhagen that had a lot to offer Saint Paul and the East Metro. We don’t need to choose one mode over another. All transportation modes have their place and serve important needs. But we do need to be thoughtful about the interconnects we make. Can we make it easy for pedestrians and bicycle commuters to come into downtown Saint Paul? Can we encourage transit use by building a full-fledged transit network? Can we use economic development as a tool to encourage employers to offer transportation options to their workers?
The answer is nuanced, of course. All options have trade-offs, not the least of which is how we pay for them. But I wanted to share with you that I came back energized for the debate, that our public process should yield the greatest benefits, even when that may mean that everyone will not always get everything they want.
You can learn more about the trip here.