June 19--MINNEAPOLIS -- Charlotte's political and business leaders arrived in the Twin Cities on a civic fact-finding mission Wednesday and immediately declared one goal worth emulating: a network of public parks and bikeways so extensive that in one instance, officials deemed it possible to bike across the city faster than driving.
The Charlotte Chamber's annual intercity trip, aimed at finding new solutions for Charlotte's problems, brought about 130 leaders to Minneapolis-St. Paul, including key leaders in city and county government as well as major corporations.
Michael Tarwater, head of Carolinas HealthCare System and this year's chamber chairman, said the Minneapolis region was picked this year because it boasts some of the country's highest rankings on a well-known fitness index.
Minneapolis' bike push
Part of that, Minneapolis officials suggested, has to do with their aggressive expansion of bikeways and parkland. Lisa Bender, a member of the Minneapolis City Council, said the city expanded its bike lanes from 45 miles to 81 from 2011 to 2013.
With 6,400 acres of public parks, she added, no resident is more than six blocks from a park.
She and other local officials credited some of the expansion to a $28 million federal grant for a pilot project aimed at boosting biking and walking. She said the effort has been a success, and showed slides of a 5-mile "bike highway" that runs from one end of the city to the other, parallel to an often-clogged major road.
"You can absolutely cross town faster now on a bicycle than by transit or by driving yourself," said Bender, adding that she bikes to work at City Hall. "It's become really cool. ... Everybody wants to get on the bicycle-riding bandwagon."
Members of the Charlotte delegation tested it out themselves, with City Council members, Mecklenburg commissioners and business executives hopping aboard bikes and Segways for a tour.
Making roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists has long been a sore spot in Charlotte, which has scored poorly on several national studies ranking the walkability of urban areas. There have been high-profile pedestrian deaths in recent years, including the 2012 accident on West Tyvola Road in which two young boys were hit and killed by a delivery truck. Residents lamented the lack of a sidewalk, but more than a year passed -- and the truck driver was convicted -- before Charlotte City Council finally awarded the construction contract for the project in January.
More recently, residents in the booming South End have complained that the pedestrian-friendly development flooding the area hasn't been accompanied by enough pedestrian-oriented safety measures on busy South Boulevard.
Michael Smith, head of Charlotte Center City Partners, applauded the Minneapolis bikeway system and said Charlotte needs to make a similar commitment to accommodate the more urban, pedestrian-oriented growth happening in the city's core.
But City Council member Claire Fallon said she wasn't sure about the Minneapolis approach to bikeways, which Bender said next will include a push to put more bike lanes on existing roads.
"If we did that here, they'd hang us," Fallon said, referring to Charlotte voters.
Earlier in the day, Michael Langley, head of the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership, told the group Minneapolis makes heavy investments in its parks and other civic assets, but residents pay more taxes for the "high-cost, high-quality" approach to city-building.
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