Sidewalk Lessons from the Minnesota State Fair

The State Fair is over and there's nothing left other than the memories, vats of cooking oil, trucks full of trash, manure pits, and caloric surpluses. I try to go to the Fair once a year, simply because it's such a different experience than the usual Twin Cities sidewalk fare.

And there are lots of things about the Fair that would be good lessons for Twin Cities' sidewalks seeking to up their game. Here are three of them:

#1: Parking should be expensive, buses should be cheap

Mode share numbers for the State Fair are about the highest for anything in Minnesota, just south of 50% for transit. (Bicycling is another story.)

What if sporting events, universities, and our downtowns had similar numbers? How does the fair do it?

It's pretty simple really. Buses are very cheap (park and rides are free!) and are conveniently located, placed front and center for fair-goers. (Watching the one-year-old bus Transit Hub in operation is a planners' dream.) Meanwhile, parking and driving is an expensive pain in the ass.

And that's as it should be. If our cities want to increase transit mode share (and with all the ancillary benefits they certainly should), we need to make transit cheap and easy, and driving expensive and inconvenient. It's that simple.

#2: Make the streets attractive

If it's such an annoyance to get to the fair, why do so many people continue to go every year?

The people watching, street food, and sidewalk strolling experience of the fairgrounds is unparalleled in Minnesota.

Maybe someone with a pedometer can tell me, because I'd love to know the average distance that people walk during a day at the fair. I bet it's many miles, and the reason is simple: walking around the fair is a non-stop delight. There's always something more to see, more weird families to gape at, another booth coming your way. Even machinery hill (which is the closest that the Fair comes to having a surface parking lot) is kind of interesting, scattered with Pronto Pup booths, old 'hit-and-miss' engines.

If you design a compelling experience, and make sure that your streets don't miss a beat, people will endure all manner of parking or transit "hardships" to get there. If downtown streets were more like the Fair, and less like the strip mall, we'd find ourselves walking more, and our cities would thrive.

#3: All-day activities

Unlike many of our downtown streets, there's an all-day rhythm to the State Fair. Early in the morning, the Fair hums with animal husbandry, egg coffee, and the reclusive church dining halls. In the middle of the day, the fair's streets start to peak, as beer begins to lubricate the crowds and the heat of the day encourages folks to find shelter. And into the evening, the Fair shifts timbre and intensity as concerts echo into the air and fireworks light the sky. The late-night fair has a defiant vibe, with brave vendors lingering around and a decidedly different demographic.

And the fair sleeps for only a few hours before starting up again, with a new set of cattle, families, sleepy 4-H kids, and city revelers. Our downtowns can learn from this. We need to make sure we mix up our offices, retail, and revelry areas to ensure that our sidewalks keep a plus all through the day.

If our downtowns and commercial hot spots were even half as happening as the Fairgrounds, our Twin Cities' sidewalks would become irresistible.

[Below: some urban highlights from the State Fair arts show.]


Gary Horn said...

I'd like to know the name of the artist for that Robert Street artwork.

Bill Lindeke said...

Don C. Dickinson, of St. Paul.