My TEDxMinneapolis Sidewalk Talk is On the Air!

This August, I was one of the speakers at TEDxMinneapolis’ annual big show, giving a talk on sidewalks. I’m happy with how it turned out and grateful to the (volunteer) team at TEDxMinneapolis for believing in me and greatly helping shape the talk. I’m also indebted to my friends who gave me crucial feedback. Thank you! 

One of the tricks to putting a talk like this together is making it seem like it’s off the cuff, minimizing the work involved. But in reality, it was a lot of work. I began meeting with my three-person TEDxMinneapolis team back in May, for hour-long sessions where we’d go over ideas, I’d give draft versions, get feedback, and we’d discuss ways to change it. Admittedly, there’s kind of a “formula” for TED talks — personal story, big problem, a-ha moment, pivot to change narrative, maybe some jokes — but it’s a broad formula, kind of like the scientific method meets a thirty-minute sitcom. TED talks can be done well or poorly, and can head in lots of different directions.

When I was researching my talk, and refining the topic, I googled around to find and, to be honest, didn’t find all that much. There’s a good one from Regina, Saskatchewan about kids walking to school, another about having “walking meetings” at work, and there’s a kid from Colorado describing a thousand-mile walking journey. But nothing out there really focuses on the material role that urban design plays in making walking possible, nothing really got at the role of sidewalks and cities in shaping our more personal behavior. 

Delicate Balance

[One of the only two "selfies" I've ever taken.]
One of the ways that the TEDxMinneapolis team really helped me was in reinforcing the idea of balancing a message to make it broadly appealing. For example, the balance between positive stories and negative criticism was an initial focus with this blog, where I wanted to include lots of stories about how great walking can be in the Twin Cities alongside critical analyses of why our streets need improvement. Thus the somewhat-long-lived "sidewalk of the week" feature and all the fun photographs, alongside my usual ranting and sometimes pointed sarcasm.

Getting that balance right is difficult, and it's something the TED people think about carefully. Nobody wants to be lectured about how irresponsible or horrible the world is. People don't respond well to facts and charts lacking personal narratives, or the classic lectures parodied in (the horrible propaganda film) Ferris Bueller.

With lots of help from my consulting team, the talk tries to be carefully balanced between negative and positive tone, personal stories and abstract information, points about the magnitude of the problem balanced with achievable "call to action"-type aims and ends. That's something all of us should think about, and this was a great experience in creating an effective narrative.

Thinking About Audience

The other big thing you realize when doing a TED-type talk is the importance of thinking past your usual audiences. When you start becoming obsessed with a subject, no matter what it is, you can easily become swallowed up bye by the depth of your passion, becoming more narrowly focused on finely-honed concepts or language. As you do this, your audience inevitably both contracts and intensifies, and that's part of the fun of both academia and the internet.

But that kind of distillation of conversation can quickly become an echo chamber with less and less political efficacy. Thinking through a TED-type lens forces you to think about new audiences, people who might have never thought much about sidewalks, urban design, or walking in the first place. That's a very useful exercise for anyone who wants to translate ideas into action, and also a great exercise, in general, for getting out of personal or theoretical ruts.

It's also just kinda fun to memorize a twenty-minute speech, prepare in a "green room" and perform before a large audience who laughs at your jokes. So thanks again to my excellent TEDxMinneapolis team, especially Jasmine, Dustin, and Megan, all the people who came to my practice talk and gave me feedback, and my friends and family to attended the big show.



Twin City Sidewalk Vendors #4

[West Side, Saint Paul.]


 [Selby-Dale, Saint Paul.]

 [Location forgotten.]

 [West 7th Street, Saint Paul.]
 [Somewhere near Lake Minnetonka.]

  [Somewhere near Lake Minnetonka.]

[Chicago, IL.]

Twin City Message Boards #13

[Southwestern Wisconsin.]

 [Southwestern Wisconsin.]

[Downtown, Minneapolis.]

[Railroad Island, Saint Paul.]

 [Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis.]

[Cambidge, MA.]

[Salem, MA.]

[Chicago, IL.]


*** 25 Weekend Sidewalk Links! ***

Sidewalk Rating: Brisk

I was sitting on the bus on my way home one day. I was listening to some good music in my headphones. It was a cloudless autumn day and everything was a healthy yellow and orange color and blue sky. At a stop a african man and a young boy, maybe 5-6 years, got on. The man was tall and had bad clothes, he looked like he did not have much. They sat in front of me. I immediately became annoyed and started to think about how I hated them, fucking immigrants coming to my country, he is poor and I pay taxes so he can get welfare. I thought about how his son is going to become a lousy shit and rape white women. I started to get mad and decided to beat him up, I was going to follow him when he got off the bus.
I saw him press the button and got ready at the next stop, and just before we stopped I was about to get up and the man turned to his son and said something in a heavy accent that I will never forget in my life.
“I love you my son, be good.”
He then gave him a big, hard hug and the boy got off the bus alone. He waved good bye and sat back down, with his hands on his face. I just stared out the window where his son had been standing. My world view came crashing. He was just a father who wanted his son to be good, he loved him just like my father loved me. For some reason this changed everything for me. I know this is a very small thing but I started to think about how he wanted a better life for his son. He was a man that had changed everything for his family.
I sat on that bus for hours, it kept going around. I thought about how wrong it was to do the things I had done. I left that city the next day and started over. I am much happier now. I don't feel the hate in my heart every day anymore.
[A "desire path" by the State Capitol.]



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Detour Signs: Mostly Thoughtless, Sometimes Painful

[The High Bridge, lit and lurking on the horizon.]
Heading home the other day, I was riding my bicycle across the High Bridge, which rises at a steep angle for half-mile over one hundred feet over the Mississippi. I live on the top of the river bluffs on Saint Paul’s West Side, and so my home stretch climb is inevitable.

When I moved to the neighborhood, three years ago, the bridge relentlessly stalked my horizons. The thought of crossing filled me with classic bike dread, and sometimes I’d go out of my way to avoid it, heading to the less dramatic downtown river crossings. But then much of the time, I would turn down Cliff Road to the base of the bridge, aiming my tires up the incline and climbing to my inevitable fate.   

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at scaling the bridge, developing a few tricks to lessen the psychic burden of the steep half-mile. Sometimes, I count my breathing, each breath a number on the way upwards. I typically get to 70 or 80 deep breaths before I reach the summit, and somehow that makes it more manageable. On other ascents, I put my head down and stare at the cement slowly moving underneath my front wheel, a classic hill-climbing trick I learned on the bluffs of the Wisconsin driftless. Gazing at the distant hilltop only makes it seem farther away, and it's far better to focus solely on the pavement in front of you and to lose yourself in labor. 

This is what I was doing the other night. My hat brim pointed downwards at the concrete of the High Bridge's bike lane, ascending like a doorstop to the top of the bluff. With an occasional glance left or right to take in the downtown skyline or the wide Mississsippi valley to the West I relentlessly pedaled, getting into a mute rhythm. It was going well, the slow steady pace, and as I gazed down, I knew that soon enough enough I’d reach the top and almost home.



Simultaneously, the top of my head and my front tire collided with a piece of metal.

"Fuck!" I yelled out into the empty air, high over the river, suddenly halted. 

I raised my eyes. I had ridden directly into a large orange sign sitting in the bike lane. 

DETOUR AHEAD, read the sign.

I stood stunned. For half a minute, my nose inches from the reflective black-on-orange message, my brain basically stopped. The sign was a diamond roughly 3’ square. I stared at it. It was made from thin metal that made a distinct low sound when you slammed it with the top of your head.

“Who put this here?” was my only thought.

[Similar situation on Fairview Avenue. I saw this one though.]
It’s not often that you ride a bike straight into a large object. My head down, staring at the ground, I hadn't been looking up, hadn't even seen the sign, despite the fact that it took up up the entirety of the 6’ bike lane. My only saving grace is that, climbing up the bridge, I had been going slowly, maybe 5 miles per hour.

"Fuck!" I said out loud again, a bit less loudly, bicycle Tourette's. I straddled my bike for a few more seconds before awkwardly moving around the sign, defeated by a dumb object.

Up ahead, there were some cones off to the right. The right-turn lane to Cherokee Avenue was closed. 

“Whoop-dee-doo,” I thought as I slowly rode by, taking a moment to silently curse whichever Public Works employee had deposited the sign in the bike lane earlier that day.

I suppose it wasn’t anyone’s fault but mine. What kind of person doesn’t look up at where they’re going? Who would fail to see a bright orange 4’ sign directly ahead on a straight-as-an-arrow roadway?

The answer is, of course, me. Construction detours are invariably designed for cars and their drivers. I can count on one hand the number of times more than a moment's thought was given to bicyclists when these signs and detours are installed in Saint Paul. (Maybe that's beginning to change, but not quickly...) The almost willful ignorance of active transportation goes doubly for people on foot. Construction detours rarely offer any accommodation, simply “closing” the sidewalk willy-nilly and forcing people to fend for themselves.

This is exactly what happened in Edina last week, when a black man named Larnie Thomas was walking up Xerxes Avenue and came across a detour that closed the sidewalk. Like the vast majority of people trying to get around the Twin Cities’ barely-walkable suburbs, he took the most direct option and trudged along listening to music. That's when he caught the eye of a police officer driving past.

The rest of the encounter with the cop is your typical racist policing, surely made worse by the fact that Edina is one of the most historically segregated cities in the metro. But the whole thing could have been prevented if the Edina Public Works policies had called for legitimate pedestrian detours that didn’t force people to walk in the street in the first place.

The story reminds me of Trayvon Martin, where the lack of sidewalks in so many parts of Florida forces anyone not driving a car to “trespass” along all kinds of boulevard desire paths. Too much of the time, our built environment treats anyone outside of a car like an alien, a willful ignorance that epitomizes structural racism. Police profiling combined with unequal access to mobility and a landscape that privileges drivers is bad enough; detours that throw people off the streets and force them to fend for themselves is fuel on the fire.

[Another thoughtless "closed" sign on a Saint Paul bridge.]
I’m not sure what could have prevented me from riding my bike directly into a large orange DETOUR sign. Maybe smaller cones placed in the lane ahead of the sign might have helped. I’m sure it's next-to-impossible for a Public Works’ employee, even one used to riding a bicycle, to predict that someone would put their head down and climb up the bridge without looking up.

The stunning indignation when coming face-to-face with a mute metal object is an unforgettable feeling I hope never to repeat. Maybe someday someone will figure out a way to install signs without putting them smack in the middle of bike lanes. Maybe I’ll look up next time...