The Wonderful Walkability of College Campuses

My college house, senior year, shared with 4 best friends

My college house, senior year, shared with 4 best friends

As someone in my mid-twenties, most of my friends finished college sometime in the last five years and plenty of them still miss those days. Many would cite the proximity of friends and activities as their biggest reason for missing college:

"You could just walk to your friends' house for dinner or studying in 5 minutes."

"You didn't have to worry about driving or paying for a cab home from a party because the party was down the block."

"You could roll out of bed at 8:50 and be in class by 9."

I can remember a typical college day involving waking up around 8am, walking to the gym for an aerobics class, coming back to my house to do some homework, then biking the 2-minute trip to my first class. After that, I might head back home for lunch, meet up with a friend to study in the library, then walk over to my afternoon class. The evening might consist of a quick bike ride to the nearby grocery store, cooking dinner with my housemates, and finishing up with a lecture in the auditorium across the street from my house. 

Not once did I get in a car (I never owned one) or make any trip that took more than 10 minutes, even on foot, yet I was able to work, study, exercise, socialize and run errands, all within a 5 block radius of an affordable house. 

In college, the action—whether a campus job, the library, the cafeteria or all your best friends—was within a 10 minute walk of your house. Why can't we continue living like that after we graduate? There's no reason that experience has to be confined to a four-year period of life, no reason it has to cost tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition to partake in.

Last winter, I visited my parents in Minneapolis (my home time) and had the chance to take a stroll on the University of Minnesota campus. Admittedly, I didn’t spend any time there growing up, despite the fact that it’s in my hometown. But during this visit, I was immediately struck by how wonderfully pedestrian friendly it is. This is true for most college campuses, but it’s been a while since I’ve had reason to go to one.

The University of Minnesota, home to 40,000 students, is a mini-metropolis completely accessible on foot. Compared to my small college experience (less the 2,000 students), the pedestrian-friendliness of this campus was particularly awe-inspiring. I’ve heard other urbanists talk about what a great model college campuses are for walkability and good city design, and seeing it in person, on such a large scale, really brought that point home. Here are a few photos and observations to showcase this.

Pedestrian and bike bridge

Pedestrian and bike bridge

Same bridge, different angle

Same bridge, different angle

I walked across an entire bridge devoted only to foot traffic. It even had a covered area for when it’s snowy or extremely cold. I moved from building to building on pedestrian-only sidewalks and through courtyards, in addition to skyways that connect many of the buildings too. Due to a combination of cold weather and my visit being during a time when there weren’t too many classes in session, these pictures don’t show very many people, but you can clearly see the wide, plowed sidewalks and the bridge open to pedestrians and bikers, including demarcated lanes for each mode of transportation.

Not only were these sidewalks and bike paths wide, they were incredibly safe due to the lack of cars. There were a few streets that criss-crossed the campus where cars were permitted to go, but those cars drove very slowly because pedestrians were everywhere, often crossing the street at random intervals—whatever was logical in order to get to their destination quickest. Most cars present in the heart of the campus were delivery or campus safety vehicles; you'd be silly to try and cut through the campus in a car because it was a pedestrian-oriented space.

All of this means that traveling around a college campus on foot is enjoyable, easy, and quick, not to mention good exercise. For travel that's a little farther away, just add a bike and you're good to go.

It’s also important to note that this pedestrian and bike-friendliness almost always means wheelchair-friendliness. In a car-centric environment, someone in a wheelchair who is unable to drive often needs to charter a ride service in order to get anywhere, or rely on the public bus. However, in a walk-friendly area, a wheelchair user can seamlessly travel from place to place, via safe, accommodating sidewalks and accessible building entrances. There is less segregation between able-bodied and disabled individuals. I love that this is an aspect of many college campuses. Certainly many old buildings at universities have catching up to do when it comes to accessibility, but the paths in between the buildings are a good start.

Even if you attended college decades ago, you probably still look back on that time with some level of fondness. I have to think that some of that is due to walkability: proximity to friends, opportunities to play a quick game of football or watch a late night movie or grab snacks in the cafeteria on a whim. If you live on a college campus, you don't have wake up at 5am to endure a one-hour commute to class, unlike the experience many adults have of traveling to work each day. I think that walkability contributes to an overall sense of community and closeness.

None of this design requires multi-million dollar stadiums or state of the art science labs. That wasn’t what made the college experience great.

The good news is that you don't have to be in college to enjoy the pedestrian-friendly environment of a campus. You can take advantage of the walking paths and public squares at any university near your home. Or even better, we could build our towns to be more walkable, communal spaces with a variety of housing options, employment, daily necessities and public space clustered around one another.

As Johnny Sanphillippo wrote about yesterday, none of this design requires multi-million dollar stadiums or state of the art science labs. That wasn't what made the college experience great: It was learning new things alongside your peers in a communal environment. It was the freedom to go where you wanted, without relying on your parents' car (and without your parents' curfew either). It was having everything you needed in your daily life, just a 10 minute walk away. That sounds like a strong town to me.

(Top image of Yale University campus by Emilie Foyer. This essay is based on an article originally written on my blog in 2015.)

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