Still not a safe route to school

246 Solutions Group is a new grassroots “group of concerned Northfield residents that came together to help change a very dangerous intersection” on MN State Highway 246 near three of Northfield’s five schools by asking MnDOT to reduce speed limits on 246, creating a school zone, and improving the intersection at 246 and Jefferson Parkway.

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

246 Solutions has also drafted a petition (with about 200 signatures to date) to MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle and other MnDOT officials asking MnDOT to reduce the speed limit, establish a school zone and “follow the Safe Route to Schools Recommendations of the sections of State Highways That Become City Streets.” And here’s a behind the handlebars video view of biking to school by high school student Jake Thomas. Various impediments to change have been raised in response to the petition such as insufficient resources for enforcement, cost to build improvements, etc., but this infusion of new energy is needed to help spur action on this old problem.

Speed limits on TH 246

Speed limits on TH 246

The problem of reaching Northfield’s schools safely has existed since before the Middle School opened its doors more than ten years ago and while there has been much discussion and planning, there’s been no action. However, other parts of the transportation landscape have changed in the meantime and tools exist now which were not well-known at earlier points in the discussion; this new grassroots push could finally move Northfield to action.

Old problem

As a Planning Commission member during the Middle School permitting process in 2001, I wrote:

By locating the Middle School south of Bridgewater Elementary School and the High School…All of our public school children grade 6 and above + our largest elementary school will now attend school in the same area. This is a great opportunity to develop these sites into an excellent educational and athletic campus not possible with more disparate and smaller sites. But this also means we have the safety of hundreds of our children to consider as we try to also manage the vastly increased [vehicle] traffic through the area…the traffic patterns on Jefferson Parkway, through Bridgewater and high school campuses and on 246 are problematic now, before any additional load is added to the area.

The traffic impact study for the Middle School focused on the impact to vehicle Level of Service during the peak traffic at the start and end of the school day and made recommendations to (1) stagger school opening times to alleviate congestion (which was done) and (2) add the median to Jefferson Parkway to “provide more direction for drivers, which will in turn make it a safer corridor” and provide a pedestrian refuge, but which made the roadway too narrow to bike safely and difficult for school buses to turn.

When the Middle School opened, the 4 way stop was added to the now multi-lane Jefferson Parkway and TH 246 intersection. The intersection has seen two fatalities, the latest in 2008, which local bloggers observed:

It is truly sad that it often seems to take a tragedy of some magnitude to get people’s attention about pedestrian and bicycle safety, and make them realize that streets aren’t just for cars and trucks.

But the problem isn’t just a street problem, it’s a land use problem. I blogged about the issues highlighted by the Middle School in 2013 and the 2008 Transportation Plan which observed:

Additional challenges relate to the lack of interconnected neighborhoods in some parts of the City. This is particularly evident in the area south of Jefferson Parkway. The extensive amount of cul-de sacs results in an overreliance on Jefferson Parkway and TH 246/Division Street for all trips in the area.

Northfield has done much planning and policy development related to this area since 2001 and each iteration adds support to the goal of improving this part of town:

  • 2009 Safe Routes to School plan highlighted this area and proposed a range of solutions for the Jefferson/TH 246 intersection from a traffic signal to a roundabout.
  • 2012 Complete Streets policy was adopted.
  • 2014 Bike Friendly Community application (we received an Honorable Mention).
  • 2014: TAP Grant Application in 2014 for a traffic signal at Jefferson Parkway and TH 246 was withdrawn after discussion that a signal was likely not the best solution.
  • 2015: Bike Friendly Community process continues with a visit by Steve Clark

Now’s the time to take all the plans and policies plus the new grassroots support and do something.

Northfielders consider how to make the Middle School more Bike Firendly with Steve Clark (Photo: Griff Wigley)

Northfielders consider how to make the Middle School more Bike Firendly with Steve Clark (Photo: Griff Wigley)

Bigger Picture

In the short-term, the 246 Solutions group plan to establish a school zone and slow traffic should be implemented, but the longer term fix should be multi-jurisdictional and address land uses, design speed, and lack of other connections – this problem is not MnDOT’s alone. The 246 Solutions community support is to demand committed and sustained leadership from the school district, city and MnDOT to make Safe Routes to (the majority of Northfield’s) Schools a reality.

Fortunately, much has changed since 2001 in the land use and transportation world. In Northfield, we’ve added all those studies and policies to justify change toward building streets as if people mattered. National Safe Routes to School reports, other cities’ leadership, and federal programs (Mayor’s Challenge, Surgeon General’s Step It Up campaign) all signal a shift in the political landscape which recognizes how we build our cities matters. What used to be a safety issue alone is now a public health, livability, fiscal, urban planning and environmental issue.

Northfield should acknowledge that city development decisions and School District siting choices helped create the problems and these groups need to think together about the long-term plan to rebuild connections among places including addressing these issues:

  • Reducing vehicle traffic by encouraging bus ridership as well as actively promoting biking and walking.  Years of development choices, fewer parents at home, and helicopter parenting have contributed to the steep decline in walking and biking to school. Usually not mentioned is that much of the traffic to the schools is generated by parents chauffeuring their children to school (When my daughter was a middle school student, I joked about adding a toll booth to the Middle School driveway to raise funds for improvements and to allocate the costs of driving more equitably). A recent MinnPost piece highlighted how change is happening in Minneapolis to encourage active transportation.
  • Slowing traffic: Speed limit signs, even the speed feedback signs, must be enforced to be effective.  TH 246 screams “Drive fast!” and it needs to be redesigned to cue drivers to slow down, look for people walking and biking, and (most importantly) pay attention.
  • TH 246 design screams "Drive Fast!"

    TH 246 design screams “Drive Fast!”

    Redesign the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection for people rather than cars only. The intersection must accommodate school buses, cars, and larger vehicles because 246 is a key route into and out of Northfield, but the trail connections, sidewalks, bike facilities must also be safe and easy for kids (and seniors – the Senior Center is there, too) to navigate.

  • Create at-grade connections from neighborhoods to schools (and the Senior Center): Bridges and underpasses are usually put forward as solutions, but I’d advocate for changing the roadway design to build people back into the street network and make the public right-of-way truly public (as well as safe and attractive). Newer design guidelines (like Seattle’s Safe Routes to School Engineering Toolkit or NACTO standards) can provide guidance.
  • Politics and money: The Northfield City Council will vote on next year’s tax levy very soon. Some Council members want to avoid any levy increases because fund balances are flush, but clearly there are needs which have gone unmet for a decade. Voting for a small levy increase would help take advantage of Northfield’s favorable financial position to start to fix this important area at last.

A version of this post also appears on

Connecting the West side, take 2

Tonight (Tuesday, September 22, 2015), the Northfield City Council will discuss low-cost projects to improve bicycle and walking routes on the west side of the city linking neighborhoods and Saint Olaf College to downtown.

Almost a year ago, the Northfield City Council voted to reject all bids received for the construction of what was called the TIGER Trail, killing the project but not erasing the connectivity issues the trail was intended to solve.The most important development during the TIGER Trail was the emphasis on equity and making not driving a real option in Northfield. So, back to the drawing table.

From Big Project to Small Improvements

Drawing lines on the map (me, with George Kinney (L) and Eric Johnson(R). Photo: BikeNorthfield

George Kinney (L), me and Eric Johnson(R). Photo: BikeNorthfield

BikeNorthfield members (I’m part of the Steering Committee) worked with City staff to develop the improvements to be discussed tonight. As we stared at the map, “low hanging fruit” was uttered more than once as we looked for the most logical street links from neighborhoods to Greenvale Park School, west side churches, and downtown as well as Saint Olaf College to downtown.

  • The proposed improvements use signage and striping to provide clearly marked bike lanes on busier streets or shared space on lower traffic volume streets.
  • Second Street is prioritized as a bike-friendly crossing of Highway 3. A bike-specific sensor for the traffic signal was installed last year allowing bikes to trigger a green light for crossing.

Overall, these changes do more than the TIGER trail project by creating a neighborhood-wide network of routes guiding people on bikes to the 2nd Street/Highway 3 intersection. The proposed network also dovetails with plans to improve pedestrian crossing of Highway 3 at 3rd Street and Fremouw. On the other hand, once at the 2nd Street intersection, crossing the highway will continue to require confidence on a bike which is unlikely to inspire many to ride. The bike sensor at Second Street requires riding boldly into the center of the traffic lane to trip the loop sensor and ride across.

The improvements in more detail

Map of West Side improvements

Map of West Side improvements

  • Bike lanes would be striped on
    • Dresden Avenue connecting to Lincoln Parkway (and Greenvale Park School) and Spring Street (between Lincoln and Greenvale Avenues);
    • Saint Olaf Avenue connecting to Lincoln Street N (and Lincoln Parkway, etc.);
    • Second Street West between Spring Street and Highway 3 where cyclists could utilize the bike-sensor.
  • Shared lane markings or sharrows (“Share the road arrows”) would be added to
    • Lincoln Street from Saint Olaf Avenue to 1st Street West (connecting the bike lane from Saint Olaf to Lincoln);
    • First Street West (utilizing the path through Way Park) to Spring Street and Second Street West; and
    • Spring Street between Greenvale and Second Street West to link to the bike lane to the signalized intersection.

How you can help

Ride with us TONIGHT: A low speed, casual bike ride to tour the improvement area will take place before the Council worksession, September 22, 2015 beginning from Bridge Square @ 6pm.

Communicate your support for these improvements: if you want to make safer and more pleasant to bike to these places, let the City know. You can contact:

Looking ahead

The case for active transportation continues to grow and push bike and pedestrian improvements from “amenities” to necessities for public health, the environment, livability, equity and economic development.

Incremental changes like the ones on the Council’s agenda tonight can help connect the West Side and then lead to more robust thinking about continuing to work toward a low-stress bicycling network connecting Northfield which fixes the broken link in the chain at Highway 3.


Another invitation: Steve Clark, the League of American Bicyclists Bike Friendly Community Specialist, will be in Northfield next week to help us think further about becoming a Bronze Level Bike Friendly Community and, beyond the label, how we connect people with places and each other. More on this very soon, but here are the essentials:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015
8:00 am:                      Gather at City Hall
8:30 am:                      Depart on bike ride with Steve Clark
10:30 am – noon:         Return to City Hall for Q & A and planning session
Further information contact: BikeNorthfield chair, Bruce Anderson: or see the BikeNorthfield Facebook page for updates:






BikeNorthfield’s mission is to work with community and regional partners to promote safe and convenient bicycling for transportation, recreation, and tourism in and around Northfield.



Who needs a front yard anyway?

While in Amsterdam last month, I walked around looking at doorways and thought: “Who needs a front yard anyway?”

Enough front yard for me

Enough front yard for me

Or perhaps:

Also enough

Also enough

At home, I feel oppressed by most of my yard. My house sits on a 66′ x 150′ Northfield original town lot which is a not huge parcel in a walkable neighborhood near downtown Northfield. Pretty modest by recent development standards, you might say.

Still, there’s too much useless space which demands mowing or weeding without offering much in the way of compensation. The front yard is particularly unnecessary, but I don’t live in a place which makes an Amsterdam-style front entrance possible. I’m thrilled, though, to see articles like Lawns are a Soul-Crushing Time Suck since that pretty much sums up my thinking about the grassy party of my yard.

Some people just stop mowing and let nature reclaim their yard (and face the consequences – Northfield also has ordinances about weeds and tall grass, although “planned landscaping” is excluded). I took a more intentional path (in the back yard) and planted my little prairie (thanks Prairie Moon Nursery for the seed mix) after building a small addition trashed some of the grassy bits.

My little backyard prairie keeps evolving as the grasses and flowers reseed themselves or adapt to the light and soil conditions. Unlike the grass bits, my prairie is filled with honeybees and butterflies and bunnies; it requires no mowing, almost no weeding and is interesting in all seasons. Every year we reclaim a bit more yard from mowable grass; perhaps the front yard will be next.

Little Prairie by the House

Little Prairie by the House – the only part of the yard I like



More “What else fits in that parking space?”

Back in March, I posted What else fits in that parking space? with a couple of graphics about what fits in the same amount of space as a car. In real life, I saw this:

IMG_2553So, 3 bikes and a tree fit quite nicely in this Amsterdam parking space (but this should also show that there are cars in Amsterdam, they just manage traffic differently).


Fun urbanism – Spring edition

Now that it is getting Springy in Northfield, thoughts turn to flowers, getting outside, and enjoying public spaces.  Here’s a way to get it all:

Image of Tulpi folding plastic tulips seating

Tulpi Tulip seats (Photo via CityLab)

I’m thinking they’d look lovely in Bridge Square, along the Cannon River, scattered in parks or even strategically deployed along Division Street (yes, I know these seats do not follow the Northfield Streetscape Framework Plan)

Development pattern productivity, continued further

Last week, I anticipated the Northfield City Council’s discussion of amendments to the Land Development Code by comparing the tax revenue from a selection of different development patterns around town (thanks to David Delong for mentioning Community Resource Bank – 3 stories on the highway with less than minimum parking – a variance was granted to reduce the parking lot size – would be valued at $2,294,118 per acre with tax revenue of $95,894 which narrowly beats the downtown block and is 5x better than neighboring Target; multistory development wins on or off the highway).  The ensuing Council discussion was somewhat encouraging, mostly predictable, and once unintentionally funny.

Encouraging: My previous post had its intended effect of inserting into the discussion the idea that low density, sprawling development is less valuable to the city’s tax base than more compact, multi-story development.

Predictable: The usual backlash complaining proposed regulations will kill all development along with the (false) presumption that asking questions about how we develop indicates a desire to preserve Northfield circa the Defeat of Jesse James.

More encouragement: let’s see if we can nudge the conversation past the adversarial stance where questions about how we develop are perceived as advocating for no development whatsoever to acknowledging:

1. Cities (with help from higher levels of government) adopted policies and spent money on infrastructure which encouraged and enabled the low density, low productivity pattern.  In the news recently is this report on the policies which have encouraged unproductive development and its costs (See also CityLab, Washington Post, and the press release for the report). “The market” is not free, but the highest and best uses are strongly determined by government action.

2. Developers are not altruistic and will act to reduce their costs and increase their profit. Since government has helped make sprawl profitable for them and create the market for it, we shouldn’t be too surprised about fears that shifting regulations away from sprawl will hurt business.  Private sector development has to be able to make money.

3. Cities need to make development deals which allow developers to make money, but also increase the city’s long-term economic and environmental health. 


Developer costs and municipal costs: can we consider municipal costs in development regulations? (Image: Strong Towns/Joe Minicozzi)

4. Reversing the unsustainable pattern of low density, high infrastructure cost, low tax revenue development will require a comprehensive and sustained effort involving leadership, education, policy and regulatory change, encouragement (and incentives), collaboration with other units of government and patience. The current proposed LDC changes are just a chance to open the conversation, but will change nothing on their own.

Funny: I just had to laugh when Council Members Delong and Ludescher complained about undermining the Planning Commission’s hard work.  When I was on the Planning Commission, it was the Commission recommending actions perceived as anti-development; Mayor, then Council member, Graham lead the charge to overrule Planning Commission recommendations and encourage developers to come directly to the Council for approval. The Planning Commission is an advisory board; it’s recommendations can be accepted, revised or rejected depending on Council politics at the time. Circa 2003, it was the Council defending the status quo; in 2015, it is the Planning Commission.

Encourage the Council to continue to ask questions about how to promote the development which is sustainable and creates wealth for all taxpayers.


Daylighting at the Library

I didn’t know there was a term for this, but apparently I’ve been thinking about daylighting at the corner of Washington and 3rd Streets and at the bottom of the hill at Division and 3rd Streets right by the Northfield Public Library for many years.

Here’s a little video from Streetfilms explaining “daylighting.”

Daylighting: Make Your Crosswalks Safer from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Now that the the Library expansion project is about to begin, this would be the perfect opportunity to make some exterior changes in addition to the good stuff which will happen to the Library building.

Daylighting, at its simplest, is just prohibiting parking close to intersections and crosswalks to create better sightlines for cars to see pedestrians and vice versa. The intersections by the Library see much pedestrian traffic, including small children and older adults, and visibility is currently poor.  Parked cars limit visibility which is compounded by grade changes.  Driving south on Washington Street is an uphill journey making the crosswalk across Washington a particularly difficult place to see pedestrians.  As a driver looking for pedestrians, I keep getting surprised by people, especially small people, edging out past the cars to see what’s coming. As a pedestrian, I find the east side of Washington feels safer because the higher elevation gives me a better vantage point to see approaching cars (or bikes).  Standing on the Library side of Washington, I’ll keep my dog behind me as I edge out to see what’s emerging from the north.

High capacity bike rack on Division Street (with Derek & Laura Meyers - HCI Making a Difference winners and Imminent Brewers)

High capacity bike rack on Division Street (with Derek & Laura Meyers – HCI Making a Difference winners)

The problem at the bottom of the hill on Division Street is similar. Creating the high capacity bike parking space did improve visibility at this intersection to the south, but the crosswalk is still obscured while driving south by the angle parking on the west and the parallel parking on the east.

It would be a quick, cheap change to prohibit parking closest to these intersections with some paint and a couple of signs.

Looking at Library expansion plans, there are a couple of changes to the Library which make daylighting an even more appropriate choice.  A much needed sidewalk will be added along Washington from the top of the steps down to the Library to 3rd Street putting more pedestrians near and at the intersection (although the architectural renderings are stunningly devoid of real life parking and traffic).

Architectural drawing of library expansion, east side

Library expansion, east side (Image Northfield Public Library)

The expansion of the library onto what is now the bike parking plaza means the well-used bike racks need a new home and, as on Division Street, a high capacity bike rack on the street at 3rd and Washington would both provide daylight AND bike parking.

Let’s say the quick and cheap paint solution is a big success. Now let’s think about more substantial permanent changes to enhance the Library intersections.

3rd Street intersections

3rd Street intersections

Right now, the 3rd Street parking “lot” has curb extensions at both ends which mark off the space as devoted to parking and slow through traffic; the extensions create delightfully short crossing distances with great visibility across 3rd Street; compare the length of the crosswalks in the image above). The painted daylight spots could become permanent extensions on Washington and Division which make for even better visibility because they are higher than street level, shorten crossing distances, calm traffic on Division and Washinton Streets and create a larger public space for bike parking, benches (many people now sit on the Library wall waiting for rides, why not provide seating accessible to people of all ages?), street trees, etc.

The Northfield Public Library is well-loved and heavily used, it draws people of all ages and is at the heart of our most pedestrian-oriented space. The expansion of the Library is a golden opportunity to improve the streetscape, too.

drawing of NACTO gateway curb extension

Gateway curb extension (image NACTO Urban Street Design Guide)