Near misses and other cycling data

Recent news about cycling safety (more accurately described as cycling danger) warns cycling deaths are on the rise (…or not).  Reporting on deaths and injury-causing collisions/accidents shapes the public sense of cycling for non-cyclists because these are the numbers we have.

As a get-around-town sort of cyclist, I don’t worry about dying when I go to the grocery store (and I don’t even wear a helmet). I also don’t worry about dying when I get in my car to drive somewhere, but my risk of dying in a car accident is considerably higher (and I don’t even wear a helmet).

My beautiful blue bike

My beautiful blue bike

No, I worry about (and just dislike) the common non-injury, non-death interchanges between myself and motorists. Like the man yelling at me for being on the road even though I was in the bike lane at 5th and Division Street or the right-turn-on-redders at 2nd Street and Highway 3 who look left for motor traffic but do not check right for bikes/pedestrians or the drivers on Jefferson Parkway who attempt to squeeze by me despite the median pinching the space (and yelling at me for taking the lane when the median ends and they can pass).  Most cyclists have multiple near misses like these, but they’re not reported as accidents and don’t “become data.”

Enter the Near Miss project which collected about 2,000 first person reports in London recently (numbers being crunched at this time). This joint effort between the University of Westminster (lead by Professor Rachel Aldred) and Blaze Laserlight attempts to document “near misses” and SMIDSYs (Sorry mate, I didn’t see you) in London.

In the USA, Ft. Collins, Colorado has its own “near miss” reporting which it uses “to assess potential conflict points and the frequency of near misses at these locations. Bicycle and pedestrian related crashes are typically under reported and this offers another way to address issues before they result in a crash.”

Northfield has taken two steps toward collecting better information about cycling this year. First, we participated in MnDOT’s bike count to help both the state and Northfield know where the bikes are now and to plan for the future.  Then, BikeNorthfield and the City of Northfield (with the help of many others) applied for Bike Friendly Community status (we got Honorable Mention) which required quantifying the bike infrastructure, policy and other tools in place in Northfield.  Next year, perhaps, Northfield could begin to collect and map near miss information to continue to build the database for better transportation in Northfield.

BFC_Fall2014_ReportCard_Northfield copy

 

Taking the long view

Building a high-quality bicycle and pedestrian network doesn’t happen quickly.  This should be obvious, but at the local level where every project seems to promise to complete success or utter failure, it is helpful to remember this.

The Economist just posted this about Sao Paulo’s efforts to improve cycling.  Sao Paulo has a committed and passionate mayor who has, in less than two years in office, lead the way to 179km of bicycle lanes. That’s more kilometers of bike lanes in less than two years than the preceding 33 years when the city first considered adding cycle facilities.  Mayor Fernando Haddad has promised 400km by the end of next year; that distance would put Sao Paulo in the league as Copenhagen.

Here’s the time frame to think about for Northfield: when Copenhagen first started building “bike lanes 30 years ago many residents were dead-set against them. Now 36% of commuter trips are by cycle.”  Here’s the leadership picture: in Sao Paulo, bike lanes were talked about 33 years ago, but now they’re being built in much less time.

Northfield doesn’t need anywhere close to 400km of bike lanes.  With strong leadership at city hall, how many miles of bike lanes could Northfield build and how fast? In 30 years, what could Northfield look like?

photo: People for Bikes

 

Bike-cation in Northfield

Bikeyface could have been in Northfield!

Bikeyface could have been in Northfield!

Bikeyface took a bike-cation somewhere near Boston, but could have been visiting Northfield instead.  Doesn’t that look like MN Trunk Highway 3 through downtown Northfield?

What would a bike-cation in Northfield look like? There’s a surprising amount to do on a bicycle in Northfield, but navigating through the center of town on a bicycle to reach some of the best bikable bits does look a lot like Bikeyface’s drawing.

Bike-cation in Northfield, Plan A

How to get to bike trails

How to get to bike trails

Stay downtown at the Archer House River Inn.  Riding south on Division Street, you can enjoy the shops, restaurants with an easy connection through Riverside Park under the highway to the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge (Peggy Prowe is Northfield’s tireless trail advocate).

mapMillTownsOnce there, you can ride on the Mill Towns Trail through Sechler Park toward Dundas. In the future, the plan is to connect the Mill Towns Trail to the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail toward Faribault and Mankato and to the Cannon Valley Trail to Red Wing. In the nearer future, after reaching Dundas on the west side of the Cannon River you could return to Northfield on the trail under construction on the east side of the river. Babcock Park could soon see a canoe/kayak launch and other improvements to diversify your active vacation.

Carleton Water tower

Carleton’s water tower and Lyman Lakes

Reaching Carleton College is a short (uphill) ride from downtown with connections to rural roads (paved and gravel).  Visiting St Olaf College (or the Ole Store Cafe) requires something like the Bikeyface crossing experience at Highway 3 (but Northfield does have beg buttons and, at Second Street, a bike sensor) and a longer uphill climb (but returning to downtown is a breeze!).

You could come to Northfield for bike related events, too.  The annual Defeat of Jesse James Days Bike Tour is the longest running and largest one, but the Tour De Save and MN Gravel Championships are based here.

Bike-cation Plan B

Northfield's Country InnStay across MN3 at the Country Inn (only .25 miles from the Archer House). You’re not interested in the historic inn experience, but prefer the amenities at a more contemporary hotel (like the indoor pool, for example) along with the convenient parking for your car (with its bike carrier).

How to get to bike trails

How to get to bike trails

Unfortunately, this hotel is stranded at the corner of two state highways, so while it is very accessible by car, all the bicycle activities noted under Plan A take some additional work. The bike and pedestrian bridge which connects to the east river trail or under Highway 3 to downtown still requires crossing MN19.  Reaching downtown (which you could see from your hotel room window) means crossing MN3. The Country Inn is,however, better situated for reaching El Triunfo.

So close

As Bikeyface noted:

Yep, it was so close to being a brilliant vacation. Small towns need safe streets and infrastructure that takes bikes seriously too. It’s good for recreation, transportation, and my vacations tourism. Even if driving is sometimes necessary, it’s always nice to drive less.

Northfield, too, is so close to being a brilliant bike-cation destination.  Pieces of brilliance like the work developing the Mill Towns Trail, building the pedestrian bridge, and working to get the bike sensor installed do add up, but sparkling brilliance requires repairing the border vacuum created by MN3 (and to a lesser extent MN19).

There are jurisdictional challenges, certainly, since building and connecting bicycling facilities requires thinking about trails (DNR and the City of Northfield’s parks department), on-street bike facilities (MnDOT, Rice County, and the City of Northfield’s parks and streets departments), economic development (Economic Development Authority, Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, City of Northfield, Chamber of Commerce), streets (MnDOT, Rice and Dakota Counties, City of Northfield).

Plus, there are funding challenges since the different agencies and departments which deal with bicycle improvements also bring different funding streams and decision-making processes. The DNR often works through grant-making, MnDOT funds improvements to state roads and MSA-funding, Rice County funds some kinds of improvements in the City, but not others (like sidewalks), the City of Northfield might pay for improvements as special projects, through the CIP, private groups raise money for particular projects and even the federal government can get involved.

There are many stakeholders, too. Northfield has trail supporters, off-road cyclists, bike clubs, BikeNorthfield, as well as youth advocates, healthy community campaigners and probably more.

It’s all one challenge: coordinating support over the time needed to plan and build better crossings takes leadership. None of the recent accolades for livability or retirement mention the stroad through the middle of town, but it is still an impediment to walking and cycling.  Northfield is already a good place to ride a bike and could be a great bike-cation destination (and even better place to live or retire) in the not too distant future if we could connect the dots.

Money Magazine rated Northfield the #1 place to retire (with your bicycle)

A version of this post appears at streets.mn

 

Woodley Street: Narrowing the focus

Northfield’s City Council is getting ready to discuss Woodley Street’s sidewalks on October 28. If this work session conversation follows the well-worn path of earlier sidewalk and street improvement projects, it will go something like this: progressive Council members who consider projects in the context of Northfield’s adopted policy (Comprehensive Plan, Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets), support building transportation equity into the system, and generally look for long-term, high return on investment solutions will support sidewalks noting the importance of the corridor for schools, parks, and downtown. The others will respond to the project in isolation, highlight the shortest term bottom line, question the need for sidewalks, and respond immediately to NIMFYs. Sidewalks have become the litmus test which reveal the Council’s and individual Council members’ priorities and values rather starkly.

Woodley Street project area

Woodley Street project area

My earlier post about Woodley tried to expand the conversation to think about streets as public space, but now let’s narrow it – by 2’ per travel lane to be exact – to help the Council think about sidewalks. Jeff Speck, of Walkable City fame, wrote for CityLab recently that “the single best thing we can do for the health, wealth, and integrity of this great nation is to forbid the construction, ever again, of any traffic lane wider than 10 feet.” While the statement is grand, the rationale is simple:

“When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.”

For Woodley Street, this statement (and much of Mr Speck’s post) makes great sense since there are three likely arguments against sidewalks on (both sides) of Woodley Street. They are…

There’s not enough space!

Rice County encourages sidewalks (and trails and earthen berms) along minor arterials like Woodley Street (although classified as a minor arterial, the current design of Woodley Street more closely matches the standards for major collectors), but requires they be placed outside boulevards which demands an additional 10-16’ of ROW for 5-8’ sidewalks. For Woodley, which functions as a local street with driveways, homes fronting the length of this segment, and multiple intersections, and its context which connects schools, homes, downtown and more. constrained by the homes on either side, this is not very encouraging at all.

Northfield, in its Comprehensive Plan, calls for 10-12’ travel lanes with an assortment of other requirements for parking, sidewalks, bike lanes, and boulevards depending on how we classify the street. The policy guidance could be seen as more encouraging – narrower lanes, variable shoulder/parking requirements etc. appear possible – but also less clear. Northfield’s Complete Streets guidance to narrow lane widths as part of developing better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure also gestures in the right direction, but does not require action.

So we could make “more” space by shrinking travel lanes if Rice County could be convinced to consider design changes, and help solve some of the issues noted earlier – shrinking crossing distance for pedestrians and building more function and value into this corridor.

It’s not safe!

“Safe” has become one of those red-flag words for me. When someone on either side of a debate uses the “S” word, it’s intended to stop debate because no one can argue against safety, can they? But what is really safer (and supported by relevant data)? Jeff Speck’s piece lined up the literature showing narrower lanes are often safer, rather than the reverse, in urban settings.

Woodley Street Death Curve

Woodley Street Death Curve

Woodley Street serves as a local street with driveways, regular intersections, etc. but it is also a County road intended to move traffic through town. For a rural County road between, say, Northfield and Faribault through agricultural land, the transportation and access needs are rather different from a street through the Urban Core and the design should shift accordingly.

Narrowing travel lanes (and perhaps the shoulder) on Woodley Street would help cue drivers they had left the wide open rural roadway and should slow down, look for entering and existing traffic, pay attention to intersections and consider non-motorized transportation. Safety could be enhanced, rather than the opposite.

Sidewalks cost too much!

If there’s space and it’s safe, we can still argue about cost. In Rice County, the city bears most of the cost of building (and all the cost of maintaining) sidewalks since these are (quite properly) a city need and the city gets the benefits, too. So, yes, sidewalks will cost some money, but what offsetting savings could there be? Narrower pavement saves money on the paving (initially, and when maintenance is required), reduces stormwater runoff, improves safety by slowing traffic and reducing crossing distances (especially in a corridor with limited sight distances for pedestrians like Woodley’s Death Curve), promotes active transportation and public health and increasing transportation options. Northfield’s Complete Streets policy explicitly calls out the intent to realize long-term savings on the triple bottom line to offset higher short-term costs.

Reallocating space and priorities

Really, the issue is not so much a question of space as priorities. County roads allocate space exclusively to motorized traffic; this is not unreasonable for roads with limited access to property and few intersections intended to move vehicles, including large farm equipment, between cities at high speeds. City streets – or county roads in the urban core – have also allocated almost all their space to motorized traffic, too, with 12’ lane widths and inconsistent sidewalks.

Northfield has waved its policy-making hands at shifting priorities, so at the safe distance of a Comprehensive Plan and Complete Streets policy, sidewalks and non-motorized transportation are important and should be improved, but fall by the wayside when particular projects are on the table. For both County and City, there has been willingness and eagerness to fund “soft” improvements like the Bikable Community Workshop and bicycle safety training (through Rice County Public Health and the City of Northfield), but stopping short of “hard” infrastructure change.

I have two fears. First, the Council will take the County design standards as inviolable and, at best, try to scrape as much accommodation for bicycles and pedestrians as possible under those very limited circumstances/strict constraints. Multi-jurisdictional projects are always more complex, but the Council could ask questions about real safety (rather than just conversation –stopping “safety”) and adapting the standard collector/arterial design to better fit the surrounding land use and community needs. There’s more space for sidewalks than the County standard design suggests, narrowing the street is safe and efficient, and the long-term benefits are great.

Second, NIMFYs (Not In My Front Yard) are loud, angry and persistent in Northfield, especially when it comes to sidewalks. In a recent sidewalk issue on Maple Street, Councilmember David Ludescher stated “Citizens know better than we do what they want” so if current property owners don’t want sidewalks, that’s sufficient for deciding the issue against them. Again, as policymakers for the city as a whole, the Council should consider how to build value and equity into the system for the long-term and broader population rather than capitulating to the loudest and most personally interested voices.

My hope is the Council will see this project as an important time-limited opportunity to both expand and focus their conversation next week by paying attention to lane widths. Considering the simple change of narrowing travel lanes (without sacrificing safety or traffic flow) could change the broader landscape for the better.

A version of this post appears on streets.mn

Reimagining Woodley Street

Streets belong to you…and me…and everybody else; streets are public spaces – like parks – and might just be our most undervalued and underutilized community resources.  Northfield and Rice County are beginning to plan a reconstruction project on Woodley Street and this particular street is a golden opportunity to add value and change the conversation, too.

What might happen if we start talking about streets as a public asset with rich potential to be better places to play, talk, move and build communities rather than arguing about the width of the driving lanes?

SR2S Sibley map

Woodley Street and environs from Northfield’s Safe Routes to School plan

Woodley Street is

  • a local street lined with houses and mature trees with scattered, non-contiguous sidewalks

    Woodley - looking west from Union Street to Division

    Woodley – looking west from Union Street to Division

  • the southern edge of the older traditional grid neighborhood
  • located between downtown and residential neighborhoods, schools and parks making it an essential piece for making schools, homes and parks walkable and bikable both along and across Woodley.
  • Rice County State Aid Highway 28 which links to MN Trunk Highway 246/Division Street at the western end of this project and terminates at MN 3, it is classified as a collector street (according to Rice County) or minor arterial (according to Northfield) and is an important east-west connection bringing traffic into and through town.

Another way, Woodley is a key motorized transportation route worthy of its CSAH status, but its residential character and location between neighborhoods and schools, parks and downtown make it very much a local street. Northfield has a wonderful opportunity to work with Rice County to try move traffic, but build local connections and crossings back into this street.

Building more human capacity into Woodley is already richly supported by Northfield policy from general support in the Comprehensive Plan, strong direction in the Complete Streets policy, and particular improvements called for in the Safe Routes to School Plan and Parks, Open Space and Trail Plan.  But recent history shows there’s often pushback at the project level even with great policies in place.

So the moment is ripe to change the conversation from “you just don’t get it” where some say “You just don’t get it that sidewalks, bike facilities, and human scale design are important for reasons from public health to economic value (and here are the reports and local information to back me up)” and others say “You just don’t get it that sidewalks cost money, neighbors don’t want to shovel them, and no one bicycles anyway (and here are the dollars and angry neighbors to back me up).”

1. How can Northfield change the conversation to foster shared benefits rather than protecting turf?  The residents of Woodley Street are most directly affected, but how to discuss the public space while respecting their private property and hearing their concerns? Rice County has design standards and cost sharing policies in place for city/county projects, but how to engage the County to think outside their urban collector street box to design a project which serves local needs better? Northfield’s City Council tends to polarize at the “you just don’t get it” positions, so how to give elected officials the tools they need to understand and articulate a broader picture of public good?

2. How can Northfield design this project to build the most human capacity and the most public benefit into this street segment?

Rice County design standards

Here are a couple of journeys and connections, I’m hoping can be facilitated by a new Woodley Street and the conversation around the project should reveal more (or more detail about these sketches).

Kids in my east side neighborhood will be able to get to their neighborhood school, Sibley Elementary School, the soccer fields, or the middle and high schools on foot or bicycle easily, safely and independently.

From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley

From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley

Woodley-Union St. Death Curve

Woodley-Union St. Death Curve

This one is personal.  My daughter rode her bike (alone) to Sibley starting in 3rd grade after we practiced how to cross Woodley Street which is the only significant obstacle in a 3/4 mile trip on otherwise low volume streets.  Crossing choices were (a) the confusing 4-way stop (3rd grade non-drivers do not quite “get” the dance of who moves when) at Woodley and Maple Streets or (b) our preferred route, crossing at the Union Street “death curve” (my daughter’s term) where traffic did not stop and moved about 30 mph, but was still simpler to negotiate with “look both ways” even with the limited sight distance. In middle and high school, crossing Woodley was still required, but now the critical 4-way stop intersection at Woodley and Division Street had to be negotiated or bypassed, too, with no obvious “good route.”

Mayflower Hill to Sibley, etc.

Connections between Mayflower Hill and the pool, downtown, school, and soccer

Mayflower Hill will be able to walk or bike easily, safely and independently to school, the pool or downtown. When the eastern section of Woodley was reconstructed in 2008, the Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force was instrumental in bringing active transportation concerns front and center.  As a result, even though pedestrian accommodations were not standard on a rural road section, a multiuse trail was added on the north side and a sidewalk on the south which helped connect this area to the edge of the current project.  How can we continue the connection along Woodley through the denser neighborhood to schools, the swimming pool and downtown?

Woodley rural section heading west

Woodley rural section heading west

Woodley Street itself will become part of the pedestrian fabric of Northfield.  Reimagining Woodley as a thick thread woven into a rich network of walking, cycling and driving can broaden the conversation about what is possible, what is valuable and how we connect Northfield rather than spur divisiveness.

 

 

 

 

Dear Mike Obermuller (or your favorite candidate)

 

Mike Obermuller

Mike Obermuller is running for Congress here in CD2 looking to unseat John Kline.  At a campaign event last night, an interesting exchange and opening for new conversation emerged –

Dear Mike Obermuller,

I enjoyed having the chance to talk to you again at the campaign event in Northfield last night and was impressed at how you’ve evolved as a candidate since 2012. I’m writing to follow up on your responses to questions about carbon and the environment.

You talked a bit about carbon taxes and reducing subsidies to oil as ways to address climate change.  Two bits of your remarks caught my attention

(1) Addressing climate change will require decisions for actions which (far) exceed election cycles.  Bravo!  Making decisions to minimize the impact on the immediate bottom line limits the innovation and action which could make for significant change in environmental policy…and many other policy areas.

(2) You’re working to change the conversation on the environment to help more people understand why action is critical (and long-term).

(1) should be obvious. The desire to package policy for (quickly) deliverable results leads to simplifying complex issues, isolating problems and siloing information to be able to formulate the quick fix and deliverable project while ignoring long term or downstream costs.  I don’t tend to be a one issue voter, but if there is one issue which will ensure not only my vote but my commitment and energy, this is it.

As for (2), here’s how I’d like to see the conversation change. Most of the time, I advocate for better transportation and land use policy and spending. In these areas, as with the environment, decisions tend to be isolated – approving this development, designing that road segment, and funding a particular non-motorized project.  In thHowever, the bigger picture of the pattern in which we guide the growth of our cities (I do remember you once said you were interested in seeing cities grow up and not out), how we reverse the trend of designing transit, cycling and walking out of our transportation system, and how we think through our incentives for more sprawling, car dependent land uses and transportation is going to impact the environment.

So, you can talk about carbon taxes or we can reframe the conversation about how we build sustainability and equity into our places by connecting fossil fuel use, air quality, transportation, land use and public health.  Right now, messages are mixed – charge a carbon tax, but keep building roads and encouraging sprawl.  Fret about obesity, but make active transportation fight for funding crumbs. How about we look to how to get the incentives for sustainable, healthy development aligned and funding aligned for incremental change for better air, water, and health.

Many thanks for being willing to serve,

Betsey Buckheit

 

Northfield Bikeable Community Workshop

BikeNfldNorthfield should be the sort of city where bicycling makes a lot of sense because

Despite all these assets, cycling is still not normal transportation around Northfield.  Fortunately, Northfield also has a new cycling advocacy organization BikeNorthfield which sponsored a day-long Bikeable Community Workshop last week (along with co-sponsors: Chamber of CommerceNDDCNorthfield City Council and Rice County SHIP)  led by representatives from MnDOTMN Department of Health and Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota for local leaders, advocates and enthusiasts who want to develop the bikeable potential of their community.

IMG_0671

Workshop participants (including the police chief!)

Who came? Northfield’s workshop attendees included the chief of police, city administrator, Community Development director, 3 Planning Commission members, 1 member of the Northfield YMCA board, 2 City Council members, 1 Environmental Quality Commission member, a long-time bike trail advocate and senior citizen cycling leader, a couple of college staff and faculty, 1 school board member and more bike advocates and enthusiasts. Some of these folks regularly ride in and around town, but others do not (at least not yet); some know City plans and policy intimately, but others do not (at least not yet). In other words, a good mix of people to bike and learn together how to build on Northfield’s strengths.

What did we learn? The 5 E’s, of course, as well as some of the many reasons why bicycles can or should be part of a community like tourism (if Lanesboro and the Root River Trail can bring in $2.2 million annually, what could Northfield capture when the Mill Towns Trail is completed?), jobs (Northfield already has two bike shops and Tandem Bagels), community events (come to Northfield for the July 4th Criterium – to race or to watch; stay for the fireworks!) and benefits from public health to equity to cleaner air.  And, we learned that half of all trips are 3 miles or less—a reasonable bicycling distance –which is certainly true in Northfield.

Bike Nfld Route

Map of the riding route

Where did we go? Following some safe cycling training, we took to the road to visit some of the high and low points of Northfield’s cycling infrastructure including crossing MN 3 at 3 different intersections (but, unfortunately, did not take the extra few minutes to visit the site of the recently approved TIGER trail crossing) and the difficult intersection of TH 246 and Jefferson Parkway near 3 of Northfield’s schools.

MnDOT rep leads some discussion in front of Northfield Post Office

MnDOT rep leads some discussion in front of Northfield Post Office

What will we do next? Focusing on projects or objectives we could accomplish in the next 6-12 months in the 5 E categories, we identified:

Infrastructure/Engineering & Evaluation top projects: (1) Increase/improve signage to direct folks to bike routes, trails, and parking; (2) identify “easy” paint locations (such as painting Water Street as a bike boulevard for an early and obvious change); (3) create an advisory group to the planning commission  (a previous non-motorized transportation task force reported to the Park and Recreation Advisory Board), and (4) do bicycle and pedestrian counts.

Education & Enforcement can help build confident cyclists who can manage the infelicitous infrastructure, so we identified (1) Hosting a Train the Trainer “Traffic Safety 101” course in Northfield this summer and recruiting participants for the October LCI training in Rochester to build a critical mass of local bike safety instructors; (2) engaging Community Ed (and the YMCA) to introduce a bike curriculum; (3) engaging business leaders on bikeable workplaces, bike friendly businesses and workplace wellness

Encouragement & Events celebrate success, create interest and build community so we plan to (1) offer bike clinics at existing community events;  (2) encouraging bicycle commuting among local businesses (including, I hope, both colleges); (3) increase the number of group rides and adding education/evaluation components to rides; (4) collaborating with community organizations to expand cycling, and (5) producing comprehensive maps of bicycle facilities and recommended routes – both recreational and destination routes – for the community.

If BikeNorthfield and its friends follow through on this list, then the longer term, higher price projects such as improving important intersections, adding bike lanes on higher traffic streets, etc. will have that critical mass of support needed for change.  And, for a city the size of Northfield, relatively few major changes are needed to be able to create a really great town for cycling.

This post also appeared on streets.mn

College urbanism

A college is the best thing for a community have in its backyard, noted Carleton College President Steve Poskanzer soon after his arrival in Northfield in 2010. Northfield, of course, has two.

The city’s character and development pattern have certainly been shaped by Carleton College on the east side; St Olaf on the west with the historic downtown and Northfield’s oldest residential neighborhoods in the middle. Two small colleges could be a doubly good deal for a small city like Northfield looking to plan and invest wisely to build a walkable, bikeable, economically prosperous town which is also just a darn good place to live and work.

American Institute for Economic Research publishes an annual ranking of the cities offering the best “college experience” while acknowledging college towns are “also vibrant places for businesses to open, tourists to visit and people to live.” Livability takes this a step further to note “a university’s off-campus impact can also shape a town’s character and keep people there for a lifetime.” And, the walkable neighborhoods with high quality of life also make college towns great places to retire.

Carleton aerial

Northfield’s east side neighborhood

Northfield’s east side neighborhood is its oldest residential area bordering the historic downtown with a strong, grid street pattern, older homes mixed with some newer infill, and the former high school/middle school now renovated and expanded as Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity. Indeed, Carleton’s neighborhood is just the sort of walkable, high quality traditional residential development pattern streets.mn writers praise.

Yet, Carleton has expanded south into the neighborhood through piecemeal acquisition of residential property south of its core campus plus the footprint of the Weitz Center leapfrogging a few blocks south. Many homes have been renovated for office use which both changes the character of the neighborhood and, relative to the buildings on the core campus, creates a low density campus arm through the center of the neighborhood.  Recently,  Carleton has undertaken a strategic planning process which includes facilities planning for “The optimal long-term (50-year) overall layout of the campus to “make the best use of its available space and work to lower the operating and maintenance costs of its existing and new physical plant.” Carleton’s presentation to the community shows the College has little grasp of how the campus is interlaced with the neighborhood and how it could think more boldly to develop its campus in ways which could be more efficient for the College and make the Northfield neighborhood an even better place for the College and residents.

Does Carleton need more space?  Or does it need to develop the land it already owns more strategically?

Carleton future map

Carleton’s future “plan”

Where to grow: While Northfield limits Carleton’s expansion to the south, Carleton constrains the City of Northfield’s expansion to the north and east because of its main campus and the Arboretum.  As a result, both City and College are deeply interested in that interface. From a city perspective, continued expansion to the south in the same pattern is not desirable. Carleton infiltrates one of Northfield’s most valuable residential areas and has begun to move into the downtown commercial area. Continued loss of property in these areas erodes the character of the neighborhood as well threatening to erode the city’s tax base (the threat to downtown – Northfield’s most valuable land per acre – is especially potent). Carleton’s historic habit of acquisition and renovation of residential property undermines the city’s ability to plan and regulate as well as lacking transparency for neighbors. Plus, Carleton has some prime access to MN 19 on the north edge of its campus.

Density: Completely missing from the planning documents is careful consideration of the pattern of development. Although land is limited, the College’s current development pattern at its southern edge (and especially in the Weitz “transition zone”) is very low density consisting single family homes renovated for college uses. The College should consider how it can fulfill its needs by more fully using the land available within this area including demolition of buildings to be replaced by a denser building pattern with buildings which are purpose-built for College needs.  Further, the College has placed very low value uses – surface parking – on key parcels further reducing its ability to make efficient use of its land.  Considering how parking can be accommodated in the middle of blocks or as part of other structures could expand the developable land.

Regulation: I’m more aware than most that city regulations have required some of the low value development which has taken place – zoning, parking requirements, setbacks, and stormwater regulations have all made it more difficult to use land efficiently. The City struggles with this issue and continues to incentivize suburban, low density, low return development (a movie theater and strip mall is looking for a subsidy right now) and here’s where College leadership – drawing on its commitment to innovation, quality, and sustainability – could help build support for a much denser campus building pattern which conserves neighborhood properties and helps the city craft the regulatory environment would help this happen.

Carleton can do better with Northfield: Carleton’s growth is critically important to the character of Northfield’s neighborhoods but where the college reaches into the neighborhood and downtown, the City’s interest is substantial. From a city perspective, the planning documents are startling in their lack of planning and design for the physical pattern of growth.  My hope is that the College will more actively engage the city and neighborhood in its planning and to think denser in its development pattern.  The College is a leader in sustainability in some ways, but it could help lead the City to more sustainable, distinctive use of land and infrastructure.

This post also published on streets.mn – check out lots of good writing, images, videos and more on transportation and land use in Minnesota (and beyond) over there.

Happy New Year from Finland

IMG_1326Hyvää Uutta Vuotta from Jyvaskyla, Finland where I’ll be spending the next 6 months or so. Jyvaskyla has about 135,000 people (like Northfield, about 25% of those are students) on about 52 sq. miles in Central Finland.  For landscape, think northern Minnesota.  Lots of birch and pine, many lakes, and usually much snow (but not this year).

Compared to Cambridge, my Michaelmas Term home, with glorious medieval architecture surrounded by Victorian terrace houses mixed with some not very noteworthy contemporary buildings (5 stories is about the maximum; 3 or 4 more likely), Jyvaskyla is a thoroughly modern city of high density high rises (I live on the 7th floor in the center of town).  While Cambridge built stone and brick buildings, Jyvaskyla’s old (19th century) built environment was wood and has now been almost entirely replaced.

Sadly, Jyvaskyla “solved” its traffic congestion problems by running the highway between the city and Jylasjarvi – one of the lakes: “For decades, the problem of through traffic had bothered the people of the town and this was resolved in 1989 with the completion of new Rantaväylä roads along the shoreline of the lake.”  The center of town was pedestrianized, but the lake is now cut off from the city and strolling around it is unpleasant on the highway side. Could be worse, I suppose, and the highway could go right through downtown the way it does in Northfield.  Because the highway blocks access to the lake and new bits of the University of Jyvaskyla, there are underpasses somewhat like the proposed TIGER trail in Northfield to link neighborhoods and the lake.

The other curious piece of Finland planning is the shopping mall – multiple small malls in central Jyvaskyla – in the walkable city center.  I admit, when there are so few hours of daylight (I’m used to the cold), artificially lit insides have some superficial appeal.  But not much.  Timo Hämäläinen blogged about this phenomenon (and summed it up well) which was subsequently picked up by Atlantic Cities; I hope to pick Timo’s brain a bit more in the next month or so.

In the cows, colleges and contentment department, Cambridge beat out Northfield to win my personal Cows and Colleges award.  Jyvaskyla has colleges, but is sadly lacking in cattle.  More from Finland soon.