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.

 

Cycling roundup

What would help you get on a bicycle and ride to the store – yes, you there, the one who hasn’t ridden a bicycle since childhood but might be willing to try it if conditions were right?  People for Bikes has a nice series trying to sell cycling to the uncertain “swing voter.”  I’m even more curious how the completely committed cyclists react, because the overall message is not about how great cycling is, but how to advocate for better bike facilities which make cycling easier for everyone.  No one should be surprised that perceived (lack of) safety is a big obstacle, but more surprising that the safety of better facilities is also not much of a selling point. 

And then there’s all the good stuff about cycling:

Economic benefits of cycling

Building business support for cycling by way of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.  This piece has a great little 7 step guide to advocacy from within.

The only happy commuters are cyclists, or can urban design make people happy?  Long commutes and the combined cost of housing and transportation costs, while not about cycling, are getting some attention.

And how Groningen, Netherlands achieved cycling greatness.  Spending 15 minutes watching the video is fun and shows real people riding around town.  If you don’t want to spend the time, the secrets are: (1) not a piecemeal approach, (2) connecting places, (3) making cycling easier than driving in some locations, (4) separating cyclists from high speed traffic, and (5) political will.  The other comment made frequently: cycling costs less. Here’s a comparison of British streets and Dutch streets to see how different places allocated space differently to accommodate cyclists and here are all the myths and excuses about cycling in one place.

Who pays for roads?

Who pays for roads?

Is it OK to kill cyclists? asked Daniel Duane in the New York Times.  In the US, if you’re going to kill someone, bumping off a cyclist with your car is a pretty good way to get away with murder.  Even here in England, where the cycling climate (and the regular sort of climate) is quite different, killing cyclists goes largely unpunished (though “my” MP Julien Huppert has been working on it).  Apparently, we’re expendable.

I blogged earlier about strict liability (where the driver of the motor vehicle is presumed liable for the accident, unless she can prove she is not at fault) and “my” MP Julien Huppert has also raised this issue.  In a related development, exposing the “blame the victim” problem with pedestrian and cycling fatalities is on the upswing, see this New York example (police say pedestrians should carry flashlights so cars don’t jump the curb and kill them).

After the NY Times piece, the Economist has a very good summary of the policy and what would happen in a variety of circumstances.  To sum up:

This regulatory regime places an extra burden on drivers. That burden can be summed up as follows: before you turn, you have to check carefully in the mirror to see whether there’s a cyclist there. That’s it. When you are driving in the Netherlands, you have to be more careful than you would when driving in America. Does this result in rampant injustice to drivers when accidents occur? No. It results in far fewer accidents.

 

Next link in the TIGER trail project

TH3, Northfield's car sewer

TH3, Northfield’s car sewer

The tale continues…after the City Council authorized rebidding the TIGER trail project in September, 4 bids were received. All bids exceeded projected costs and the low bid is $828,465 over.  Although it took two tries to get the bids and much procedural grandstanding, let’s catch our collective breath.

TIGER supporters would probably agree that Trunk Highway 3 is a 4 lane “traffic sewer” through the middle of Northfield affecting land use, deterring bicycle and pedestrian crossing, and dividing the east and west sides of town.  Since this is also the picture drawn by the Council-adopted Comprehensive Plan (and other plans and policies I get tired of listing for those Council members who ignorantly or willfully avoid them), their understanding is well-grounded in the city’s public policy.

The City has been implementing the policies by adopting more detailed policies (like the Complete Streets policy and Safe Routes to School Plan) and following through on smaller improvements such as filling gaps in the sidewalk network (despite the failure on Maple Street) in annual street projects.  But, TH3 remains a big obstacle.  The 2009 Multimodal Integration Study (which involved collaboration among City staff, elected officials, various City boards and business owners) identified several grade-separated “concepts” which could provide better access across TH3/TH19 and subsequently form the basis of a grant application.  The TIGER grant application selected one of these and the Council approved the application…and so on.

Here are my questions about the project itself (in no particular order):

  1. Costs of retrofitting: This project builds capacity for non-motorized transportation which has not only been excluded from transportation planning until quite recently but made substantially more difficult by projects like the Highway 3 expansion.  What amount is reasonable to remedy a problem created by a mono-modal transportation project (and how can gradual improvement be added back into the transportation planning and budgeting in the future)?  When answering this question, try to identify the ways in which government subsidizes automobile travel.
  2. Cost and value of completion vs. cancellation: The state and federal government are spending money on this project; in addition to the financial contribution, what value is there in completing this project on time, honoring our commitment, and developing good working relationships with the agencies?  When answering this question, map how transportation dollars are allocated to local government from other levels of government.
  3. How does this project link to other bicycle/pedestrian facilities?  Does building this link help increase the usefulness of those facilities?  What other future improvements will further integrate this link into the network?
  4. Compared to other projects of similar scope/complexity, are the bids reasonable?  This is another way of asking whether the grant application underestimated the cost and/or complexity of the project (and that we can believe the bid numbers are the “right” ones). 
  5. Downstream effects: This project will provide jobs, help increase value in the neighborhoods most directly served, perhaps stimulate development at the stalled Crossings development as well as providing Northwest Northfield residents with additional access to jobs and services.  What are these worth?

Yes, the project costs a lot of money and more money than anticipated.  But determining whether it is “too much” should depend on a thoughtful discussion of how the trail serves the long-term transportation goals, what contribution this project makes to future projects, and how we want to build accessibility and equity into the system.

I would like to hear the Council discuss and reach a shared understanding (if not agreement) about the policy perspective adopted by the City which seeks to address transportation beyond cars and maintain and improve the transportation system in ways which serve the entire community.  It’s a big subject which could encompass everything from walking to air quality to storm water to freight to land use to economic development…but the conversation should start and providing for non-automobile connections is one place to do it.

If a majority of the Council believes the current adopted policy positions are misguided, then change the guiding policy with community participation.  Don’t get to the point of decision on projects and try to dismantle the policy one vote at a time.

 

 

Forget placemaking, just do it: Northfield edition

“Placemaking” is everyplace these days. My Twitter feed (admittedly heavy on urbanism, land use, and transportation) positively bristles with #placemaking.

The Project for Public Spaces, the epicenter of placemaking theory and practice, says it’s “More than a fashionable phrase, it’s a whole new way of thinking about fostering vital communities.” In Forbes, placemaking is introduced to a wider audience as “a response to top down, regulation heavy environments” and Atlantic Cities has a placemaking topic page.

Placemaking is not new and it’s not necessary – read more at streets.mn

Northfield’s Original Town

 

Downtown matters

Downtown matters.

Northfield’s downtown is pretty:

nddc16.jpg

Downtown Northfield
(photo northfield.org)

And active:

VBFBridgeSquare

Vintage Band Festival on Bridge Square (photo northfield.org)

Downtown Northfield really matters because those few square blocks offer the highest tax revenue per acre possible with a more dense, multi-story, mixed use pattern puts more value on less space (and existing infrastructure); more jobs (800 jobs estimated downtown) and more tax revenue.

Here are a couple of examples of doing the tax revenue arithmetic from Brainerd and Asheville, NC (or here).  And here is a sample of the tax revenue on a sampling of Northfield properties (sorted by total revenue or by tax revenue per acre).

I’ve argued repeatedly that Northfield could do better – financially, environmentally and socially (the triple bottom line) by thinking about the interface between how we permit (and encourage) land to be used, the cost to provide services and the connections among places. Focusing attention on connecting to a central core helps make Northfield an investment ready place.  As a central place, downtown can be reached more easily by bicycle and foot as well as driving.

The City of Northfield, by encouraging development/redevelopment in and near the core and guiding future growth in a pattern which, like downtown, captures more value from infrastructure spending and more productive use of land resources, can balance its budget and build community at the same time.

Northfield and its downtown have a few big advantages.  The Northfield Downtown Development Corporation is one of them (full disclosure: I’m a board member.  I joined the board because of all the things I’m saying here) and it springs from some of the other strengths of the Northfield community like:

Engaged and invested citizens: In 2000, a group of 4 business people had the long-range vision to create the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation to serve as the organization devoted to ensuring a strong downtown in Northfield despite highway development pressures and other challenges.

Thoughtful elected officials in the past: The City of Northfield has provided a portion of the NDDC’s funding since its inception.  The approximately $300,000 over 13 years contributed by the City has allowed the NDDC to leverage grant funding, private donations and support from downtown businesses to much more than match the public funding.  In return, the City receives direct assistance from the NDDC (collecting information from property and business owners and the public; expert input on City projects and planning; assisting staff with projects; helping educate the community about downtown…) as well as the indirect benefits of the NDDC’s work and collaboration with other groups to bring more people downtown to shop, work, locate their business, and live.

NDDC’s commitment to building coalitions and relationships with other groups and people is crucial to the success of the downtown.

Colleges: Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges benefit from having a great downtown as a selling point for their colleges…and so the downtown and the City benefit from having two fine Colleges which spend money, are fine employers, and provide cultural resources a city of 20,000 wouldn’t usually have.  And the NDDC has worked especially hard to engage the colleges, both administration and students reaping rewards of valuable research from student projects, college partners for events such as the Taste of Northfield, and working to recapture alumni.  The NDDC has worked to establish a calendar of college events which can help downtown businesses plan for large groups of people and busy weekends.

Regional partners: the NDDC has facilitated conversations and planning with township partners, the CRWP, and Mill Towns Trail to find ways to coordinate efforts to protect resources and find ways to capture more value from connections to and through downtown.

Local partners: The NDDC is just one of the groups working in and around downtown.  The Northfield Arts Guild, Riverwalk Market Fair, Northfield Historical Society, Convention and Visitors Bureau and events organizers (like the volunteers who organize the Defeat of Jesse James Days) all help downtown be a great place to be and invest.

Defeat of Jesse James Days bank raid reenactment (photo DJJD)

Northfield’s downtown has some big challenges, too.

Bad math by the Mayor and some Council members: Not only Northfield, but most places continue to misunderstand the costs of growth and luring business compared to growing our own.  A corollary to this one is what I call the Museum Theory of Downtown; downtown is a cute place for tourists to visit, but doesn’t have any real economic value compared to industrial development.  See here, for example.  Or here.

Lack of clear priorities.  The City has adopted some very clear and forward looking policies, but the current Council fails to articulate rational and justifiable priorities. 

A smart Council would recognize the high return it gets from the NDDC already, how the City could leverage its investment in the NDDC to carry out the advice received at Mayor Graham’s 2013 Panel on Economic Development to recognize, highlight and strengthen Northfield’s assets – great downtown, high quality of life and two colleges.

A smart Council would understand that downtown matters.

nddc12.jpg

Northfield’s Riverwalk (photo northfield.org)

 

 

 

Important discussion tonight at the Council

Capital planning should not follow the Field of Dreams model

Tonight at the Council worksession, they’ll be discussing the Capital Improvement Plan.  I believe the CIP is the single most important tool the City has…and Northfield’s, while greatly improved over the last few years, is still not what it could be.  The goal is to plan for and schedule projects to ensure the city is not spending money on things which cost more to maintain than they return on the investment and that the city can identify the revenue to cover the initial costs and the upkeep.

The City, as part of the CIP review, should:

Inventory what we already have, then develop ways to present this to the Council and public which are clear, not misleading and continually updated (surely someone can come up with great data visualizations for municipal planning and spending).  Northfield’s Councilmembers should have flashcards so they could answer (in round, ballpark numbers):

  • How much do we have (e.g. square feet of street, lineal feet of sewer, number of buildings, etc.)?
  • What are the (annual, 10-year, etc.) maintenance costs?
  • When do those costs come due (how old are those buildings, streets, etc.)?
  • What is the revenue stream to cover those costs (general fund, utility fees, etc.)?

Prioritize projects because there will not be enough money to do everything.  Here’s where the Council should be reviewing the long-range plans (like the Comprehensive Plan and its progeny) to remind themselves of priorities which have already been established, updating those plans by gathering citizen input and making the tough choices about what to allocate money to do including both immediate needs and longer term goals for improvement. Policies and plans can help put individual spending choices in a larger context and (one hopes) avoid duplication and increase strategic spending.

The process needs to be part education (Council needs to answer the questions above then convey the picture to the public) and part strategic planning and spending.  Not easy.  Good luck tonight, Council.

The Moneyball approach would be much better

 

 

Taming TIGER’s critics in Northfield

Banksy’s elephant in a room

See my post on streets.mn… “The elephant in the room when discussing Northfield…is always TH3. Everything I love about Northfield stands in complete opposition to TH3, which seems to only distract from the Northfield experience” commented Rueben Collins of VeloTraffic in response to Northfield on streets.mn.  These days, that elephant is making a great deal of noise in the Council chambers as the City Council continues to discuss the trail project under the highway funded in part by a federal TIGER grant.

Bicycles and political will

Space needed to transport 60 people by bike, car or bus...then there's the parking

Space needed to transport 60 people by bike, car or bus…then there’s the parking

Although I still don’t have a bicycle here in England (although I daydream about a certain orange Brompton), there’s bicycle policy news to round up.

Back in 2012, I blogged about strict liability for motorists in bicycle/automobile “interactions.”  In the past week, “my” MP (if I were eligible to vote here) Julian Huppert introduced a motion at the Liberal Democrats party autumn conference to adopt the Get Britain Cycling recommendations as official Lib Dem policy including policy on proportionate liability for motorists the “not-controversial-almost-everywhere-else measure that makes it easier for road crash victims to claim on insurance.”

But, progress at the Lib Dem conference on bike policy has not met with joy at home here in Cambridge where the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner calls it “very silly” in the front page headline of the Cambridge News above, of course, a photo of Mr Huppert.

Coincidentally, I decided to drop in on Copenhagenize, one of my favorite bike policy and design blogs and right at the top was Part 10 of the Top Ten Design Elements in Bicycle-Friendly Copenhagen.

Part 10 is Political Will.  Sigh.

Back in Northfield, a lack of political will to change policy, planning and projects to provide alternatives to private automobiles – walking, cycling, transit persists.  There are certainly leaders around town and, at the moment, a majority of the Council who are interested in increasing transportation options.  But I don’t think these individuals and the bare majority of votes constitute political will, but more like dedicated opposition to the status quo.  Small progress is made here and there, but there is no commitment of the City Council, staff and appointed leaders to build non-motorized transportation into the budget, planning and life of the city.  That would be political will.

Here in Cambridge and the UK, there’s political engagement at higher levels of government – if Northfield’s state representatives and Minnesota’s Congressional delegation were as active as MP Huppert in pursuing cycling policy with their parties and the legislature, that would be a big step up and forward.  There’s no discussion of get the US Cycling as there is to Get Britain Cycling, for example.

But I sense Mr Huppert is a strong leader who is still working to get the attention of Cambridge and broader coalitions in Parliament and still trying to generate the needed political will to create different transportation vision where cycling is common, safe and legitimate and (the real issue) resources are allocated to make it real.

Apparently the UK government is not doing much about bicycles (nor cycling, I tried both terms)

 

 

Across the pond, happily

Yes, the blog has been silent of late.  I’m now writing from Cambridge, England and it took a bit of time and effort to accomplish the relocation.  Worth it, though.

Cattle in (the middle of) Cambridge

Cattle in (the middle of) Cambridge

Cambridge, like Northfield, is a city of cows and colleges but with more of both: Cambridge University has 31 colleges plus Anglia Ruskin University; the cows are not only within the city limits, but right downtown. But, the time and space scales are very different: Cambridge is about 6 times larger than Northfield in population occupying about the same square footage.  By 1855 when Northfield was founded, Cambridge University had been around for more than half a millennium.

Kings College with cow

Kings College with cow

I have been thinking about bicycles – both because I have become the accidental cycling advocate, but also because I am just seeing so many regular folks cycling around Cambridge – old people, kids, people in suits, families, cargo bikes, shoppers, workers.  You know, cycling for transportation in regular clothes while talking on your mobile phone – just like driving!  There are cycle tracks, bike lanes on streets, bike-specific signals and lots of bike parking.  The very center of Cambridge is a pedestrian and cycle only area.  There’s a national-level Get Britain Cycling Campaign (here are the recommendations including a £10 per person/per year budget increasing to £20 – if Northfield adopted such a budget/policy locally that would be $315,000 for cycling annually) and Parliament itself just had a debate (transcript here) championed by the MP from Cambridge, Julian Huppert.

Compared to Northfield, Cambridge cycling looks pretty amazing.  Cycling for transport is so rare in Northfield that most of the real planning and infrastructure questions aren’t even on the horizon (yet).  In Cambridge, there are many, many more cyclists (18% of adults cycle to work – the highest proportion in England – and 47% cycle at least once a week – but perhaps exaggerated), more car traffic, narrower streets and more constraints (regulatory, architectural, etc.); the problems of cycling access and safety become regular transportation issues.  So, while there is much more bicycle infrastructure, it is not complete nor always well designed (and new development does not always consider cycling appropriately).

Improvements to a difficult 5-way intersection

And, sadly, Cambridge is not immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous politicians.

Meanwhile, back in Northfield, the TIGER trail had no bids for construction, but will be re-bid this Fall.  TIGER funds continue to be awarded for retrofitting the auto transportation system for other modes of transportation and in support of Complete Streets.  As Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx noted “This is investment. It’s investment in safety. It’s investment in community. It’s investment in mobility.”  Minnesota State Senator Scott Dibble (from an interview with Streetfilms) said of the Sabo Bridge

“There’s been some criticism about the amount of money we spend on these facilities…But when you do the head count and you really do the cost/benefit analysis, and compare that to how much money we put into the transportation infrastructure for cars — and you look at the benefit, in terms of transportation, in terms of connecting communities, in terms of livability, quality of life and just how it makes people feel about where they live — it just can’t even be compared.”

And, I’d add for Northfield’s TIGER trail, it’s spending to increase the productivity of the existing transportation network by creating a new link between the two halves of town at a very small (compared to auto-spending) cost.

I wonder how the conversation would change if we had (1) Cambridge rates of cycling and (2) elected leaders at the local and state level championing cycling.