Passenger Rail to Northfield?

Dan Patch line map

Dan Patch Line (photo Northfield Historical Society)

Although freight trains move through Northfield daily, it’s been about 45 years since the last passenger train passenger trains stopped at the Northfield Depot. Now grassroots efforts to restore passenger rail from the Twin Cities to Northfield and points south are gathering steam.

Even talking about taking the train to Northfield has been difficult.  From 1910 until operations ceased in 1942, the Dan Patch line carried passengers from Minneapolis through Saint Louis Park, Edina, Savage and south. The tracks still carry freight trains, but the prospect of returning commuter rail to the backyards of suburban residents lead Edina legislators to write the Dan Patch Commuter Rail Prohibition into legislation passed in 2002 expressly prohibiting government agencies from studying or allocating any funds for the Dan Patch line.

Speaking out about rail planning

Inter-City Regional Passenger Rail Route Options form So Central MN through Northfield to the Twin Cities Metro_1_1 (1)

Not the Dan Patch Line: Inter-city regional passenger rail route options

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to repeal this gag order, so Northfield state legislator David Bly and grassroots organizers have employed a different strategy this time around: it’s not the Dan Patch line and it’s not commuter rail, it’s intercity regional passenger rail.

At this point, grassroots action is focused on building a coalition of communities along the proposed corridor supporting increasing the priority of this project from Tier II to Tier I when MnDOT updates its rail plan (mandated every 5 years). As part of this effort, the Northfield City Council and the Economic Development Authority both approved sending letters of support to MnDOT. The 2010 Rail Plan envisions an “intrastate intercity passenger rail network” on existing freight lines connecting regional centers to “the new Minneapolis downtown terminal” and Union Depot in Saint Paul.

Encouraging MnDOT to make this a higher priority would help build passenger rail back into the planning and finding a way around legislative impediments to discussing, studying and planning for transportation alternatives is a necessary start.  Comments are accepted until January 31, 2015; here’s the link to add yours.

Planning priorities

I learned to love trains as a college student outside Philadelphia and have had the good fortune to spend time in England and Europe where intercity trains and their links to other transit make a car unnecessary. Current efforts to relocate and restore the historic Northfield Depot could dovetail with the restoration of passenger trains; plans to make the Depot a transit hub (a project worthy of its own post) in Northfield add to the mix. Reliable train service from Northfield to The Cities would have changed my career choices, expanded school options for my daughter, altered some of my longer distance travel plans and made living in Northfield much richer.  Yes indeed, I would take the trains from Northfield to the Twin Cities. But much as I love trains, I want to see passenger rail integrated into a larger picture of the regional transportation puzzle.

Northfield, not quite metro: Northfield teeters on the edge of the metro with most of the city in non-metro Rice County and a small piece in metro Dakota County (which is not under the Metropolitan Council’s jurisdiction). While almost in the metro with many workers heading north, we resist being the next Lakeville in character or development pattern. How should Northfield position itself in the rail (or any other state or regional transportation) planning?

Northfield, just off the map

Northfield, just off the map

Buses: Metro Transit bus projects like the Red and Orange Lines which reach or are planned to reach southern metro suburbs have been under development, since the last Rail Plan took effect (Northfield’s Metro Express is also an important but limited service which could be part of the mix) and MnDOT documents suggest these services could siphon significant rail demand.  Reliable bus service might be less aesthetically less pleasing to me, but would have worked to expand my Northfield horizons just as well as rail. Could Metro Transit and Northfield plan together?

Commuter or intercity rail? I fully appreciate the need to circumvent powerful political opposition to the Dan Patch commuter rail line and suspect funding falls into commuter pots and intercity pots of dollars, too.  But will most Northfield riders use rail service as daily, peak hour commuters (more like the Northstar Line) or occasional travelers on intercity lines (more like Amtrak)?  Bearing in mind that Dan Patch discussions took place under the commuter rail heading (with the Dan Patch line having higher ridership projections than the Northstar Line), how does useful information from that conversation feed into the intercity debate? Or do commuters take buses and other travelers get on the train (and is this part of the discussion)?

I’d love to be able to take the train from Northfield to the Twin Cities and beyond, but I’m more interested in a discussion considering all the options for regional transit including how state and Metro Transit discussions can occur to together.

[A version of this post also appears 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.

 

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

 

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)

 

 

Development hubris revisited

The Elk Run Biobusiness Park is a project which keeps me shaking my head at the hubris of the Pine Island officials who have supported this “if you build it, they will come” development debacle and the MNDoT logic which threw millions (about $45 of them) of tax dollars at the interchange serving, as yet, nothing.

Back story: Back in 2011, I posted this about Elk Run and its history of problems and in 2012 the lawsuits started, there were unpaid property taxes, and Pine Island eliminated the city administrator job out from under the pro-Elk Run administrator.

Latest development: There’s still no development!  Not in the business park, anyway.  In June, MNDoT held a public open house in Pine Island about its diverging diamond interchange on MN52.  Problem 1: MNDoT plans to close direct access to 52 which will isolate existing businesses in order to serve the businesses which might inhabit the biobusiness park some day.  Problem 2:  Pine Island bet heavily with MNDoT; the deal for the interchange included promises to create 20 biobusiness jobs a year starting in 2013 until 2021 which, if not created, will cost Pine Island $20,000 for each job which doesn’t exist.  Pine Island is trying to negotiate so MNDoT won’t call in those chips.

Glimmer of hope: A letter to the editor in the Cannon Falls Beacon asking “Given today’s environment of scarce resources, shouldn’t transportation planning rely on something more than wishful thinking?

Thinking about cycling differently

Beware bicyclesDorothy Rabinowitz’s video rant about New York City’s bike sharing program may be the most blogged about bit of cycling commentary in recent memory.  Let’s just say her statements mark the extreme view of US cycling where bikes simply do not belong on streets or in cities (and here’s a link to learn about the real bike lobby, not the mythical one Rabinowitz described).  There’s been some more local hoo-ha about cyclists vs. drivers,

In Northfield, we’ve put pretty good policy in place for encouraging cycling and walking, as well as for building sidewalks, bike trails and on-street bike facilities as we take on street projects.  Each new project, however, which tries to build non-automobile facilities continues to meet with resistance from some Council and community members while being  championed by others.

Part of the problem seems to be that in Northfield and New York has nothing to do with the infrastructure, though, but the perception cyclists are some special class of people and, consequently, “they” are sucking up resources that “we” need for other things, like cars.  Perhaps we can stop thinking of cyclists and start thinking of people on bikes, you know, as people like everybody else.  And here’s a little video from a Dutch cyclist who, while visiting the US, observes “the average cyclist in San Francisco seems to be a young fit adult, mostly male and appears to be in a constant hurry” and, unlike Amsterdam, cycling here is recreational, not transportational (and Americans don’t wear “normal clothes”).

For the record, I’m trying to sell my road bikes (the kind one rides in spandex shorts) and keeping my beater bike for riding around town from point A to B in my regular clothes (even skirts), but I’d kind of like one of these.

And here’s a little round-up of other cycling-related stuff which has clustered lately around good infrastructure (and planning infrastructure) and “peak car” – new studies show driving is declining.  Somehow I also fell upon a few older posts about the cost of car ownership (cars from AAAcomparison from NYTimes and a DIY calculator from Bikes at Work and a great new phrase “infrastructurally coerced car ownership” from A New Dallas).

 

 

 

Schools and where to put them

Northfield Middle School – beautiful and isolated

Northfield Middle School tops my list for local planning failures; it “wins” because its location and design shine a bright light on Northfield’s development pattern over the last 25-30 years.  There’s a lot to learn from the Middle School.

I served on the Planning Commission when the Middle School was in development, but in 2001-3 the Commission’s and neighbors’ questions about increased traffic and connectivity didn’t register in the development culture of the time.

Indeed, it’s only in the last few months that I’ve been reading about the importance of school siting and its role in community planning, physical activity, safety and more (in addition to all the other more general information in the last few years about walkable communities).

Old Middle School

Old middle school location

The old Middle School (now Carleton College’s Weitz Center for Creativity) occupied just over one city block – about 3.75 acres – on the east edge of downtown.  The original building had been the city’s high school and had been expanded several times, but could no longer accommodate the 1000 students (in a growing town).  Students used the city park next to the school and athletic fields about 6 blocks away for sports and PE classes.

Old and new middle school

Old and new middle school

The new Middle School became the 3rd school in Northfield’s south side campus; the Middle School occupies 60.6 acres at the south end of about 145 acres of school property with Northfield High School at the north end and Bridgewater Elementary School in the middle.

The location at the edge of town was almost guaranteed.  School siting guidelines at the time called for 35-40 acres for a middle school of 1000+ students; Northfield’s 2001 Comprehensive Plan also guided development of schools – because of their traffic impacts – to the edges of residential developments.  In 2009, after NMS was built, Minnesota removed minimum acreage requirements for school development.

Putting the school at the far south edge of town increased the distance to school for many students, but prior planning decisions make the Middle School hard to reach even for those living within sight of the school.  The multischool campus sits on the west side of MN state highway 246; Jefferson Parkway runs between Bridgewater Elementary and the High School.  The Middle School’s only entrance is on Highway 246.

EW subdivisions

No exit

The residential subdivision to the west was designed with multiple culs de sacs radiating off a single loop of street.  Within the boundaries of the subdivision, there is obvious logic to the arrangement, but there are no opportunities to connect to surrounding destinations. The only one way out is onto Jefferson Parkway which was “improved” when the Middle School was built by adding a median.  Unfortunately, the median makes it unsafe to bicycle on the street because the lanes are too narrow to permit a bicycle and car side by side and the median prevents cars from moving left to avoid cyclists.  And, more recent research shows that the cul de sac – collector pattern is less safe than a more grid-like pattern which slows and distributes traffic. On the plus side, walking or bicycling from this side of the school is relatively easy on well connected off street trails.

250' to walk, 1.5 miles to drive

250′ to walk, 1.5 miles to drive

On the east side of the highway, another subdivision is arranged with long, interlocking streets ending in culs de sac.  Again, it makes for pretty patterns within the subdivision, but prevents any continuous north-south travel or east-west connections across the highway.

Highway 246 with its 45 to 55 mph speed limits effectively eliminates any pedestrian or bicycle traffic from the east despite off street trails parallel to the road because there is no safe crossing (and the school district buses all students east of the middle school). I’ve blogged about MNDoT’s new attention to context, but this highway predates this approach.

The end result: All school automobile traffic must funnel through the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection.  The intersection itself was not redesigned to accommodate walkers or cyclists when schools were built, so this logical crossing point is difficult at best and deadly at worst (there’s been one fatality during school rush hour).

What could we do differently for Northfield’s next school?  

Educate city and school district planners (and the voters who support school bond referendums and city council policymakers) about how can good school locations coupled with transportation planning can help improve traffic safety, public health, and quality of life. Serendipitously, Northfield school board member Rob Hardy just blogged about the district wellness policy:  “all students in grades K-12 will have opportunities, support, and encouragement to be physically active on a regular basis.”  One way is to have physical education classes and sports teams; another is to think about siting and designing schools to make it easy to walk or bicycle to reach them (Here’s a summary of issues from the Safe Routes to School partnership).  

Collaboration should be next: As in most places, the city and school district in Northfield haven’t collaborated in planning (here’s another take on this). In 2009, the city and school district did work together on a Safe Routes to School planning grant; the resulting plan outlines improvements we can make to improve bike and pedestrian access to the current schools, but thinking ahead, we should want to avoid the need for retrofits by planning schools on safe routes to begin with.

Northfield has already adopted policies which should make this easier – Safe Routes to School, a Comprehensive Plan which prioritizes connectivity and multi-modal transportation as well as neighborhood schools, the MN GreenStep cities program, and our award winning Complete Streets policy.  Consistent implementation in collaboration with the school district could produce some impressive results if:

Long-term costs should be evaluated: Yup, it costs lots of money to redesign intersections and build bike/ped facilities.  However, there are also the costs to bus students who might be able to get to school on foot/bike with safer routes, the public health costs of pollution, obesity, etc. from car-reliant transportation.  How can the next school incorporate long-term thinking about where to locate and how to connect the school to the community which could avoid the need for retrofits later and realize some of the community benefits immediately?

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.pps.org/blog/walking-is-not-a-crime-questioning-the-accident-axiom/

Strong Towns – schools on safe routes

http://epa.gov/schools/siting/download.html