One small breath of fresh air at the DOT

Strong Towns recently highlighted this video from the Tennessee DOT which is worth 4 minutes for anyone who thinks about land use and transportation issues.

In the video, Tennessee DOT Commissioner John Schroer says: “A lot of cities did a poor job of long-range planning in how they did zoning and how they approved projects and took very little consideration into the transportation mode” and then the city call the DOT and ask for help treating this self-inflicted wound. Hearing a DOT official connect land use and transportation was surprising enough to be part of Sh*T DOTs Never Say rather than something a DOT Commissioner really did say.

Northfield’s Planning Mistakes

He’s right. Northfield has made some poor long-range planning mistakes which we’re asking MnDOT to help fix. Commissioner Schroer (who spent 13 years on his local school board) seemed eerily familiar with Northfield when he said cities will build a school “in the wrong place without thinking of transportation” and “put the building on the cheapest piece of property they can find and that usually has no transportation” rather than an initially more expensive location which is better connected and could save money in the long run.

Indeed. Northfield Middle School was built on 60.6 acres of farm fields at the southern edge of town in 2004, but the lack of “consideration into the transportation mode” went back decades. The fringe location was driven partly by Northfield’s planning; the 2001 Comprehensive Plan guided schools – because of their vehicle traffic impacts – to the edges of residential developments. But, state school siting guidelines at the time called for 35-40 acres for a middle school of 1000+ students (these were rescinded in 2009) so the planning issue was not purely local.

Northfield Middle School

Northfield Middle School

Not only did the southern fringe location increase 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 school sits on the west side of Minnesota Trunk Highway 246 which is the only continuous north-south route through Northfield except Minnesota Trunk Highway 3 (Northfield is not unique. Recent posts here on streets.mn tell a similar story in Mankato).

Northfield did make long-range planning mistakes by approving the residential subdivision to the west. The design with multiple culs de sacs radiating off a single loop of street make the only exit from subdivision is onto Jefferson Parkway which is the only continuous east-west connection. And, the City also made mistakes on the east side of 246 where any continuous north-south travel or east-west connections across the highway were also cut off by residential development. Add the 45 increasing to 55 mph speed limits on 246 and Northfield effectively prevented most pedestrian or bicycle traffic from the east despite off street trails parallel to the road because there is no safe crossing. All school automobile traffic must funnel through the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection so this logical crossing point is difficult at best and deadly at worst (there’s been one fatality during school rush hour).

Northfield's Middle School and how to get there

Northfield’s Middle School and how to get there

Northfield is now asking MnDOT for help to fix the problem intersection by applying for a Transportation Alternatives Program grant to study this intersection and determine the best, most cost-effective improvement at a total project cost of $477,250. Possible fixes for the intersection included in the 2009 Safe Routes to School Plan were signalization, underpass or overpass, and a roundabout; each of these solutions would bring its own price tag plus issues with wetland mitigation, right of way acquisition, and related issues, so costs will rise.

Could (or should) MnDOT have been able to save us from this? MnDOT might have been able to help Northfield address redesigning the intersection at the time of construction, but their concerns were limited to impacts to their highway such as the number of new curb cuts (limited to three), the degradation of the level of service on their trunk highway (to be monitored) and whether the intersection would meet warrants for signalization (no).

DOTs Planning Mistakes

On the other hand, while Northfield has approved projects like the Middle School without regard to the transportation issues (especially non-motorized transportation), MnDOT (and Rice County) have approved transportation projects without regard to land use which are also costing Northfield and MnDOT more in the long run.

Northfield's Highway 3

Northfield’s Highway 3

Trunk Highway 3 is the big mistake through the middle of Northfield, of course. Northfield was awarded a $1.1 million TIGER grant to construct a grade-separated crossing (plus a $500,000 local match), but engineering difficulties and increasing cost killed that project. On the plus side, MnDOT has begun to recognize the impact of their projects on the local landscape by agreeing to pay for some of the increases in the TIGER project before its demise.

MnDOT has another opportunity to share costs of retrofitting the highway this year as Northfield has applied for a Local Road Improvement Project grant to redesign the intersection at 3rd Street. The project is estimated at $273,647.00 ($50,000 local funds). Finally, a further improvement north of downtown at Fremouw Road has been penciled into the CIP at a cost of $280,000.

3rd Street and TH3 Northfield

Northfield is currently working to avoid the next DOT-imposed mistake. Woodley Street, also known as CSAH 28, is being planned now. Rice County’s engineer is insisting on 12’ travel lanes and resisting bicycle and pedestrian improvements to this county arterial road while Northfield is trying to work its Safe Routes to School plan and tailor the roadway to the residential neighborhood through which it passes. Perhaps Commissioner Schroer might take a conference call to lend some support to better local land use/transportation planning?

Rice County design standards

Rice County design standards

More Fresh Air Needed

Commissioner Schroer is a breath of fresh air which I hope blows all the way to Minnesota, but he only told half the story of the disconnect between transportation and land use planning. Perhaps retrofitting mistakes like the intersection near the Middle School and Highway 3 will cost enough to give cities like Northfield the strength and political to challenge MnDOT or our own engineers to work for more context sensitive solutions the first time. And, if cities like Northfield ask for enough money to fix problems, perhaps MnDOT will work with us when planning its own improvements to serve the local land use context better.

This post also appeared on streets.mn

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).