Still not a safe route to school

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

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

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

Speed limits on TH 246

Speed limits on TH 246

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

Old problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigger Picture

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

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

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

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

    TH 246 design screams “Drive Fast!”

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

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

A version of this post also appears on

Connecting the West side, take 2

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

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

From Big Project to Small Improvements

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

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

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

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

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

The improvements in more detail

Map of West Side improvements

Map of West Side improvements

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

How you can help

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

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

Looking ahead

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

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


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

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






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



More “What else fits in that parking space?”

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

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


Daylighting at the Library

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

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

Daylighting: Make Your Crosswalks Safer from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architectural drawing of library expansion, east side

Library expansion, east side (Image Northfield Public Library)

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

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

3rd Street intersections

3rd Street intersections

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

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

drawing of NACTO gateway curb extension

Gateway curb extension (image NACTO Urban Street Design Guide)




Crossing the highway one intersection at a time

Crossing Highway 3 in Northfield (on foot) should get somewhat easier soon.  Tonight, March 3, the Northfield City Council will vote whether to order plans and specifications for a redesign of the intersection at 3rd Street and Highway 3.

Diagram of proposed changes to Highway 3 & 3rd Street Northfield

Proposed changes to Highway 3 at 3rd Street

Good for pedestrians

This will be a big improvement for people on foot (and perhaps motorized scooters or wheelchairs).  By capitalizing on the diagonal highway, the new crosswalk will connect the southeast to the northwest corner for a shorter crossing distance (about 106′) than a straight across connection and also shorter than crossing at either 5th Street or 2nd Street (although those intersections have signals).  For comparison, east-west crossing distances at 2nd Street are approximately 115′ from the northeast to northwest corner; the southeast to southwest crossing is about 125.’

Image of Intersection at Highway 3 and 2nd Street

Intersection at Highway 3 and 2nd Street

At 5th Street, the pedestrian islands (“pork chops”) create refuge spaces but increase the complexity of the intersection for pedestrians as well as lengthening crossing distances (southwest to southeast is about 180′ while northwest to northeast is about 190′).

Image of Highway 3 and 5th Street intersection

Highway 3 and 5th Street intersection

Crossing distances are important, especially for older or slower walkers.  Signals are timed for a certain number of feet per second walking speed (it used to be 4 feet per second, now revised to 3.5, I believe, which is still pretty quick for older walkers).  Although no signal will be installed at 3rd Street, fewer feet across mean less time needed to cross.

The addition of a median at 3rd Street will prevent vehicle traffic from crossing the highway as well as creating a more robust refuge space for walkers than the thin median already in place.  The diagonal crossing also protects pedestrians from right turning traffic; cars turning right on red at 2nd Street have contributed to several cases of drivers striking pedestrians.

But not for bicycles

The design which serves pedestrians well makes travel by bicycle more difficult. Bicycles, like motor vehicles, will not be able to cross the highway because the new median will block all vehicle movement straight across the highway. People riding bikes can “play pedestrian” by dismounting and using the crosswalk, of course, but this is counter-intuitive and potentially confusing to both riders and drivers.

Alternatively, people riding bikes can take the right in-right out option but then they will be faced with no easy option for bicycles to turn left at Second or Fifth Street to continue across the highway.  For motorized vehicles, this right in-right out configuration is also less direct, but distances and directness are more critical for human-powered bicycles and crossing lanes of motor vehicle traffic to use left turn lanes at adjacent intersections is a typical and predictable action for cars (but not bicycles)

The bike sensor for the traffic signal at 2nd Street is a bike-only improvement, but using this sensor still requires pretty confident vehicular cycling to ride boldly into the bike box in the traffic lane to trip the sensor.

Image of bike sensor in 2nd Street and Highway 3

Bike sensor

A strange process

The Northfield Roundtable is a group of citizens dedicated to considering “what could be, not what should be” in Northfield through good design. The Roundtable is allergic to political engagement (stating so at Council worksessions) and conducts its work through carefully controlled interactions with a very limited and invited selection of the public (Northfield’s group was inspired by Holland, MI, but has not followed that group’s work to have its plans adopted by the city government).

This project and much of the design were developed at a Roundtable session in 2014 which, through the efforts of a single Roundtable member cultivating relationships with MnDOT representatives, included MnDot engineers. The idea was seized by City staff, discussed at a worksession with Roundtable members, given nods along the way by the Council, and now being developed with grant funding from MnDOT and the TIF District.  Other interest groups like the Garden Club, Save the Northfield Depot, and BikeNorthfield have weighed in, but robust public process has been lacking. As a member of the BikeNorthfield steering committee (although this post is my opinion alone), I appreciate having BikeNorthfield included in the conversation to build bikes back into the transportation planning process, but this kind of private consultation should not define city process going forward.

The big picture

This is an “ends justify the means” project. Despite the less than public process leading to this point, there’s still much to celebrate with the end product.  From the top down, it is heartening to see MnDOT both permitting and participating in a project to help heal the damage caused by their trunk highway (and funding some of it through a Local Road Improvement Project grant). It is also encouraging to see a project proceed quickly from planning to construction planned for 2015 (although less public process helps speed project development). Considering the project as part of the entire Highway 3 corridor, this improvement really does make the highway more permeable to pedestrians and could be an important pedestrian link to a relocated Northfield Depot (especially if it becomes a transit hub). The pedestrian only design, however, should push Northfield to look to other intersections for additional improvements for helping bicycles, pedestrians and other vulnerable users cross easily and safely at all intersections.


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 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

Dear Mayor Graham – Bike and pedestrian safety edition

MayorChallengeSignUp-cDear Mayor Graham,

I hope you’ve been thinking about joining Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx’s  Mayor’s Challenge for improving safety for bicycle riders and pedestrians of all ages and abilities this year.  Northfield is so well-positioned to make significant progress on this issue already that your strong leadership of the Council and city staff in this effort could make significant change happen now.

Secretary Foxx’s challenge requires (1) issuing a public statement about the importance of bike and pedestrian safety, (2) forming a local action team, and (3) local action through Mayor’s Challenge activities.

A public statement is easy, of course. The local action team would also be simple to form from Northfield’s appointed commissions, community groups and the passionate local advocates for bike and pedestrian safety who are already working on these issues. Northfield is also so ready to tackle the Challenge activities which include:

Take a Complete Streets approach.

Northfield’s nationally recognized Complete Streets policy established our commitment to this way of rethinking streets. The next two major street projects – Woodley Street (2016) and West 2nd Street (2015) – designed using the Complete Streets approach to reallocating space across entire right of way to serve all users safely could — with strong support from the mayor, council and city staff — bring transformative change to these two critical street corridors.

Woodley Street is important for implementing Northfield’s Safe Routes to School Plan for improving safe access to Sibley School as well as the outdoor pool, high school and downtown.  West 2nd Street is our most important east/west connection from St. Olaf College, past Way Park, and into the heart of Northfield.

Mayflower Hill to Sibley, etc.

Woodley Street is a critical link

Complete Streets is also an incremental approach which uses regularly scheduled street projects to capture opportunities to build on-road bike networks during routine resurfacing.  After all, bike lanes and crosswalks can start with just paint; space can be reassigned easily and cheaply after any resurfacing project.

Identify and address barriers

Northfield has already done substantial work toward identifying barriers. Highway 3 is the largest barrier and Northfield has already gathered information about the importance of providing safe, convenient crossing of the highway with the documentation for the TIGER trail project and upcoming 3rd Street improvements.  Northfield’s Safe Routes to School Plan is focused on removing barriers to safe access to our schools  (but Northfield High School, St. Dominic’s School and Arcadia Charter School still need study). The NDDC has done substantial work collecting information and making recommendations for improving bike and pedestrian safety in and around downtown starting in 2005 at the request of then Mayor Lansing and continuing in 2006, 2007 and as part of its contract with the city in 2014.

A sidewalk along Highway 3, but still hard to cross

A sidewalk along Highway 3, but still hard to cross

As a City Council member, my constituents at the Village on the Cannon repeatedly asked for safer crossings of Water Street at 7th Street by finding ways to slow traffic and connect sidewalks on both sides of the street.  I also heard from Sumner Street residents who worried about pedestrian safety with fast traffic on that very wide (MSA), sidewalk-free street as well as Woodley Street folks asking for continuous sidewalks on that collector street. No doubt you and the current Council have your own stories.

Safe crossing of 7th Street needed

Safe crossing of 7th Street needed

Gather and track biking and walking data

While Northfield has been thinking about bike and pedestrian safety for a long time, 2014 marked the first bike and pedestrian count as part of MnDOT’s statewide count giving us initial baseline data. Northfield’s application to be a Bike Friendly Community (for which we received Honorable mention) also required assembling data on bike lanes, bike racks, plans, policies and more. The Challenge is a great opportunity to continue gathering the data which inform planning.

2014 Bike Count data

2014 Bike Count data

Context sensitive solutions 

Institutionalized context insensitive design is a problem Northfield (and most other cities) face with each project. Standard designs for collector streets like Woodley do not consider the local character of the street; MSA-funded streets are required to be designed to standards which do not consider the street in its local context. Overbuilding streets costs the city money, too, in more pavement, more stormwater to manage and by designing bikes and pedestrians out of the picture. Fortunately, much work is being done at the highest levels to change this and build safety, access, and convenience into street design. Secretary Foxx asks engineers to consult a range of manuals including the NACTO design guides. In December, three senators asked the GAO to evaluate how conventional engineering practices (like those currently being considered for Woodley Street) encourage higher speeds and higher fatalities. The Mayor’s Challenge is a fine opportunity to better integrate land use with transportation for greater access and safety.

Addressing more of the 5E’s

The Mayor’s Challenge works to improve all 5E’s: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation which contribute to Bike Friendly Communities. I’ve focused on infrastructure improvements above since there are critical street projects underway right now, but the Challenge also calls for cities to improve walking and biking safety laws and regulations and educate and enforce proper road use behavior by all.

Northfield's 2014 Bikable Community Workshop

Working on all 5E’s: Northfield’s 2014 Bikeable Community Workshop

Please accept the Challenge, Mayor Graham. Having the Secretary of Transportation ask for change can give Northfield the encouragement and justification it needs to implement the fine policies already on the books and add value with each street project. Like the GreenStep Cities program helps Northfield’s work toward sustainability, the Challenge gives direction and structure to building bike and pedestrian into the system (and helps with sustainability, too!). Northfield has already been recognized as livable, great for retirement and working toward being a Bike Friendly Community; meeting this Challenge could add to this list of accolades and give you something you could be very proud of accomplishing in your administration.

With warm wishes and high hopes,

Betsey Buckheit

From Money Magazine: This man is not retired, but does enjoy cycling in Northfield

From Money Magazine: This man is not retired, but does enjoy cycling in Northfield

Soup and Cycles 2.0

soup&cycles_webThe 2nd Annual Soup and Cycles event will be Thursday, January 15 at 6 pm.  The inaugural Soup and Cycles event was organized by Councilmember Suzie Nakasian in November 2013 as “an information gathering and brainstorm for representatives of Northfield area bike clubs and bike-interested groups, community leaders and educators.”  The event was intentionally broad with discussions ranging from bike education to infrastructure to off-road cycling to tourism.

Soup and Cycles 2 is an opportunity to reflect on what’s been accomplished in the last year on bicycling related matters as well as continuing to plan for the future.  I missed last year’s event because I was bicycling in Cambridge, but I’ve been working with the advocacy group which was created: BikeNorthfield

Bike advocacy

BikeNorthfield has been busy resuscitating bicycle advocacy in Northfield and getting stuff done. The Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force (a subgroup of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board which existed for two years and disbanded in 2008) was the last organized bike advocacy group; it had significant influence with Woodley Street east of town, the Parks, Open Space and Trail Plan, creating Northfield’s Safe Routes to School Plan, and organizing Walk/Bike to School events.

Bike Northfield in 2014

A quick list of what BikeNorthfield has done, helped to do, and thought about last year:

Laura and Derek Meyers

Laura & Derek Meyers – LCIs and HCI Making a Difference winners (and the high capacity bike rack on Division Street)

Looking ahead in 2015

Here is a really quick glance at what BikeNorthfield could be doing this year, but you should come to Soup and Cycles and help fill out this list (and volunteer to do some of the work).

  • Infrastructure projects are huge opportunities for improving cycling, walking, environmental sustainability, quality of life, economic opportunity and more.  Woodley Street, Second Street, and TH 246/Jefferson Parkway are big projects starting in 2015.
  • Working toward a bike advisory committee for the City. A continuing challenge for improving bicycling is the combination of education for decision-makers and building a critical mass of support.  Committed bike advocates often have looked at solutions in other places, talked to other cyclists and thought longer and harder about good design solutions; we need to share both the design thinking (which often conflicts, at least superficially, with the “way we always do things”) and bring our friends to convince elected officials and city staff of the demand and the design. The time line, scope and structure for such a committee needs your help.
  • Bike Friendly Community revisited. Honorable Mention is an irritating recogintion – close, but not quite.  BikeNorthfield hopes to work for improvements in Northfield, apply again and get the Bronze. Because the BFC application and review process is concrete and specific, it helps Northfield look at which of the 5E’s need more attention and how to focus efforts.

BFC_Fall2014_ReportCard_Northfield copy

My list reflects my interest in improving land use and transportation; there’s also more to be done educating, encouraging, evaluating and enforcing. Please come help!


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]


No fun urbanism

Sarah Goodyear doesn’t want us to have fun.  She complains fun urban tricks like swings, slides and games are “dangerously beside the point” of making cities safer, cleaner and more livable.

I think this criticism misses the point.  Swings and slides are not “design solutions” and I don’t believe they’re intended to solve big city problems.  No one is proposing substituting crosswalk pong for better pedestrian design and to make city residents safer on the streets.

Little bits of fun and delight help make the city a better place to live or visit, a better place to advocate for larger/deeper solutions and a better place to connect with other people. Building small scale, small budget fun into the city helps encourage larger cultural climate change which can help create advocates for better design, safer pedestrian facilities, and more livable cities because people want to be there.

For a small city like Northfield where it is almost always more obvious and more convenient to drive, an excuse to get out of the car and play is needed.  Playing pong here:


might get a few more people walking and a few of those might think “Let’s fix this stroad so it’s easier, safer and more fun to cross.” Then, maybe one person starts advocating for substantial change.