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 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

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 streets.mn]

 

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:

DSC04923

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Near misses and other cycling data

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

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

My beautiful blue bike

My beautiful blue bike

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

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

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

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

BFC_Fall2014_ReportCard_Northfield copy

 

Taking the long view

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

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

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

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

photo: People for Bikes

 

Bike-cation in Northfield

Bikeyface could have been in Northfield!

Bikeyface could have been in Northfield!

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

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

Bike-cation in Northfield, Plan A

How to get to bike trails

How to get to bike trails

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

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

Carleton Water tower

Carleton’s water tower and Lyman Lakes

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

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

Bike-cation Plan B

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

How to get to bike trails

How to get to bike trails

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

So close

As Bikeyface noted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this post appears at streets.mn

 

Woodley Street: Narrowing the focus

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

Woodley Street project area

Woodley Street project area

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

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

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

There’s not enough space!

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

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

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

It’s not safe!

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

Woodley Street Death Curve

Woodley Street Death Curve

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

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

Sidewalks cost too much!

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

Reallocating space and priorities

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this post appears on streets.mn