Northfield City Council elections might seem less than important when the world is on fire both literally (wildfires, protests) and figuratively (covid-19, presidential election, Black Lives Matter, Supreme Court, climate destruction, recession, unemployment…).
Most people think of city government as the lowest level of government and presumably less important. Local races may not generate the light and heat of other races, but city government gets shit done.
City government gets shit done.
You can’t flush your toilet, take a shower, bike around town, borrow a library book, play in the park, get trash picked up, have a beer, or get a building permit in Northfield without city government. And, relevant to current events, city government plans for emergencies, can adopt regulations and policies which reduce systemic racism, and takes action to combat climate change. How much the city can do – and how we pay for it – depends on your vote.
Vote all the way down the ballot
Council races are “down ballot” races which are sometimes “flip the ballot over and read the back” races along with county commissioners, school board members, judges, and soil and water district commissioners. It’s sometimes harder to learn about these candidates to cast an informed vote, but local races are where candidates can win with some hard work, but without a lot of money or a big organization so new voices can be heard. Voters need to know that many people don’t vote all the way down their ballot, so a few votes can make all the difference (as I discovered). Down ballot races are where change starts.
What’s down your ballot
Every two years, Northfield elects half the Council. Presidential years like 2020 see the Mayor, one at-large seat, and the Ward 2 & 3 seats up for election (2022 will be the other at large seat, plus wards 1 & 4).
Down your ballot you’ll find (depending on where you live in Northfield) these races (with links to on-line information where I can find it)
What’s on my ballot: The Minnesota Secretary of State website will show you a sample ballot for your voting ward and precinct when you enter your address.
Register to vote online or by downloading/printing forms (including information about special situations like being a college student, living abroad, experiencing homelessness and more). You can check your registration online, too, and find out about registering on election day.
The Northfield City Council is poised to approve a design for a roundabout plus bike and walk facilities at Jefferson Parkway and Division Street/TH246.
This is a once-in-a-generation large project to begin to reconnect Northfield could have been avoided or been approached incrementally if the City and School District had made more future-thinking, system-level decisions. Perhaps revisiting the history could/should help the City avoid having to spend taxpayers money to fix problems it largely created for itself.
More generally, how should the Council make its decision? Project cost is often the only objectively comparable metric among alternatives, but City staff could make clearer recommendations about why one alternative is preferable based on Northfield policy and data-supported best practices rather than presenting information as if all options are equivalent. Public input is important for preference, but polling and “dot-mocracy” should not determine the outcome of a complex project.
So, let me put a large number of words in the mouths of City staff to imagine what I wish they had said as they write their staff report for the City Council:
City Council Meeting Date: September 3, 2019
To: Mayor and City Council
From: City staff
Subject: Consider Motion authorizing Jefferson Parkway & Trunk Highway (TH) 246 Roundabout Final Design.
Action Requested: Staff Recommends a motion authorizing Jefferson Parkway & TH 246 Roundabout Final Design with Roundabout Design Alternative 2 that will include a pedestrian crossing with bumpout Option 2 design for the high school crossing.
246/Jefferson Parkway Intersection Control Evaluation
The City initiated the Intersection Control Evaluation study at the intersection of Trunk Highway (TH) 246 and Jefferson Parkway in 2016. The goal and objectives of the intersection study were as follows:
Identify improvements that alleviate peak hour congestion,
Over approximately the last 30-40 years, City land use and transportation decisions have created the problems we are now trying to solve. No single decision caused the significant vehicle congestion during school arrival and dismissal times or the dangerous conditions for people driving, walking, and riding. However, the sum of the approval of residential subdivisions which did not have continuous and connected streets, annexation of land and approval of school site plans without sufficient consideration of how people, especially kids, would reach them has resulted in the problem we now have the opportunity to begin to solve.
Presenting this historical survey before turning to the Intersection Control Evaluation is intended to assist the Council in decision making for this project and in the future by highlighting the consequences of disconnected decision-making.
History of decisions
South of Woodley Street, the grid street pattern of the older Northfield neighborhoods was abandoned with longer blocks, fewer connecting streets, and many cul de sacs or dead end streets.
The residential subdivisions on either side of TH246, both north and south of Jefferson Parkway were approved without requiring streets to connect outside the subdivision except to major collector streets. Homeowners appreciated the low traffic streets, but the long-term consequences are few opportunities to improve connectivity.
The 2008 Comprehensive Transportation Plan called out this “lack of interconnected neighborhoods” resulting in an “overreliance” on TH246 and Jefferson Parkway.
The residential subdivision to the west of TH246 was designed with multiple culs de sacs radiating off a single loop (Roosevelt Drive) with no opportunities to connect to surrounding destinations. The only exit is from Roosevelt Drive onto Jefferson Parkway. And, more recent research shows that the cul de sac – collector pattern is less safe than a more grid-like pattern which slows and distributes traffic. Crash data in the 2008 Comprehensive Transportation Plan seems to support this conclusion:
The Northfield Public School District’s choices (permitted by the City) are also significant. Locating Bridgewater Elementary School and Northfield Middle School directly south of the Northfield High School resulted in the highly concentrated congestion coming from school-related vehicle trips. Bridgewater is a neighborhood school, but all public school students must travel to the very southmost location of the only high school and middle school in the City. Significant bus traffic as well as students driving and middle school parents chauffeuring their children must pass through the TH246 and Jefferson Parkway intersection every day and within a compressed time period because the City prevented alternative routes through its subdivision decision-making.
The October 2001 Traffic Impact Report for the middle school anticipated increased traffic on Jefferson Parkway from the school and continued residential development. Analyzing this corridor, consultant Yaggy Colby Associates recommended installing the median which now exists saying “will provide more direction for drivers, which will in turn make it a safer corridor” and provide “refuge for pedestrians” crossing the wide street. This choice has proved to make Jefferson more difficult for school buses and large vehicles to access schools as well as significantly more dangerous for people on bikes.
In summary, this project highlights how short-sighted decisions over time have made mobility and access more difficult in this part of the City. Northfield should work to change its development approval process to require street connectivity with particular emphasis on helping people walking and biking and people with disabilities move along and across streets. Major community facilities such as schools should be planned with the developer as to siting and access for all to prevent the need for retrofitting in the future.
Northfield Planning documents
At least since Northfield Middle School opened in 2004, Northfield’s planning documents and adopted policies have clearly supported the position that Northfield will be a place where people can walk, roll, and ride bikes safely and easily, streets will connect, and where the natural environment is protected as we work to mitigate climate change. These plans include:
These policy documents guide staff’s recommendation for the design for the TH246 and Jefferson Parkway intersection and are supplemented by other City bike and walk events such as the 2014 Bikeable Community Workshop as well as current best practices in bike and pedestrian design.
As stated above, staff identified these goals for this project
Identify improvements that alleviate peak hour congestion,
All alternatives in the Feasibility Study recommend constructing a single lane roundabout. This design is recommended for improving vehicle congestion more than other intersection controls such as stop signs or signalized intersections.
Roundabouts smooth out traffic flow by eliminating the need to stop. A single-lane roundabout is also safer for cars based on data showing a 78% reduction in severe crashes and 48% reduction in overall crashes. Roundabouts slow traffic which reduces crash severity and the reduction in conflict points make vehicle crashes less likely.
Staff recommends Council consider collaborating with the Northfield School District after this project is completed to update the Safe Routes to School Plan and encourage schools to adopt Safe Routes to Schools programs to increase walking and biking to further reduce school-generated congestion as well as support City goals for transportation and climate action.
Bicycle and pedestrian safety
All alternatives studied include the single lane roundabout, but the other goals for this project are not addressed equally by all alternatives. Staff strongly recommends selecting Alternative 2 for the following reasons; another choice should require findings of fact to justify a less safe alternative for people walking and biking.
The peak hour traffic volume and the “no stop” characteristic of roundabouts make the roundabout design challenging to navigate for people walking and riding, especially school children likely to be using the intersection during peak times. Further, roundabouts have been shown to be especially difficult for people with low vision or blindness.
Staff emphasize that for people walking and riding, safety requires more than statistical safety or “no dead people” but includes whether people feel safe as they move through this intersection. The Complete Streets statement to make streets safe for people of “all ages and abilities” requires subjective as well as objective safety to ensure people walking and biking must feel protected from traffic by a barrier or sufficient distance, be able to navigate turns and crossings easily, on a route is free from debris and hazards as well as harassment or crime.
Staff opinion is that only grade separated bicycle and pedestrian facilities will meet this standard. The Feasibility Study identified underpasses rather than overpasses as more cost effective; Alternatives 2 & 3 both provide grade separated facilities.
Alternative 3 is not recommended. This alternative does provide grade separated facilities, however, the significant space below grade presents maintenance issues, longer trips when traveling in a single one direction, and social safety issues of blind corners and the need for additional lighting and/or supervision. The Mill Towns State Trail heightens the need to avoid diverting all routes to the center which could require additional wayfinding aids to mark the route for the anticipated increase in bicycle traffic through this intersection.
Staff recommendation for TH246 and Jefferson Parkway
Staff recommends Alternative 2. This option is preferred to Alternative 3 as it is the best option for meeting the standard of a safe route for people of all ages and abilities and furthers Northfield’s policy goals through grade separated facilities and short, direct passage beneath the roadway which will increase perceived safety; this is the only alternative recommended to safely and conveniently reconnect this section of Northfield.
Staff recommendation for the Northfield High School crossing
Staff recommends Option 2 for the High School crossing. Both Options 1 and 2 preserve bicycle access through the curb extensions, but Option 2 provides (1) a shorter crossing distance shown to be safer by allowing more rapid crossing and less vehicle delay, and (2) physical protection for people waiting to cross and riders bicycling through the crossing.
This project will be a major step toward reconnecting major community destinations, enabling safe walking and bicycling to school, and improving safety for all users of the intersection. However, additional steps will be needed in the future to complete the network including:
change the High School entrance to a right in-right out design to prevent difficulties turning left onto Division Street in heavy traffic in close proximity to this crossing and to simplify the number of turning movements for people biking and walking making this area more predictable and increasing safety.
complete bike and pedestrian planning along Division Street/TH246 from downtown to the City Limits and on Jefferson Parkway from TH3 to Spring Creek Road including connecting routes.
completing policy update recommendations from Toole Design in the bike and pedestrian plan updates.
evaluate planning policy including annexation, community facility siting, linking transportation to land use decisions, and incorporating metrics which measure walkability rather than vehicle movement.
Conclusion in my own voice
City staff are supposed to be the professional experts. As such, they must frame alternatives for the Council and the public using their professional expertise to distinguish options based on how each option will fulfill policy goals and meet safety or performance criteria. For this critically important project, knowing why an option is recommended needs to be articulated. For a project which is needed to fix prior decision-making, it is also important to learn how not to make similar expensive mistakes (in dollars and human life) again.
The late Dixon Bond once observed to me: “Northfield has a tendency to over-plan.” So when the EDA, Planning Commission and City Council meet in a worksession tonight (04/11/2017) to do some (carefully orchestrated, consultant-driven) strategic planning, I will try to be optimistic that this planning effort will lead to action, rather than simply more plans.
My one (big) priority
Implement the policies already adopted by developing the regulations and funding streams to do sowith particular emphasis on linking land use, transportation, sustainability, and building equity in city decision-making (or develop a specific plan for updating or replacing policies believed to be outdated or inappropriate).
Northfield’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan (and the one before it) established a clear vision for Northfield to thrive as a non-generic, distinctive, sustainable small town centered in the historic downtown along the Cannon River (I’ve made a little pledge to avoid the overuse of the terms placemaking, sense of place, vibrant, etc.) respecting the natural environment, increasing housing choices. Subsequent planning reinforced the picture of a city connected by wonderful streets which support all modes of transportation. Our project by isolated project decision-making and regulations have not supported that vision particularly well, but let’s give it the old college(s) try with the strategic planning process by focusing on these things:
1. Safe Complete Routes to School and everywhere else:
Transportation planning should rocket to the top of the list because building better, more walkable, more bikeable, better connected streets is so widely represented in our plans and policies (Complete Streets, GreenStep Cities, Parks and Open Space Plan, Age Friendly Northfield…see here for more). But let’s move beyond the project by project tussles about sidewalks and bike lanes to do these things:
Educate the staff, Council and public about best practices, newer research, and better planning both through workshops or seminars and by hiring better experts for projects. We have a Complete Streets policy, but everyone needs to know how this could transform planning and projects. Learn how walking and biking can save the world (and also here)
Adoptstreet design standards which will guide planning and design of projects beyond vehicular measures of Level of Service and Functional Classification to create streets which connect people and places and are sustainable.
Plan a network of low stress bike/walk connections and commit funding with particular attention to connecting important places and designing intersections for people outside of cars. Recent conversations about 246/Jefferson that a roundabout “is safe” reflect only crash statistics, but not how safe if feels; plan for making connections convenient and appealing to vulnerable users.
Prioritize completion of the Mill Towns State Trail by adopting the revised route from the Prowe Pedestrian Bridge, along Jefferson Parkway and out of town, collaborating with the DNR, Carleton and other entities to finish the Northfield segment as soon as possible. Trails help connect the city for the people who live here, as well as bringing many to town to ride and spend.
Collaborate with the Northfield School District to really connect the southern schools, reduce traffic demand, and increase walking and biking. I think “collaborate” should extend to funding, for the schools created the traffic and will benefit from solutions.
2. Land use and sustainability (both fiscal and environmental)
Revise or replace land use regulations: Although the land development code was recently rewritten, the new regulations do little to help Northfield evaluate the cost of development proposals to taxpayers, make sustainable development easier (or really any development easier), or help shift from the suburban model of development which the Comp. Plan explicitly seeks to do. Here are some suggestions (not comprehensive nor exhaustive)
Housing, affordable and denser: In the early 2000s, Northfield built many acres of market rate, single family homes, but these large lot, 3-car garage sort of houses are not affordable for many nor desirable for some of us and this pattern of development demands much more expensive infrastructure, impedes walkability, and creates income ghettos (see equity below).The Comp Plan principle of more housing choices can be approached by allowing (and encouraging) greater density in existing neighborhoods by getting rid of some of the recent regulations.
Accessory dwelling units: Repeal Northfield’s over-specific regulations such as the current accessory dwelling unit regulations (must be part of a detached garage among other things), “granny pods” and the rental code. A better strategic priority would be to make it easier for property owners to add accessory dwelling units which meet their needs and market needs (caring for relatives, investment rental property, constraints of the property itself).
Score development proposalsbased on fiscal productivity to determine whether the private tax value generated will be sufficient to support (and replace) the public infrastructure expenditure. The NW business park is the sort of development which screamed for this sort of analysis, but the same process should be applied to new residential development, too, to take a longer term look at the benefits and liabilities of new projects justified as economic development. Simply repeating “Grows jobs and tax base” without doing some of the math is superstition of the highest order.
Take a look at the Census income map and Dot race map which show how racially and income segregated Northfield is…and then think who shows up to city meetings. Northfield city government should work for everyone, not just me as an educated, affluent, white woman who shows up at the public meetings and knows how to navigate “the system.”
Finally, not so much a priority as an exhortation – please do not govern by referendum or public hearing, but as informed representatives who weigh the data, the public comments (which you have worked hard to solicit from a broad range of the community), the budget, and make equitable decisions for the common good of Northfield. Please help residents learn about where the money comes from and where it goes, educate Northfield about possibilities rather than playing to fears, hire the best staff and consultants, and use real data to make decisions rather than voting by gut instinct and who shouts the loudest. Challenge yourselves to learn enough to make equitable, sustainable decisions for the rest of us.
Tonight, February 7, 2017, the Council will hold a public hearing to consider 2017 street reclamation projects which sounds a bit dull, perhaps, but this year’s projects present two good opportunities to help create a safer, more convenient network connecting schools to neighborhoods.
Reclamation, in the street repair hierarchy, is less than reconstruction (where the pavement and all the utilities under the street are replaced) and more than a “mill and overlay” (where the top layer of asphalt is chewed up and replaced. So, reclamation is chewing up the full depth of the asphalt and repaving, but usually not a construction project which moves curbs or changes street layouts or adds sidewalks or other new facilities.
City staff are seeing golden opportunities to carry out the Northfield’s Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School policies by expanding the usual reclamation project to add sidewalks and narrow streets to do it. This is a huge step forward for Northfield in policy implementation if the Council follows through on the recommendation.
There are two reclamation locations which are critical links in the street network connecting neighborhoods and schools: Marvin Lane and the Nevada/9th Street/Maple squiggle (Professional Drive is also on the reclamation list). The Council must vote tonight and I urge the Council to adopt staff recommendations for Nevada/9th/Maple and ask staff to use the same approach on Marvin Lane.
This little squiggle connects 7th Street to Woodley Street and, in the process, connects the northeast neighborhoods and outdoor pool to Maple Street (one of our few continuous North-South connections), Sibley School, Spring Creek Soccer Fields, southeast neighborhoods, and Jefferson Parkway. The map above shows how few connections exist south of Woodley Street, so making sure the streets which are continuous provide safe sidewalks and traffic speeds appropriate for their context is critical.
Marvin Lane is not on the SRTS plan (the high school was not included in the plan), so that piece of specific policy support is not present, but our Complete Streets policy and Comprehensive Plan (as well as common sense) strongly support applying the same “move the curb” design to add a sidewalk to increase safety and add a public connection for to schools and the Northfield Retirement Community (and feeding into the upcoming planning for the 246 and Jefferson Parkway intersection redesign – of which more very soon). I urge the Council to use the reclamation project as an opportunity to create a safe, public connection to Division Street by narrowing the street (which will also ensure slower speeds and preserve trees) and by doing so anticipate changes which will help students cross Division Street to reach the High School.
On one hand, these reclamation projects are routine and the public hearing is required by state law, but is generally treated as equally routine and unimportant. If all the City is doing is munching up the pavement, I’d agree. But when the City uses routine projects like this one to make some real changes – and I am thrilled the City is taking this important step – then being intentional about approaching this project and thinking ahead to future opportunities needs more than the required publication and notice to neighbors.
The choice for Mayor this year is both clear and critically important: Rhonda Pownell is the person Northfield needs to lead the Council and the City forward.
I served with Rhonda on the Council for 4 years and worked with her since 2012 as an interested constituent; I am deeply impressed at the leader Rhonda has become. Of her choice to run for Mayor, Rhonda is campaigning on what I’d call a good government platform:
We live in an excellent town, and we are stronger for our diversity and for our commitment to collaboration. But these strengths have not been reflected in our City leadership. Each week, we seem to reach a new low in the quality of our discourse, in our inability to work together.
This is a very respectful way of identifying the failure of our current mayor Dana Graham to lead the Council in an inclusive and effective way. Perhaps you have heard “The Council is dysfunctional”? Council watchers know “the Council” is not dysfunctional at all, but Mr Graham’s “leadership” of attacking those who disagree, encouraging divisiveness and attempting to silence opposition impedes decision making, repels citizens, and frustrates staff. I also worked with Mayor Graham when I chaired the Planning Commission and he served on the Council; I am deeply disappointed that he has failed to learn from his experience as on the Council or as Mayor to lead the City in positive ways.
New leadership – especially the sort of leadership Rhonda brings – is critical for Northfield’s long-term success.
How Rhonda leads
Rhonda knows the Mayor cannot take action alone, but the Council governs as one body who must work together even when they do not agree. Here’s how I’ve watched Rhonda distinguish herself on the Council:
Assertive, calm and respectful: Rhonda has not only advocated for civility and respectful leadership since she was first seated on the Council, but she has modeled this strength since the beginning. After losing to Mayor Graham in the last mayoral election and being insulted, interrupted, and ignored by the Mayor and some Council members, she has become more assertive, too, calmly reminding the Mayor of the facts of previous decisions, respectfully disputing misleading interpretations and showing her command of the issues as well as her control of her behavior.
Effective and persistent: Much work on the Council happens without fanfare or handwaving, but by listening to constituents and organizations to set priorities, by persisting until information is gathered, by asking staff to bring information to public meetings, and by highlighting constituent issues for staff consideration and council discussion.
Leadership development: Rhonda chose to serve on the Council because of her concern for Northfield, but once elected knew she needed to learn the business of the City and learn to lead. She has spent the last 8 years working with staff and the Council to understand the items on the agenda, but also continually seeking out leadership training and positions. By pursuing one opportunity after another, Rhonda is now the President of the League of Minnesota Cities Board. This position is evidence she has the respect of municipal leaders around the state and she knows the issues facing not just Northfield, but all cities, as well as having the connections to resources to address them.
Dispelling a misconception: some of my liberal friends have asked “But isn’t Rhonda a conservative Christian?” Yes, she is. Rhonda is also a strong, politically moderate leader in non-partisan local government, where she will help the Council attend to the business of the City – streets, water, zoning, public safety, library – equitably and effectively. I believe we will all benefit from her commitment to service and improving the quality of life for all people in Northfield.
Rhonda has a long term vision for Northfield which will is inclusive, compassionate, and prosperous; vote for Rhonda for the leader who can lead by example, by listening and by working together.
The Fine Print: Where and how to vote:
You can start voting TODAY, September 23, 2016! Here are links to all the information about when, where and ways to vote.Please vote! At the local level, only a few votes can decide the election:
Typically, street projects are designed by consultant engineers – Bolton and Menk, in this case – with limited knowledge of the community context of the street. While Bolton and Menk have worked in Northfield frequently, that’s not the same as knowing how the street and surrounding land uses work together, or how Woodley connects more distant parts of the city. Community members, both those adjacent to project boundaries and those who travel through the project area, can inform the non-native designers about the community, how this street connects to other places (or how it doesn’t now, but could in the future), and other local knowledge about the place and how people move around in it. In other words, showing the engineers what matters in human terms so the design can respond to local context rather than just slapping down the standard plate over whatever might be it its path.
It’s no secret I’m interested in broadening the conversation and changing the street to do more and to change the way the space functions for the longer term. Northfield and its hired help need input from the people who currently use or cross Woodley Street and those who avoid it because of perceived problems to determine what change is needed.
I’m also a design idealist (despite believing this video to be all too true). Having had the luxury of living in and visiting other cities, I have seen how well-designed infrastructure makes getting around easy and pleasant as well as experiencing less than well-designed places and struggling as a result. Local people know their places well, but are not street design experts and rather than asking residents (or the City Council) to be citizen engineers and do the drawing, I’m wishing for local people who provide great feet-on-the-street knowledge and innovative designers who can create a street corridor which works for Northfield.
The challenges of public input
Who shows up?
Northfield has made great progress in the last few years publicizing meetings, providing on-line engagement, and increasing the number of face-to-face opportunities for input. Even so, it is difficult to reach and engage community members beyond the adjacent property owners for whom personal notice is built into the legal requirements. BikeNorthfield (I’m on the its steering committee) and other organizations like Sibley School and the school district, advocates for public health, etc. can help spread the word that input is needed about the project (and we should get to work).
Not that the adjacent property owners should be ignored; I appreciate the very real concerns (and have paid my own special assessment in the last few years) – project residents mostly own their homes and their home is likely a very substantial portion of their assets – of course they are concerned about the impact to that asset and whether the project will affect its value or their ability to enjoy their property. The way we assess a portion of the project cost to adjacent property owners makes it completely reasonable that they may have an aversion to loss of “their” property when a sidewalk is constructed or fear how any change in the street corridor will affect their investment. On the other hand, Council members who simply give residents veto power abdicate their responsibility to consider the long term benefits for the community.
What do we ask?
Perhaps my biggest concern is how little education takes place to guide public comment. Most of us do not spend much time looking at street cross sections, learning about intersection geometry, or know what design features have been demonstrated to calm traffic, improve safety or address other relevant issues (hence my comments above that residents supply context so thoughtful designers can get to work). In the past, consultants and staff have done little to help policy-makers or residents learn what design choices are possible, how design could help solve problems identified, and what choices cost in both the long and short term, but instead stood by their diagrams and maps waiting for whatever questions or comments emerge.
If we’re simply shown big diagrams and asked “So, what do you think?” or “Do you like it or not?” we don’t know much about what we’re being asked and are more likely to give feedback which is irrelevant (when I scribble “Make Woodley a 32′ wide street!” when the 44′ width has already been decided) or merely reactive (“I don’t want a sidewalk!”).
How do we ask?
What if we framed the discussion this way: The City is working to implement its Safe Routes to School plan and make its streets more “complete” by improving bike and pedestrian connections to important destinations like Sibley School, the Spring Creek Soccer Complex, the City Pool at Old Memorial Park and downtown. The County requires a 44′ wide street with 12′ travel lanes. The remaining space can be allocated in different ways to provide better bike connections, prioritize private parking, or a combination of uses. Sidewalks are included in Northfield’s policies, too, and can be included in this project. Then, the City could present some alternative configurations with some of the benefits and costs of each.
What do we show?
Flat maps and diagrams don’t help much with visualizing change and can even be rather alarming as this diagram showing trees to be removed as small explosions which make it difficult to see much beyond loss and destruction:
Hennepin County has recently been doing some planning and adding bike lanes on Lowry Avenue. In addition to the flat images, the County has tried to market the change positively. The image shows cars still moving efficiently, but also includes the bikes and new trees to present a positive image of change rather than a documentation of loss.
What is the broader benefit or how do we change?
City staff and elected leaders could emphasize values and priorities as articulated in city policy. Our policies are really good and forward thinking. Allocating space for bicycles is less about space than about making different choices (and allocating all the space for cars was a choice made in the past). If we presume the space is for motor vehicles, then every reduction in driving or parking space seems like a loss or (worse) a threat. If, on the other hand, we start from the position than the public right of way should be allocated for the broadest inclusion and choice across the network, we can use the space to both permit safe, uninterrupted vehicle movement and safe, clearly identified space for bicycles.
Woodley Street needs fixing as anyone who has driven, ridden or walked on it knows. But remembering this needed repair to pavement and pipes is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change, what are the other benefits the city could realize? My interest is how Woodley Street helps us get places and links destinations – and it is a key link to many places in Northfield.
If Northfield and Rice County rebuild Woodley Street by repeating choices of the past – a car-only county highway without sidewalks, safe intersections for pedestrians, or bike facilities, the City will miss the chance to help anyone who walks, bicycles or uses a wheelchair/scooter right now to reach downtown, parks, schools and moving around the neighborhood and, more importantly, will preempt these choices for decades more to come.
Someone asked me recently: “So, Betsey…why bikes?” as in “Why are you focusing on bike advocacy in particular?” It’s a good question since reading back in time on my blog suggests that “just bikes” is a significant contraction of my interests from city government, urban planning and economic development. Also a good question since my goal is to change the conversation (and the world) to foster development which links land use, transportation, and economic development to be more equitable as well as economically and environmentally sustainable; it is not obvious why bikes are so important to this much larger plan.
Presuming most people in and around local government can distinguish placemaking, Strong Towns, smart growth, human-scaled development, urbanism, new urbanism, tactical urbanism, land use, land consumption, built environment, carrying capacity, compact development, green development, conservation development, low impact development, density, walkability, Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets from one another is usually a mistake, in my experience. Assuming they believe any of the principles underlying these buzzwords are desirable or doable does not, again in my experience, lead to much progress. World-changing requires thinking smaller.
Bikes are small
Most people know something about bikes. Maybe they rode a bike to school, have one rusting in their garage, or think they might like to ride for fun or exercise. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps they are committed bike commuters, ride many miles for sport (from fat to skinny tires, pavement gravel or trail) or enjoy taking the family to ride on bike trails. Even if someone thinks riding a bike is unpleasant, unsafe or unworkable, they still know what bikes are.
So, bikes are accessible and talking about riding bikes brings urban design and transportation planning down to earth where particular experiences, specific intersections, individual streets, and different kinds of riders or improvements make sense and generate discussion, debate and disagreement (and also collaboration and maybe consensus).
Finally, on a project by project basis, building bike infrastructure or planning improvements is small, focused, relatively low cost and doable. And, every year Northfield does a couple of street projects and each one of them is an opportunity for improvement. Indeed, changing the street landscape can be very cheap, quick and reversible. Fixing sprawling subdivisions and changing commercial development are not so easy.
If people can and do get around town easily and safely on bikes, other larger things are probably happening, too, so bikes are a lever for larger change.
Places are connected (at a human scale). In a city the size of Northfield, distances are not great (under 5 miles) so kids could get to school without buses or parental chauffeuring if a few obstacles are removed (like Woodley Street and Highway 3). Retrofitting Northfield’s schools for better bike access might also encourage building the next school in a place where it was easy to reach by bike. My daughter probably got tired of hearing me say “You have legs and you know how to use them,” but she did enjoy getting to and from school independently and I certainly enjoyed not sitting in lines like this:
Aging and mobility: If bikes can get around easily, the place has probably calmed traffic and improved transportation options for pedestrians, too. As a temporarily middle-aged person, I’m working for a Northfield where as I slow down, I can keep riding my bike and be able to ride or walk on and cross streets at a slower pace.
Public conversation has been taking place to reconsider public space: A really bikeable place has been rebuilding streets where space is allocated to maximize public benefit, transportation choice, public health, and the environment rather than just moving (or storing) cars. Successful bike advocacy takes networking and community support to change the conversation from what cars lose by adding bike lanes to how public space is used for more of the public.
Working for better biking is also working for building more transportation choices into the place, connecting neighborhoods, and linking people and services. In a town the size and density of Northfield, transit is mostly inefficient, but bike connections make sense.
Equity: Finally, my take on bikes is a privileged one, but it shouldn’t have to be. So, when someone says “Oh, you ride because you’re affluent, white, liberal, etc.” they’re right. I have the money to buy a house in Northfield near work and shopping (on the “right” side of Highway 3) so, strangely, because I have money, I don’t have to spend it on transportation. I have been privileged enough to live in England and Finland as well as visit the Netherlands and Europe and see how cities can enable transit, walking and bicycles so driving is neither as necessary nor as convenient. Working for better biking is also working for building more transportation choices into the place, connecting neighborhoods, and linking services.
The question “Why bikes?” got asked not long after I had attended my last Strong Towns board meeting where Chuck Marohn, after talking about wanting to build a Strong Towns movement, started enumerating all the groups he didn’t like because of the narrowness of their vision. “I hate the bike lanes people,” he said, “and I hate the Complete Streets people.” Sure “bike lane people” might focus too narrowly (as any advocate can see the landscape only through their particular lens, even “Strong Towns people”) and miss the larger picture for the bike lane, but bikes are small enough to get some traction on much larger issues.
PLAN TO ATTEND! The NDDC has invited the Strong Towns organization to Northfield for one of their “Curbside Chats”. The event will be held on Monday, February 17, 5:30-7:30 pm, in the Archer House Riverview Conference Room on the lower level. The Curbside Chats are designed city officials and community leaders, but the strong towns are built from the grassroots, so the public is welcome and your voices needed at this free event.
Curbside Chats zero in on three “big ideas” central to Strong Towns thinking:
The current path cities are pursuing is not financially stable.
The future for most cities will not resemble the recent past.
The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their communities.
I’ve written much on this blog about Strong Towns and ideas related to their mission. Here’s a good summary of my posts. But my interest goes back further than this blog.
When I served on the Planning Commission in 2001-2005, Northfield was approving hundreds of acres and hundreds of units of single family homes. The short term attraction was clear: creating jobs and expanding the local tax base. But longer term issues were raised by the Planning Commission, but dismissed by the Council such as:
If we build housing on all these acres, where might future commercial expansion take place?
If the city doesn’t negotiate with developers about street design and connections, how can the Northfield be able to plan for efficient service delivery in the future?
Will the increased tax revenue pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure added and the cost of delivering services to the new areas?
Strong Towns caught my attention in about 2010 with its message of the financial impact of the way cities have developed in the last 50 years or so. Certainly as a City Council member at the time, I could see that Northfield’s tax revenue was not keeping up with maintenance or service needs, so I was relieved, thrilled, and excited to see the questions I’d already asked be asked by people with more development experience and to see that message go from Brainerd, MN to national news.
Does Strong Towns have all the answers? No, but that’s where you come in. Come think with Strong Towns and your neighbors about the future of Northfield. I’ll be in Finland, but I can’t wait to hear what happens.