Reimagining Woodley Street

Streets belong to you…and me…and everybody else; streets are public spaces – like parks – and might just be our most undervalued and underutilized community resources.  Northfield and Rice County are beginning to plan a reconstruction project on Woodley Street and this particular street is a golden opportunity to add value and change the conversation, too.

What might happen if we start talking about streets as a public asset with rich potential to be better places to play, talk, move and build communities rather than arguing about the width of the driving lanes?

SR2S Sibley map
Woodley Street and environs from Northfield’s Safe Routes to School plan

Woodley Street is

  • a local street lined with houses and mature trees with scattered, non-contiguous sidewalks

    Woodley - looking west from Union Street to Division
    Woodley – looking west from Union Street to Division
  • the southern edge of the older traditional grid neighborhood
  • located between downtown and residential neighborhoods, schools and parks making it an essential piece for making schools, homes and parks walkable and bikable both along and across Woodley.
  • Rice County State Aid Highway 28 which links to MN Trunk Highway 246/Division Street at the western end of this project and terminates at MN 3, it is classified as a collector street (according to Rice County) or minor arterial (according to Northfield) and is an important east-west connection bringing traffic into and through town.

Another way, Woodley is a key motorized transportation route worthy of its CSAH status, but its residential character and location between neighborhoods and schools, parks and downtown make it very much a local street. Northfield has a wonderful opportunity to work with Rice County to try move traffic, but build local connections and crossings back into this street.

Building more human capacity into Woodley is already richly supported by Northfield policy from general support in the Comprehensive Plan, strong direction in the Complete Streets policy, and particular improvements called for in the Safe Routes to School Plan and Parks, Open Space and Trail Plan.  But recent history shows there’s often pushback at the project level even with great policies in place.

So the moment is ripe to change the conversation from “you just don’t get it” where some say “You just don’t get it that sidewalks, bike facilities, and human scale design are important for reasons from public health to economic value (and here are the reports and local information to back me up)” and others say “You just don’t get it that sidewalks cost money, neighbors don’t want to shovel them, and no one bicycles anyway (and here are the dollars and angry neighbors to back me up).”

1. How can Northfield change the conversation to foster shared benefits rather than protecting turf?  The residents of Woodley Street are most directly affected, but how to discuss the public space while respecting their private property and hearing their concerns? Rice County has design standards and cost sharing policies in place for city/county projects, but how to engage the County to think outside their urban collector street box to design a project which serves local needs better? Northfield’s City Council tends to polarize at the “you just don’t get it” positions, so how to give elected officials the tools they need to understand and articulate a broader picture of public good?

2. How can Northfield design this project to build the most human capacity and the most public benefit into this street segment?

Rice County design standards

Here are a couple of journeys and connections, I’m hoping can be facilitated by a new Woodley Street and the conversation around the project should reveal more (or more detail about these sketches).

Kids in my east side neighborhood will be able to get to their neighborhood school, Sibley Elementary School, the soccer fields, or the middle and high schools on foot or bicycle easily, safely and independently.

From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley
From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley
Woodley-Union St. Death Curve
Woodley-Union St. Death Curve

This one is personal.  My daughter rode her bike (alone) to Sibley starting in 3rd grade after we practiced how to cross Woodley Street which is the only significant obstacle in a 3/4 mile trip on otherwise low volume streets.  Crossing choices were (a) the confusing 4-way stop (3rd grade non-drivers do not quite “get” the dance of who moves when) at Woodley and Maple Streets or (b) our preferred route, crossing at the Union Street “death curve” (my daughter’s term) where traffic did not stop and moved about 30 mph, but was still simpler to negotiate with “look both ways” even with the limited sight distance. In middle and high school, crossing Woodley was still required, but now the critical 4-way stop intersection at Woodley and Division Street had to be negotiated or bypassed, too, with no obvious “good route.”

Mayflower Hill to Sibley, etc.
Connections between Mayflower Hill and the pool, downtown, school, and soccer

Mayflower Hill will be able to walk or bike easily, safely and independently to school, the pool or downtown. When the eastern section of Woodley was reconstructed in 2008, the Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force was instrumental in bringing active transportation concerns front and center.  As a result, even though pedestrian accommodations were not standard on a rural road section, a multiuse trail was added on the north side and a sidewalk on the south which helped connect this area to the edge of the current project.  How can we continue the connection along Woodley through the denser neighborhood to schools, the swimming pool and downtown?

Woodley rural section heading west
Woodley rural section heading west

Woodley Street itself will become part of the pedestrian fabric of Northfield.  Reimagining Woodley as a thick thread woven into a rich network of walking, cycling and driving can broaden the conversation about what is possible, what is valuable and how we connect Northfield rather than spur divisiveness.

 

 

 

 

Dear Mike Obermuller (or your favorite candidate)

 

Mike Obermuller

Mike Obermuller is running for Congress here in CD2 looking to unseat John Kline.  At a campaign event last night, an interesting exchange and opening for new conversation emerged –

Dear Mike Obermuller,

I enjoyed having the chance to talk to you again at the campaign event in Northfield last night and was impressed at how you’ve evolved as a candidate since 2012. I’m writing to follow up on your responses to questions about carbon and the environment.

You talked a bit about carbon taxes and reducing subsidies to oil as ways to address climate change.  Two bits of your remarks caught my attention

(1) Addressing climate change will require decisions for actions which (far) exceed election cycles.  Bravo!  Making decisions to minimize the impact on the immediate bottom line limits the innovation and action which could make for significant change in environmental policy…and many other policy areas.

(2) You’re working to change the conversation on the environment to help more people understand why action is critical (and long-term).

(1) should be obvious. The desire to package policy for (quickly) deliverable results leads to simplifying complex issues, isolating problems and siloing information to be able to formulate the quick fix and deliverable project while ignoring long term or downstream costs.  I don’t tend to be a one issue voter, but if there is one issue which will ensure not only my vote but my commitment and energy, this is it.

As for (2), here’s how I’d like to see the conversation change. Most of the time, I advocate for better transportation and land use policy and spending. In these areas, as with the environment, decisions tend to be isolated – approving this development, designing that road segment, and funding a particular non-motorized project.  In thHowever, the bigger picture of the pattern in which we guide the growth of our cities (I do remember you once said you were interested in seeing cities grow up and not out), how we reverse the trend of designing transit, cycling and walking out of our transportation system, and how we think through our incentives for more sprawling, car dependent land uses and transportation is going to impact the environment.

So, you can talk about carbon taxes or we can reframe the conversation about how we build sustainability and equity into our places by connecting fossil fuel use, air quality, transportation, land use and public health.  Right now, messages are mixed – charge a carbon tax, but keep building roads and encouraging sprawl.  Fret about obesity, but make active transportation fight for funding crumbs. How about we look to how to get the incentives for sustainable, healthy development aligned and funding aligned for incremental change for better air, water, and health.

Many thanks for being willing to serve,

Betsey Buckheit

 

Northfield Bikeable Community Workshop

BikeNfldNorthfield should be the sort of city where bicycling makes a lot of sense because

Despite all these assets, cycling is still not normal transportation around Northfield.  Fortunately, Northfield also has a new cycling advocacy organization BikeNorthfield which sponsored a day-long Bikeable Community Workshop last week (along with co-sponsors: Chamber of CommerceNDDCNorthfield City Council and Rice County SHIP)  led by representatives from MnDOTMN Department of Health and Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota for local leaders, advocates and enthusiasts who want to develop the bikeable potential of their community.

IMG_0671
Workshop participants (including the police chief!)

Who came? Northfield’s workshop attendees included the chief of police, city administrator, Community Development director, 3 Planning Commission members, 1 member of the Northfield YMCA board, 2 City Council members, 1 Environmental Quality Commission member, a long-time bike trail advocate and senior citizen cycling leader, a couple of college staff and faculty, 1 school board member and more bike advocates and enthusiasts. Some of these folks regularly ride in and around town, but others do not (at least not yet); some know City plans and policy intimately, but others do not (at least not yet). In other words, a good mix of people to bike and learn together how to build on Northfield’s strengths.

What did we learn? The 5 E’s, of course, as well as some of the many reasons why bicycles can or should be part of a community like tourism (if Lanesboro and the Root River Trail can bring in $2.2 million annually, what could Northfield capture when the Mill Towns Trail is completed?), jobs (Northfield already has two bike shops and Tandem Bagels), community events (come to Northfield for the July 4th Criterium – to race or to watch; stay for the fireworks!) and benefits from public health to equity to cleaner air.  And, we learned that half of all trips are 3 miles or less—a reasonable bicycling distance –which is certainly true in Northfield.

Bike Nfld Route
Map of the riding route

Where did we go? Following some safe cycling training, we took to the road to visit some of the high and low points of Northfield’s cycling infrastructure including crossing MN 3 at 3 different intersections (but, unfortunately, did not take the extra few minutes to visit the site of the recently approved TIGER trail crossing) and the difficult intersection of TH 246 and Jefferson Parkway near 3 of Northfield’s schools.

MnDOT rep leads some discussion in front of Northfield Post Office
MnDOT rep leads some discussion in front of Northfield Post Office

What will we do next? Focusing on projects or objectives we could accomplish in the next 6-12 months in the 5 E categories, we identified:

Infrastructure/Engineering & Evaluation top projects: (1) Increase/improve signage to direct folks to bike routes, trails, and parking; (2) identify “easy” paint locations (such as painting Water Street as a bike boulevard for an early and obvious change); (3) create an advisory group to the planning commission  (a previous non-motorized transportation task force reported to the Park and Recreation Advisory Board), and (4) do bicycle and pedestrian counts.

Education & Enforcement can help build confident cyclists who can manage the infelicitous infrastructure, so we identified (1) Hosting a Train the Trainer “Traffic Safety 101” course in Northfield this summer and recruiting participants for the October LCI training in Rochester to build a critical mass of local bike safety instructors; (2) engaging Community Ed (and the YMCA) to introduce a bike curriculum; (3) engaging business leaders on bikeable workplaces, bike friendly businesses and workplace wellness

Encouragement & Events celebrate success, create interest and build community so we plan to (1) offer bike clinics at existing community events;  (2) encouraging bicycle commuting among local businesses (including, I hope, both colleges); (3) increase the number of group rides and adding education/evaluation components to rides; (4) collaborating with community organizations to expand cycling, and (5) producing comprehensive maps of bicycle facilities and recommended routes – both recreational and destination routes – for the community.

If BikeNorthfield and its friends follow through on this list, then the longer term, higher price projects such as improving important intersections, adding bike lanes on higher traffic streets, etc. will have that critical mass of support needed for change.  And, for a city the size of Northfield, relatively few major changes are needed to be able to create a really great town for cycling.

This post also appeared on streets.mn

Taming TIGER’s critics in Northfield

Banksy’s elephant in a room

See my post on streets.mn… “The elephant in the room when discussing Northfield…is always TH3. Everything I love about Northfield stands in complete opposition to TH3, which seems to only distract from the Northfield experience” commented Rueben Collins of VeloTraffic in response to Northfield on streets.mn.  These days, that elephant is making a great deal of noise in the Council chambers as the City Council continues to discuss the trail project under the highway funded in part by a federal TIGER grant.

Bicycles and political will

Space needed to transport 60 people by bike, car or bus...then there's the parking
Space needed to transport 60 people by bike, car or bus…then there’s the parking

Although I still don’t have a bicycle here in England (although I daydream about a certain orange Brompton), there’s bicycle policy news to round up.

Back in 2012, I blogged about strict liability for motorists in bicycle/automobile “interactions.”  In the past week, “my” MP (if I were eligible to vote here) Julian Huppert introduced a motion at the Liberal Democrats party autumn conference to adopt the Get Britain Cycling recommendations as official Lib Dem policy including policy on proportionate liability for motorists the “not-controversial-almost-everywhere-else measure that makes it easier for road crash victims to claim on insurance.”

But, progress at the Lib Dem conference on bike policy has not met with joy at home here in Cambridge where the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner calls it “very silly” in the front page headline of the Cambridge News above, of course, a photo of Mr Huppert.

Coincidentally, I decided to drop in on Copenhagenize, one of my favorite bike policy and design blogs and right at the top was Part 10 of the Top Ten Design Elements in Bicycle-Friendly Copenhagen.

Part 10 is Political Will.  Sigh.

Back in Northfield, a lack of political will to change policy, planning and projects to provide alternatives to private automobiles – walking, cycling, transit persists.  There are certainly leaders around town and, at the moment, a majority of the Council who are interested in increasing transportation options.  But I don’t think these individuals and the bare majority of votes constitute political will, but more like dedicated opposition to the status quo.  Small progress is made here and there, but there is no commitment of the City Council, staff and appointed leaders to build non-motorized transportation into the budget, planning and life of the city.  That would be political will.

Here in Cambridge and the UK, there’s political engagement at higher levels of government – if Northfield’s state representatives and Minnesota’s Congressional delegation were as active as MP Huppert in pursuing cycling policy with their parties and the legislature, that would be a big step up and forward.  There’s no discussion of get the US Cycling as there is to Get Britain Cycling, for example.

But I sense Mr Huppert is a strong leader who is still working to get the attention of Cambridge and broader coalitions in Parliament and still trying to generate the needed political will to create different transportation vision where cycling is common, safe and legitimate and (the real issue) resources are allocated to make it real.

Apparently the UK government is not doing much about bicycles (nor cycling, I tried both terms)

 

 

Across the pond, happily

Yes, the blog has been silent of late.  I’m now writing from Cambridge, England and it took a bit of time and effort to accomplish the relocation.  Worth it, though.

Cattle in (the middle of) Cambridge
Cattle in (the middle of) Cambridge

Cambridge, like Northfield, is a city of cows and colleges but with more of both: Cambridge University has 31 colleges plus Anglia Ruskin University; the cows are not only within the city limits, but right downtown. But, the time and space scales are very different: Cambridge is about 6 times larger than Northfield in population occupying about the same square footage.  By 1855 when Northfield was founded, Cambridge University had been around for more than half a millennium.

Kings College with cow
Kings College with cow

I have been thinking about bicycles – both because I have become the accidental cycling advocate, but also because I am just seeing so many regular folks cycling around Cambridge – old people, kids, people in suits, families, cargo bikes, shoppers, workers.  You know, cycling for transportation in regular clothes while talking on your mobile phone – just like driving!  There are cycle tracks, bike lanes on streets, bike-specific signals and lots of bike parking.  The very center of Cambridge is a pedestrian and cycle only area.  There’s a national-level Get Britain Cycling Campaign (here are the recommendations including a £10 per person/per year budget increasing to £20 – if Northfield adopted such a budget/policy locally that would be $315,000 for cycling annually) and Parliament itself just had a debate (transcript here) championed by the MP from Cambridge, Julian Huppert.

Compared to Northfield, Cambridge cycling looks pretty amazing.  Cycling for transport is so rare in Northfield that most of the real planning and infrastructure questions aren’t even on the horizon (yet).  In Cambridge, there are many, many more cyclists (18% of adults cycle to work – the highest proportion in England – and 47% cycle at least once a week – but perhaps exaggerated), more car traffic, narrower streets and more constraints (regulatory, architectural, etc.); the problems of cycling access and safety become regular transportation issues.  So, while there is much more bicycle infrastructure, it is not complete nor always well designed (and new development does not always consider cycling appropriately).

Improvements to a difficult 5-way intersection

And, sadly, Cambridge is not immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous politicians.

Meanwhile, back in Northfield, the TIGER trail had no bids for construction, but will be re-bid this Fall.  TIGER funds continue to be awarded for retrofitting the auto transportation system for other modes of transportation and in support of Complete Streets.  As Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx noted “This is investment. It’s investment in safety. It’s investment in community. It’s investment in mobility.”  Minnesota State Senator Scott Dibble (from an interview with Streetfilms) said of the Sabo Bridge

“There’s been some criticism about the amount of money we spend on these facilities…But when you do the head count and you really do the cost/benefit analysis, and compare that to how much money we put into the transportation infrastructure for cars — and you look at the benefit, in terms of transportation, in terms of connecting communities, in terms of livability, quality of life and just how it makes people feel about where they live — it just can’t even be compared.”

And, I’d add for Northfield’s TIGER trail, it’s spending to increase the productivity of the existing transportation network by creating a new link between the two halves of town at a very small (compared to auto-spending) cost.

I wonder how the conversation would change if we had (1) Cambridge rates of cycling and (2) elected leaders at the local and state level championing cycling.

 

Thinking about cycling differently

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

On the TIGER trail story

Former Council member Noah Cashman made headlines at the June 4th City Council meeting by asserting Northfield’s TIGER trail project is part of a Growth Ponzi Scheme saying he got the term from Strong Towns (KYMNLeague of Women Voters). [You can listen to my conversation with Jeff Johnson on KYMN here]

There are two problems – (1)”ponzi scheme” (followed up with a reference to a state fraud hotline) grabs attention while preventing rational discussion; (2) Mr Cashman has misunderstood the Strong Towns mission and, consequently, how it might apply to the TIGER trail project.

joined the board of Strong Towns because I wanted to help broadcast its’ mission “to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.”

What is the Growth Ponzi Scheme?  It is not identified simply by the funding source of a project.  Mr Cashman cited the $1.1 million federal grant funding as definitive, but grants (or other intergovernmental transfer of funds) do not make a project part of a ponzi scheme.  Rather, it’s the these “mechanisms of growth” taken as a larger-scale pattern of post World War II approach to growth:

  1. Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  2. Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  3. Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

Strong Towns stresses seeking a higher return on the infrastructure we have already built, capturing value from growth which has occurred and adding value to existing neighborhoods before massive spending in search of potential growth. “Intergovernmental transfers” like federal money for the St. Croix Bridge, tax abatement programs, local government aid help create the illusion of getting a really great deal in the short term, but disguise the long term obligations or undermine the potential tax revenue.

Now let’s ratchet down the rhetoric and think about the TIGER Trail.  What would a Strong Towns analysis of this project look like and how could we rationally discuss the project, including the increase in project cost?

The best option for ensuring safe, convenient travel across Highway 3 for bikes, pedestrians, or people with limited mobility was lost (despite much citizen work) back in 2004 when the highway was reconstructed before MNDOT’s context-sensitive phase and before Northfield had any policy in place (like Complete Streets, or Safe Routes to School) which would have helped design the roadway and intersections to enhance the safe access across the highway.

Next best option: retrofit.  To increase the safety, perception of “cross-ability” and non-motorized access from the West Side to downtown, schools, the pool, and any other destination on the east side of the road, Northfield could retrofit the highway itself, but this would be considerably more expensive than the TIGER trail.  For comparison, MNDoT reconstructed Highway 169 through downtown St Peter in 2010 at a cost of $16.6 million to add bumpouts to reduce crossing distance, street trees for traffic calming and stormwater, etc., as well as improving traffic flow.

The TIGER trail bypasses Highway 3 by using the existing underpass and routing the trail along a city street.  By using the existing infrastructure to add transportation options to further connect established areas of the city, this project helps build resiliency for a Strong Towns.

Looking at the bigger picture, increased bike and pedestrian access to downtown reduces the demand for parking which helps leverage existing parking – a direct tie in to the current Downtown Parking Conversation.  The trail will provide a safe, non-motorized link for a part of town with a concentration of lower income housing.  The City had already agreed to add a trail along the Cannon River by The Crossing site; this project includes that segment.  The trail helps carry out the goals to capitalize on the riverfront by linking to the River Walk.  With an aging population, adding mobility options helps Northfield “age in place.”  

In short, the TIGER trail furthers Northfield’s policy goals for more transportation options, enhances existing neighborhoods, and reuses existing infrastructure to do it.  The trail was supported by many community groups as part of the grant application.  It’s a good project.

But what about the increase in project cost?  Nobody likes this sort of surprise and Mayor Graham is right: “when do we say ‘ouch’ and when do we say ‘uncle'” when deciding how much is too much?  This, really, is the question we should be asking and answering with reference to Northfield’s guiding policies, expected value-added by the project, and short term budget limits.

We should be weighing at least these issues:

The TIGER trail project contributes to building a Strong Town which helps fulfill Northfield’s policy goals and adds value to the core of the City.

The project is funded by a competitive, significant federal grant.  Northfield gets positive recognition for demonstrating we can do the project, success helps Northfield with future grants and not completing the project is likely to adversely affect future grant possibilities.

What allowance should be made for unforseen difficulty? It’s a difficult project with multiple jurisdictions (railroad, MNDoT, private property owners, FHWA), difficult topography and a speedy federal timeline as well as the usual unknowns like soil quality, construction bids, etc.  There have been completely unforeseeable difficulties such as needing to change a retaining wall design (with increased cost) because of Duluth’s experience with flooding.

The Council needs to ignore the headline grabbing rhetoric, learn more about what helps build a Strong Town, examine its policies and then determine how much is too much.

 

 

Schools and where to put them

Northfield Middle School – beautiful and isolated

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

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

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

Old Middle School
Old middle school location

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

Old and new middle school
Old and new middle school

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

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

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

EW subdivisions
No exit

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

250' to walk, 1.5 miles to drive
250′ to walk, 1.5 miles to drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northfield’s Complete Streets policy one of the nation’s best!

Northfield’s Complete Streets policy has been recognized as one of the top 10 policies in the country for 2012 (we ranked #5 out of the 125 Complete Streets policies adopted in the US in 2012).

What’s so great about having a Complete Streets policy?  My big policy goal is to link transportation and land use planning to increase the productivity and sustainability of Northfield.  To reach that goal requires some consciousness-raising, disseminating information about the costs of development for cities, and many incremental steps.  A Complete Streets policy is part of making transportation planning more intentional, better linked with surrounding land uses, and increasing awareness of the critical role streets play in cities’ budgets, safety, economic development, stormwater management, quality of life and, of course, getting around town.  By itself, the policy won’t accomplish much, but it is a piece of the bigger picture.

Here’s a bit more news coverage of the announcement: Envision MN highlights Northfield’s  accomplishment; Streetsblog provides some criticism about Complete Streets policies; Better Cities calls Complete Streets a “key strategy” for revitalization of cities.  Here’s some old coverage about some of the people who helped organize the Complete Streets effort in Northfield and even a mention in Rice County’s public health information.