Could Northfield be the next Vancouver?

I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC, although it’s been on my “to go” list for a long time.  Now, even more, I’d like to visit.  Why?  Their transportation policy (and the cross country skiing in BC is excellent).

Here in Northfield, we’ve struggled to make even small changes in policy to help Northfield grow in ways which encourage active transportation, productive land use, and a viable transit system.  Even so, every policy gets challenged (or simply ignored) when a new small decision needs to be made.  Complete Streets?  Great, until a street project must be approved.  GreenStep Cities and sustainability?  Wonderful, but seldom considered.  Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan?  Super, until we try to take steps to implement it.

Vancouver, however, thinks big and has since 1997 when it approved an influential Transportation Plan which prioritized – rank ordered – modes of transportation.  Vancouver has just approved Transportation 2040 which affirms the priorities for moving people (for moving goods, etc. there are separate rankings): Walking, Cycling, Transit, Taxi/Commercial Transit/Shared Vehicles, and Private Automobiles.

The hierarchy is intended to help ensure that the needs and safety of each group of road users are sequentially considered when decisions are made, that each group is given proper consideration, and that the changes will not make existing conditions worse for more vulnerable road users, such as people on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle. Each time a new roadway is designed or an existing one changed, opportunities for improving walking and cycling will be reviewed…This is a general approach and does not mean that users at the top of the list will always receive the most beneficial treatment on every street. In highly constrained urban environments, it is not always possible to provide the ideal facilities for all users’ needs.

Even better, Vancouver links transportation and land use (“Use land use to support shorter trips and sustainable transportation choices”), does not flinch from saying the goal is to reduce auto-dependence (“Manage the road network efficiently to improve safety and support a gradual reduction in car dependence. Make it easier to drive less”) and understands that the economic vitality and emergency response must also be part of the overall plan (“Support a thriving economy and Vancouver’s role as a major port and Asia-Pacific gateway while managing related environmental and neighbourhood impacts. Maintain effective emergency response times for police, fire, and ambulance”).

Here in Northfield, we need to try to be more Vancouverish (at a scale appropriate for a community of our size/location) for the long term health (financial, physical, environmental) of the city.  

Have we outgrown zoning?

 Zoning is no longer appropriate, writes architect Roger Lewis in the Washington Post recently.  It is easy enough to agree – zoning is essentially segregation.  We put big houses here, little houses over there, multi-family housing way over there (check out some of the history of land use regulation and discrimination), industrial out there, and commercial on the highway.  The inappropriateness comes from both the inequities, but also the community costs in terms of excess infrastructure and unproductive development.

So, have we outgrown zoning?  Yes, but now what?  Here in Northfield, we have a pretty smart comprehensive plan which could use some updating and focusing.  Then we have some really lousy land use regulations which are slated for revision (and with some luck and leadership, for reform or replacement).  What a golden opportunity to move beyond putting things in their zones to plan and regulate for the long term health of the community.

Some inspiration (a very small selection):

Long term thinking, not easy short term answers: some thoughts from San Diego based Placemaker Howard Blackson.  Placemaking is rapidly becoming a planning buzzword which could become just as meaningless as “mixed use” (an oxymoron when you think about it), but I’d like to think of it simply as: identify and work with the specific characteristics of the place – Northfield – rather than overly generic solutions.  Here’s another good one from the Placemakers.

Don’t just ask the community “What do you want/like?” but also educate residents about the features, costs and benefits of various development choices.

Downtown is not a cute museum: work to reinvigorate downtown’s image as the vital and distinctive economic core of Northfield which generates significantly more tax revenue per acre than other areas.

Think local: Consider how supporting local businesses helps keep money in Northfield (some info about co-ops, infill and redevelopment) and how land use and related regulation can help rather than hinder local enterprises.

Streets are really, really important.  The street network helps define the density of a community, connects places within the city and the city to elsewhere, plays a huge role in safety, stormwater, municipal costs, economic development, and quality of life.  Street decisions are also long term and very hard to change. Indeed, how we manage car traffic is critical to thinking about other features of urban development.  Streets matter.






Walkable urbanism and the future of the world

Whoa.  I’ve been trying to make the case that policy folks need to be thinking about the long term costs of some of our development strategies and not just the instant boost to tax capacity of new growth.  I’ve been thinking about the local sunk costs of late 20th century horizontal growth, but Foreign Policy’s Patrick Doherty takes it global with a New US Grand Strategy:

In the United States, the country’s economic engine is misaligned to the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. Designed explicitly to exploit postwar demand for suburban housing, consumer goods, and reconstruction materials for Europe and Japan, the conditions that allowed it to succeed expired by the early 1970s. Its shelf life has since been extended by accommodative monetary policy and the accumulation of household, corporate, and federal debt.

The upshot: the current path is unsustainable as the planet tries to accommodate 3 billion new middle class members (and the consumption that comes along with them), depletion of natural resources (see my previous post), “contained depression” (and not just a down business cycle or two), and a “resilience crisis” (the drivers of the US economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the soft infrastructure which connect us to markets is fragile).

So, we need a grand plan and the sketch provided includes reforming government, addressing climate change, and vastly improving resource productivity.  It’s a top down vision of national change, but I’m more curious about what state and local efforts can accomplish.  Atlantic Cities picked up on the walkable urbanism part of the solution, but what else could we do?



What’s bicycling worth?

Continuing the theme of assigning dollars to different community sectors like arts and animals…the theme of this year’s League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit is Bicycling Means Business (here’s a policy report from the League on the economic impact of cycling).

Also in the same bike lane: Trail based economic development out of Iowa, Jay Walljasper’s MinnPost piece Bikes Mean Better Business about Minneapolis. In addition to dollars, there’s also bicycling and other active transportation as a public health issue from the CDC.


End of the road

I really don’t know how I missed this one, but in 2009 Virginia enacted a law which doesn’t quite ban cul-de-sacs, but makes state funding for street maintenance and services contingent on not building any more of them.  I really don’t know how I missed it because this development was selected by the New York Times as a 2009 Idea of the Year and got a lot of other press.

Why is this noteworthy? 

I’ve been anti cul de sac for years.  Not because I don’t like 3 car garages, as has been suggested somewhere recently.  Not because I am anti-car/pro-bike.  Not because I have some aesthetic problem with suburban development.  Because CUL DE SACS COST MORE – it is more expensive to plow snow, there are very few taxpayers per foot of street surface, and they force traffic onto a few collector streets which are often less direct, longer and wider (more pavement, more cost).

Less direct costs: The lack of a connected street network also makes transit service so inefficient as to be almost impossible (requiring huge subsidy as well as making travel time unreasonable and usage low), makes walking and cycling connections more difficult, and creates traffic issues like those around Northfield’s middle school (which costs the school district more in busing and created a deadly intersection which will cost much to retrofit).  The downstream costs to air quality and public health are only beginning to be calculated.

How Virginia does it: In VA, streets are built then dedicated to the Commonwealth – apparently, much street maintenance is funded at the state level.  Now, before being accepted, the street is reviewed to determine if it “meets or exceeds the public service, pedestrian accommodation, and connectivity requirements.”  otherwise, the street will not be accepted into the network (and the local unit of government is on the hook).

Infrastructure is expensive.  In the future, Northfield needs to understand that not all street patterns come with the same price tag – we need to either transfer the full life-cycle cost of inefficiency to those who would like to build this way or look to changing development patterns for sustainable infrastructure spending.

How streets got this way

Or, how the auto industry made pedestrians unwelcome by a focused marketing campaign to change consumers’ perceptions about driving, streets, etc.

I’m not interested in demonizing the auto industry here, but rather I’d like to suggest that how our community has been built or will be built in the future is not just market demand, but government regulation and funding, as well as private sector promotion to steer the market.  If that’s right and we’d like to see some change in streets and walkability, then what are the policy pieces which need to change?  It’s not just requiring sidewalks or bike lanes, but considering the broader context of how our choices have been constrained and what we need to do to make different choices easier (and more affordable).

Complete Streets update

Complete Streets in history

First, some bad news from the federal level where the Complete Streets provision has been removed from the long-debated, much amended Transportation bill.

Other better news from the top: the National Complete Streets Coalition is incorporating as an official program of Smart Growth America which makes sense – streets, no matter how complete, are still best thought of in the larger context of land use, environment, economy and more.

But some good news at the local level.  Tracy Davis, former Planning Commission chair, member of the state Complete Streets external advisory committee, and all-round interesting person has given Northfield’s Complete Streets policy and related issues a little more publicity on the webpage for her new KYMN radio show Think Twice (program notes on Tracy’s blog).  She also links to MNDOT’s new multimodal 20 year plan just released for public comment.  The Northfield Complete Streets policy draft is considerably shorter (2 pages rather than MNDOT’s 102 pages), so please read it and send comments, criticism, and/or complements before the July 17 Council meeting when we’re scheduled to adopt the policy.

Bicycling and the NRA

This is my bike

Bike Advocacy from the NRA Playbook got my attention since I am pro-bike and but not pro-gun.  The idea is not to whip your handgun out of your saddlebag or jersey pocket to shoot the motorist who ran you off the road.  No, apparently the NRA’s success at growing the organization and its almost legendary lobbying power comes from its strategy to make gun ownership something for ordinary people.

So, for cyclists, rather than trying to make riding a bike a special, environmentally-friendly, physically fabulous, morally superior sort of activity, we should be trying to show how regular people ride bikes and you can too.  If we marketed cycling and bicycles in NRA fashion, here’s what author Tom Bowden suggests:

The important lesson is to stay on the main messages — the ones most people can accept.

  • Bikes are good for America! Let people make their own assumptions why.
  • Bikes solve problems! Just let people decide which ones they care about.
  • Bikes are fun! But let the riders decide how and where they like to ride.
  • Bikes are healthy! And riders can decide if they are interested in weight loss or improving their half-ironman times.
  • Bikes are safe! And let people make their own judgment how much protection they need based on the riding they do.

This won’t help with road and street design which overwhelmingly favors cars or funding more complete streets, but I do think making cycling more appealing for regular folks is more likely to succeed than trying to get them to join the lycra-clad, tech-obsessed racing group.

On the flip side, here are 9 reasons not to ride your bike to work which pokes people for making excuses, but also provides some practical advice (like not worrying about having the perfect bike and rain pants).

Bicycle planning and infrastructure, continued

Here’s a nifty little video showing some of the Netherlands’ bicycle infrastructure with commentary by visiting American planners.  Bikes Belong, through their Bicycling Design Best Practices Program, took a group of planners and engineers from Miami, Chicago, and Washington DC on a study tour of cities in the Netherlands to learn more about how the Dutch have very deliberately built bicycle facilities, required cycling education, and planned traffic flow to encourage cycling.

The video shows lots of people bicycling, a variety of bike lanes, intersection designs, cycle-specific traffic signals – good to see how it can be done when government plans and follows through on a vision (of course, high density helps, too).  Bikes Belong also has a short document describing some of the Netherlands’ efforts.


Another strategy for making cyclists more obvious to drivers

One example of the unequal relationship

I’ve been blogging about bicycle lanes and other bike/ped infrastructure (as well as funding for constructing it), but here’s another strategy for increasing cyclists’ relative importance in the transportation system: strict liability.  This means, when a motor vehicle and bicycle collide, the motorist is presumed to be at fault and the bike/ped victim entitled to compensation unless the motorist can prove the cyclist or pedestrian caused the crash.

In any contact between car and cyclist, the cyclist loses.  The bigger, heavier, faster motor vehicles will do more damage (and its driver is protected by the vehicle body, seatbelt, air bags, etc.) to the unprotected lighter, slower rider   And, since driving requires a license (hence drivers have to meet knowledge as well as skill standards) and insurance (thus drivers have some protection from the monetary impact), why not have the law recognize the already unequal status?