A very short history of bike planning in Northfield

Photo of group of bicyclists crossing a bridge

I have been spending a lot of time as the unofficial historian of bike, pedestrian and street planning over on Facebook, so I decided to put together a quick history of how we got here. This is the bullet point list with links to the full documents on the City of Northfield website.

2001 Comprehensive Plan: This plan highlighted biking as an “appropriate local mode of transportation and called for designating bike routes, building trails, and providing bike parking.

2006 Greenway Corridor Plan: Initiated by citizens, this plan created a network of regional trails following natural features linked by trails and bikeways through Northfield. The East Cannon River Trail is one facility built from this plan, as well as preserving trail/green corridors in new development.

2008 Parks, Open Space and Trail Plan: Mostly about off-street trails for recreation (it’s a Park plan, after all), but ahead of its time in considering the different kinds of riders and the safe connections needed from neighborhoods to trails. It also anticipated the Complete Streets policy by four years in advocating a Complete Streets approach. The plan map was the first bike system map.

Map of 2008 Northfield Parks, open space and trail plan
Parks, Open Space, and Trail System Plan

2008 Comprehensive Plan: This plan pushed back against the many acres of suburban, single family home development in the early 2000s and calls for developing places where it is easy to walk and bike with connected streets, designing local streets with sidewalks, bikeways and narrower street widths.

2008 Transportation Plan: This one begins to look at non-motorized transportation as part of the transportation network (although scooters, ebikes and other things with small wheels, motors and batteries should also be included), but still pretty car-focused.

2009 Safe Routes to School Plan: The Northfield Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force, a subcommittee of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, wrote a grant to develop the Safe Routes to School plan. Precipitated by the difficulties getting to Bridgewater Elementary and the Middle School, this plan studied schools, interviewed families, and recommended improvements for helping kids walk and bike to school including the roundabout at 246 and Jefferson Parkway. This plan prioritizes walking and biking connections near schools, such as the 2023 Maple Street protected bikeway and current Lincoln Parkway study.

2012 Complete Streets Policy: Carleton students (with some Olaf student participation) instigated this policy and did the work of building community support to urge the Council to draft a policy which it did. This document is used to consider the facilities needed on each street project to fulfill the goal of streets serving “all ages and abilities.”

2019 Climate Action Plan: Biking and walking are included as ways to help reduce Northfield’s carbon footprint.

2019 Bike, Pedestrian and Trail Plan update: This is where the implementation starts ramping up. This plan update reviewed all the previous plans and made recommendations for the kinds of facilities needed in different contexts and updated the system plan shown above. Staff and consultants rely heavily on this map when designing street projects.

Map of Northfield's planned walking and bicycling network

2022 Pedestrian and Bikeway Analyzation: This report goes even further toward implementation and provides the policy and design background for current projects: “The purpose of this report is to identify how projects identified in the 2022–2026 Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) can be organized to provide the most benefit to people walking and bicycling in Northfield.” This includes cross sections of roadways included in the CIP projects and new policy for “quick build” designs. This was approved unanimously by the City Council.

Many of commenters over on Facebook complain about the wisdom of bike lanes or other street design changes as stupid, a waste of money, and (my favorite) that the city is governed by “tyrants.” However, the Council (5 different mayors and many different Council members and complete staff turnover) has received public support over twenty years for better walking and biking. Changing this trajectory is possible, but it will take significantly more effort and organizing than complaining on social media or speaking at a few Council meetings.

None of the above should be construed as an official response (I chair the Planning Commission, but I cannot speak for the Commission or the City) or an endorsement of particular projects and policies (I’ve got my own concerns and criticisms about how the City has done this work even if I’m generally very pro-bike).

Ole Avenue questions persist

Ole Avenue is St. Olaf’s planned residence hall/townhome project:

Artist’s rendering of the view up St. Olaf Avenue (Image: St. Olaf)

This is an exciting project, mostly. New residence halls and townhomes will bring students back on campus, St. Olaf Avenue will be reinforced as the tree-lined entrance to the campus from downtown and the pretty, shady campus look and feel will extend further down The Hill. Older, increasingly dilapidated homes which have been used as the Honor Houses will be replaced with state of the art, purpose-built student housing. It’s a more people-scaled project than Olaf’s high rise dorms and much easier to integrate into the neighborhood. All good.

Less wonderfully, the City Council has had two frustrating discussions focused on irrelevant issues, but managing to steer clear of the big questions; now they are about to take action on February 16, 2020.

Quite a lot of these

The Issue

This development, because it is at the edge of the campus zoning, requires a conditional use permit or CUP. Student residence halls are permitted in this area. If they were permitted “by right” St. Olaf could file their plans and city staff would sign off on it with no public review. Instead, they are permitted, but require an additional layer of public review to grant the conditional use permit because this use, in this zone, in this location is deemed to have the potential to create significant impact to the surrounding property and the community.

In short, there is not much discretion to deny the permit (because the use is permitted) if it meets the requirements of our zoning code, but there is the (golden) opportunity to impose conditions which limit the impact of the more intense use on the neighborhood and the community: “The benefits of the conditional use outweigh the potential negative effects to the surrounding area or community” in terms of such things as traffic, light, noise, and the overall character of the residential neighborhood.

The Condition

Back in November, the Planning Commission (I’m on it – this post is my opinion, not the position of the Commission as a whole) held the public hearing as required by state statute. We heard from staff, St. Olaf as the developer and from many concerned neighbors and members of the public.

I went to the Planning Commission meeting concerned about impacts to west-of-Lincoln neighbors from loading zones and security lighting; the huge amount of surface parking and the lighting, stormwater, and traffic it could create looked completely out of scale for the location. I was struck by how much space St. Olaf has devoted to storing cars compared to the spaces for people and the jaw-dropping mismatch between their lofty sustainability policies and what they have proposed.

Look at the footprint of the buildings for people compared to the space devoted to storing empty cars used occasionally.

To guide our discussion, commissioner Will Schroeer took a bottom-up approach and counted parking spaces, read the code and the policy documents, marshaled evidence about parking impacts and assembled a very thoughtful memo for the PC (which you should read). It confirmed there was already enough parking on campus and the new parking should be considered “excessive parking” (not allowed by our code) and approval should add the condition that new parking should be removed.

Based on his analysis and my own policy commitments to climate action and better streets, I voted to make what I believe is a very intentional, well-supported recommendation to Council to approve the CUP with the additional condition. The parking lots will encourage driving, add security lighting, increase stormwater runoff, and be an incompatible addition to the neighborhood.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval with the condition to remove new parking which has turned out to be a very challenging condition for the Council.

Process

CUPs should be pretty routine. Staff presents the Planning Commission recommendation to the Council along with the materials they prepared for the public hearing and a summary of the input from the community and commissioners. The Council then votes and they can factor in political issues and other priorities which the PC did not, but if they disagree they are required to send their reasoning to the PC in writing.

In January, City staff brought the CUP to the Council noting briefly that the Planning Commission unanimously approved the CUP with the condition of removing new parking, but moving on to the staff recommendation eliminating that condition with the justification that many of the stalls are “replacement” stalls from Honor House demolition and “insufficient accommodation is likely to result in more parking in adjacent neighborhoods.”

It is annoying that staff invited St. Olaf to the table to lobby for their plans, present new information, and revise parking stall numbers two times rather than (at least) fully presenting the Planning Commission recommendation and its policy and research justification.

It is disturbing that the Council discussion has focused on defining terms and counting spaces, rather than whether this project and the Planning Commission recommendation is in line with City policies (in which we have invested thousands of dollars, countless staff hours, and the expertise and labor of hundreds of community members) and addresses the impact to the community which is, after all, the purpose for the CUP. There is no number of spaces which is “enough” without balancing multiple interests.

All the focus on the number of spaces has resulted in stirring up a lot of dust so the Council cannot see their way through to a forward-looking, policy-based decision.

Dust storms limit visibility

There is already enough parking

For campus development, parking is evaluated campus-wide, not on a per-building basis. The parking study St Olaf submitted states clearly that “the number of permitted parking stalls (excluding loading parking stalls) exceeds the required parking” stated in the Land Development Code. While no maximum is stated, the approval criteria does stipulate “an excessive number of parking spaces are not proposed” for project.

St. Olaf’s report goes on to describe how the college also has made efforts to “decrease students’ reliance on personal vehicles, reducing the need for long-term on-campus student parking capacity.”  This suggests fewer spaces may be needed in the future, rather than more or the same amount (parking needs are also usually overestimated).

The recommendation which I believed was to remove the new paved parking lots (and could have been quickly clarified by the Planning Commission members at their last meeting) has been translated into a recommendation to remove “new” but not “replacement” parking spaces. This has triggered a new counting game asking which spaces are “new” and which are “replacement” and other number games which invite the Council to get deep into details, rather than helping them thoughtfully consider the long-term impacts to the community.

So, there is enough parking. It may not be what St. Olaf planned, it may not always be as convenient to each person as they want it to be, and, as always, removing parking spaces makes otherwise rational people batshit crazy. But there is enough.

My vote at to recommend approval with the condition that new parking be removed was meant to condition approval on removing the two large new slabs of pavement.

The proposed parking violates the LDC, Comprehensive Plan and other policies

Regardless of the number of spaces, the concentration of parking at the neighborhood edge of the campus is difficult to reconcile with the requirements for compatibility with the existing historic neighborhood, strategic goal to improve transit, stated goals to reduce carbon emissions, plans to improve car sharing (and bike and scooter sharing in the Climate Action Plan), improve bike and walk connections, enhance the small town character, and mitigate climate impact.

The development patterns of land can dictate transportation and building density, creating barriers and opportunities for where people live and how they travel. More compact land use with adequate options for non-motorized travel or transit can help reduce emissions from transportation. Conversely, low-density land use patterns that are designed for the movement of vehicles will create an auto-centric community that results in higher emissions.

Climate Action Plan

The residential part of Ole Avenue is a fine example of what the City has said it wants compact development, creating lovely streetscapes, and enhancing the interface with the St. Olaf campus which is one of the jewels of Northfield. The kind of land development pattern which can reduce emissions and mitigate stormwater issues.

The large parking lots are an example of what the City has said it does not want: The suburban parking layout is hidden from campus, but will strongly impact the surrounding neighborhood in ways which the City has said repeatedly it does not want because of their climate, human, and visual impacts. It is the kind of pattern designed for movement of vehicles.

Further, an increasing amount of research backs up Northfield’s planning by showing that abundant, cheap (to use) parking means people drive more, that reducing parking and making driving less convenient helps people drive less, and that there are multiple ways to manage parking demand to be able to build less of it. There is an increasing wave of cities eliminating all parking minimum requirements (including new DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s South Bend, IN). I know members of the Planning Commission besides me stay current on these developments and I believe we are trying to guide Northfield to a more sustainable future based on best practices.

Mixed messages: Focus on the renewable energy or easy car culture? Image: St. Olaf College

Important policy and practical questions the Council could ask

There are many questions I wish Council had asked and/or staff had considered rather than counting parking spaces as if there was a right number.

How should we balance convenience against community impact? Much has been made of ensuring students have easy access to their cars for their internships, student teaching, and jobs. Yet that convenience for a few will be purchased by encouraging more traffic in the neighborhood, more climate impact, more lighting, and less green space; is this acceptable? This balancing act applies for every street project Northfield builds where parking is proposed to be removed.

How are taxpayers’ interests being protected in the planning of this development? So far, the discussion has continued to center around the perceived need for convenient parking for students. But the CUP is intended to assess the impact to the community. The spillover effects of increased vehicle use (and lighting and stormwater) in the St. Olaf Avenue/Lincoln Street area will be felt by Northfield taxpayers who pay for the streets, parks, climate action programs, and transit. For development away from this campus/community interface (along Highway 19 or by Skoglund or near North Avenue), taxpayer interests are very small. How are you assessing the community impact — especially to taxpayers — as required by the CUP criteria rather than the student impact?

Will the parking help us carry out our policy goals? For only one example, the Strategic Plan calls for improving transit. Accomplishing this requires not just putting buses on the road, but making transit efficient. If driving is prioritized, will transit be impacted? I believe the Council’s job is to stay on a policy level, not a detail level; it is staff’s job to help them do this. Every project should be viewed through the lenses of Northfield policies focused by the Strategic Plan; how does this one stack up?

Is parking on neighborhood streets a problem? Staff and St. Olaf have both threatened “but they’ll park in the neighborhood” if the parking is eliminated. Certainly, I know homeowners are rabidly protective of their curb space and will defend it against bike lanes, curb extensions, and other people parking there. But if a variety of measures are taken to help students get around without their own vehicle (now and into the future) as St. Olaf has already indicated they intend to do, will parking in the neighborhood be significant, will it be more than a temporary issue, and are there other ways to control parking near campus (neighborhood parking permits, for example, which ensure that parking is not free except for residents)?

What other alternatives besides big parking lots and no parking lots exist? It would have been possible for staff to make a principled recommendation which does include more parking, but still took the neighborhood, traffic, and climate impact seriously by requiring parking to be distributed in smaller lots around campus with only limited parking next to the dorms, placing parking with with easy access only to the Highway 19 vehicle-oriented campus entrance, and prioritizing Lincoln, Second Street, and St. Olaf Avenue as local, walkable, bikeable connections. Can you challenge staff to bring you better answers?

Can you approve the CUP without the parking lots and see if the sky actually falls? Trying to change our planning and building behavior is really hard and Northfield’s past development has worked to make driving and parking very easy. Our newer policies point us in the right direction, but still require political will to take the first step at the project level. Could you approve the CUP with additional conditions which would prevent building the parking now, but leave it possible to construct more later if it is actually needed when other mobility and access strategies are implemented, too?

The other large parking lots on the Olaf campus are well-insulated from the neighborhood and this map shows no other residence hall has a large amount of parking.

Bottom line

This project could be a model for green development and a golden opportunity for city/college collaboration. The City priorities for better transit, climate action, and more compact land use should spur the Council to see possibilities and ask “How can we help students get around Northfield?” and the College to look at its wind turbine and sustainability policies and say “We’ve said we do care about the climate, so let’s think with the city about future-looking solutions.”

“Enough” parking is a political question, not a counting problem or pure policy question. The Planning Commission looked at the numbers and made a recommendation which, I believe, reflects the policies of the City and best practices. There certainly is “enough” if Northfield and St. Olaf follow through on their climate action planning, shared mobility, better transit, and commitment to working with the neighborhood on maintaining a wonderful interface between campus and town. Your job is to weigh the political concerns and decide how much is enough.

Urbanists tweet about the roundabout

Last week, the Strib ran an article about Northfield’s planned roundabout with tunnels for people biking and walking:

Twitter responds

As a result, one local urbanist (streets.mn founder, active with Strong Towns, Planning Commissioner, and good guy) tweets:

In turn, famous walkability guy Jeff Speck chimes in:

After a bit of back and forth, the exchange ended with:

Aside from the arrogance of this judgment (requiring omniscience to evaluate), there’s really more to be said about why this project, while unfortunate and imperfect, is justifiable.

Strib is wrong!

The Strib corrected their print story to show the the approved design below, rather than the rejected design which brought all the pedestrian tunnels to the center at a sort of below-grade plaza. The adopted version is simpler and allows more direct travel by people riding, rolling and walking:

Approved alternative for TH 246/Jefferson Parkway (image: City of Northfield)

Twitter is right!

I agree with these guys. The proposed roundabout plus tunnels is a huge amount of infrastructure with a very high price tag for an intersection with only 4,000 AADT. MnDOT and the City chose the roundabout design early and cut off opportunities to rethink the intersection for people walking, rolling, and riding and for cost savings in the short and long term.

I especially agree with Mr Speck that while roundabouts are the safest and most pedestrian friendly of the car-centric designs, they are still completely auto-centric infrastructure so the opportunity to really change the design paradigm was lost. So, yeah, the Northfield roundabout is a mega-project which violates the walkability rules and urbanism best practices.

But not completely right

Jeff Speck is an expert on walkable places, but how well does he know Northfield? This intersection is a big problem for Northfield because of prior planning problems, the character of the roads involved, Northfield’s nascent understanding of walkability and how to achieve it, and the political climate of the city.

An earlier exchange with many of the same complaints was kicked off by the only other person in the conversation who knows the Northfield landscape and, as a result, can also see the upside:

Northfield is just beginning to walk back the decades of suburban development which reached its apotheosis with the Northfield Middle School. This intersection is smack dab in the middle of this unconnected, residential area with three of Northfield’s five schools, a community center (including a senior center), and a future state trail which will be a major east-west bike/walk connection. And the north-south road is a state highway, just to add some jurisdictional complexity and design constraints.

Satellite image with labels describing the dead end streets on either side of Northfield's Divison Street and Jefferson Pkwy intersection
Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

No other routes to school

Because there are NO other contiguous streets which connect the Middle School and there are two more schools plus the coming into town get-to-work traffic, congestion at this intersection is highly concentrated into “rush minutes” keyed to the school day. School start and end vehicle traffic jam times are the very same times kids might be walking and biking to school (All detailed here).

MnDOT AADT map (edited): The circle marks the roundabout location and shows what doesn’t connect

Perceived safety

What traffic looks like now as it heads to the 4-way stop with turn lanes during the school rush. There are multi-use paths and sidewalks leading to this intersection, but crossing the multi-lane all way stop in traffic like this is daunting and dangerous – both actually dangerous (with one person killed crossing on foot and multiple crashes) and certainly subjectively dangerous.

Who wants to cross this on a bike? (Photo 246 Solutions)

Parents are rightly afraid to let their kids bike or walk through this area now and are also concerned that kids crossing this kind of traffic at a roundabout doesn’t feel safe. Slowing cars and crossing at grade is the urbanist recommendation, but that still doesn’t address the sense that safety is achieved only by making sure people walking and biking are physically separated from heavy traffic. A small bonus – the intersection is already somewhat elevated, so underpass grades will be quite flat.

Older adults and people with mobility or vision challenges are also uncomfortable with crossing traffic lanes and needing to perch on “refuge medians” (surely the word “refuge” suggests being stranded) especially if crosswalks are before vehicles enter the roundabout and traffic is slowing down from 45 or 50 mph and looking left for other vehicles rather than for unprotected people.

The Mill Towns State Trail will also pass through this intersection along Jefferson Parkway. While many riders and walkers on this leg will be able to cross at times which are not during the concentrated school times, the DNR recommendation for trails crossing roadways with these speeds would be a grade separated crossing which, again, is typically perceived as safer and easier for recreational users.

It’s a state highway

The current 4-way stop doesn’t work well for any mode of travel, but when choosing another intersection control the City was limited by MnDOT requirements for its highway. The intersection does not meet MnDOT warrants for a traffic signal (traffic projections forecast warrants would be met by 2040) for one thing, and MnDOT’s emphasis on traffic flow and Level of Service prioritized easy driving…so, a roundabout was the choice. There is discussion of turning back this route to the county and/or city, but that possible future development will come too late for this project.

The highway has a posted speed limit of 45 mph in front of the middle school as vehicles slow down from the 55 (or maybe 60 as speed limits were raised recently) out of town section:

Speed limits on TH 246

Building schools on state highways is a bad idea, but Northfield did it anyway three times. So, the school district buses kids across the street to the Middle School because it is a hazardous crossing and the traffic accelerates out of town right about at the Middle School. Slowing traffic should happen well south of the roundabout and maybe, if this becomes a county of city route, there will be more opportunity to do that. But, again, too late for this project.

Back to the roundabout

So, given all the other factors, what should Northfield do right now to improve safety (actual and perceived), fix school traffic jams and encourage small people and older people and recreational trail users to walk and bike through this intersection?

Note the Catch-22: If Northfield could increase the number of students getting to school under their own power that would reduce rush minute congestion created by adults chauffeuring kids to school…and if it reduced demand during peak times then the over-engineered roundabout would not be needed. But how could Northfield increase walking and biking through an intersection where people die?

My position is the roundabout can relieve the traffic jams (and improve air quality by eliminating those idling cars and buses), reduce the number of conflict points for car crashes (of which there are many), and adding tunnels makes the walking and biking not only statistically safe, but safe feeling. Making biking and walking feel safe opens the door to schools encouraging kids to walk and bike (and parents will allow it), gives the Mill Towns Trail an enhanced chance of success by allowing low stress, non-stop travel (just like cars want!).

Mill Towns Trail proposed alignment

Will it work?

Mr Speck has decreed it has never worked and will never work, but I’m hopeful that IF the City ensures that there are safe bike and walk routes to the roundabout from all directions (for thinking beyond the project area is always a challenge), then Northfield opens the door to biking and walking as real transportation so that by the time this needs to be reconstructed, the landscape will be different and the next solution will be climate focused instead.

But. I also have deep reservations about this approach. Adding bike and walk facilities, even really good ones, to a system designed for and prioritizing vehicle travel – as this project most certainly does only reinforces the unsustainable design mentality which supports the “drive everywhere” status quo. At this moment in Northfield, it is
what is politically possible, but it dodges the critical issue of reducing driving to save the planet and our health.

I have two desired outcomes for this project beyond getting people riding, rolling and walking safely to all the important destinations near this intersection. First, making this project an object lesson in Northfield’s evolving climate action planning highlighting what not to do in the future. Second, the City and school district will understand this project is a bandaid to fix a series of land use and transportation mistakes which both
jurisdictions will want to endeavor not to repeat. Maybe the very high price tag will focus their attention more sharply.

A quick look at a map of the City shows the wonderful, walkable core, but then how the City sprawled and spread. Northfield did a very thorough job of not merely breaking, but flouting Mr Speck’s walkability rules and we’re just starting to put the town back together. The particular challenges at this critical intersection mean I’m defending the choice to separate the bike and walk trails from the vehicle traffic to help people feel safer while we work on all the other pieces.

After so completely cutting off connectivity in the past, Northfield’s decision to try a big fix at this intersection is defensible, but disappointing.

The bike’s eye view from Jake Thomas

UPDATE! Northfield does get the message right

Look! Northfield has updated its sidewalk stencils for directing bicycle traffic off the sidewalks:

On view now at 7th & Division Street!

A few years ago, I complained about the City of Northfield’s misleadingly negative image on downtown sidewalks:

Really, let’s have more bikes downtown (and skateboards – also prohibited on the sidewalks!). Just walk them on the sidewalk where there’s very limited space. So THANK YOU Northfield (especially Dave Bennett) for changing the stencil and the message with the latest downtown street project.

More ideas for helping bikes fit in downtown

Provide parking (off the crowded sidewalk in high traffic locations)

But where will they park (their bikes)? Right here!

And some great destinations (again, keeping the sidewalk clearer for walking and access)

A parklet in a parking space (Image: Dero – the bike rack people)

And some signage to tell drivers and riders that they are welcome on the street rather than the sidewalk:

Sharrows (Image: Cornell)

Golden Opportunity paved over at Greenvale Park

The new Greenvale Park Elementary School will improve the inside-the-building issues from no doors to more security to better tech and has been planned with detailed input from teachers and parents.

Far less attention was paid to outside the school, however, and the golden opportunity created by building a new school to explicitly consider the larger picture of how this school will be more equitable, address climate change, increase transportation options, and connect its neighborhood. Breaking ground this week, the district will start to pave over its once-in-a-generation chance.

Northfield does not build new schools often.

Wold Architects presented this design to Northfield school board. The large parking lot, two new driveways, and vehicle drop off lanes visually, spatially and psychologically prioritize easy driving and vehicle storage over safe, people (child!) centered access. This choice is backward looking and kills the golden opportunity goose dead.

How we got here

Here’s the city planning context: during the 1970s and 1980s multiple blocks south of the school were vacated leaving Lincoln Parkway in front of the school as the only continuous east-west street nearby and thus a critical connection for the neighborhood which includes a large retirement community, links to Saint Olaf College, and the only street connecting Viking Terrace on the east and the Dakota County neighborhoods on the west to the larger community. The street is wide and vehicles travel fast.

Photo: City of Northfield (Red lines are trails; yellow lines are sidewalks)

But as a neighborhood school, walking distances aren’t long. Siting the school and planning the vehicle circulation to allow Lincoln Parkway to connect the retirement community (west), Viking Terrace (east), more homes on all sides, AND the school for walking and biking for all ages, incomes, and abilities could have been a core part of the planning. But it wasn’t.

But the importance of walking and biking is not just my opinion. The City of Northfield has been working one policy update at a time to build a more walkable city. Northfield city policy also points to improving biking and walking around Greenvale in particular; the draft update of the city’s trail, bike, and pedestrian plan identifies safer and more accessible bicycling and walking facilities around K-12 schools as a priority and Lincoln Parkway as a gap in the bicycling network.

But not if you go to Greenvale Park (Photo: Bike Law)

Building walkable schools pays big dividends

Walking (which is shorthand for walking, biking, skateboarding, rolling, scootering…and any other form of active transportation) and building walkable places is good for Northfield in ways which both directly and indirectly benefit schools:

  • Economic value: Northfield’s recent presentation by Urban3, discussions with consultants about developing the area around the hospital and an Urban Land Institute workshop last fall all emphasized the high demand and higher property values for walkable neighborhoods, and the need for Northfield to ensure new development was connected to schools, downtown, shopping and jobs not only by streets, but by sidewalks and bike trails. And walking can help family reduce the amount they have to pay for transportation from less gas to being able to have one fewer vehicles.

The high costs of driving

No matter how many benefits I can list for walking, driving is almost always more convenient and, for many trips in Northfield, unavoidable. Northfield, like almost everywhere else, has built streets and neighborhoods to make driving easy. Because driving is so normal and so needed, I’m not surprised the school district followed the path of least resistance and accommodated the demand for easy car access.

Yet, I am so sorry that the district didn’t do more because it was such a great chance to help begin to shift the status quo for all the benefits above, but also to help alleviate some of the costs below. Most people don’t consider all the costs or know how our laws and policies subsidize driving or think about doing anything else. But the school district could have helped change the status quo by considering:

  • Driving costs money: Cars are expensive (typical estimates are about $8,000 per year). The groups most likely to bike and walk already are low income people and people of color; these are the families Greenvale Park serves. Reducing the need to drive and increasing the safety for people walking and biking will begin to advance greater equity in transportation in Northfield.
Racial “dot map”
  • Driving costs lives. People driving kill an increasing number of people walking and biking (again, disproportionately lower income and people of color). Reducing school car traffic generally and designing to reduce speed and distraction improves safety. The City of Northfield has begun building traffic calming features into street projects. Partnering with the City for changes to Lincoln Parkway to slow traffic, improve crossings, add bike facilities and fill sidewalk gaps would have been a good way to think together (and share costs) with the City to improve safety and quality of life.
  • Driving is expensive for taxpayers: Building for driving means it is often unsafe and unpleasant to walk, so the school district must pay more to bus more students short distances (such as busing kids across the street from the Middle School), more parking means paying more for maintenance and plowing. Building wide roads and expanding the city in ways which require more driving requires more miles of streets, more pavement, more maintenance and higher taxes (road specific fees and taxes do not cover the costs; general fund dollars are required).  
  • Building for driving incentivizes more driving. Widening roads and an abundant supply of free parking increases the amount of driving rather than alleviating congestion. Changing Greenvale’s primary orientation to easy biking and walking rather than easier driving could have been a big step toward slowing down the vicious circle.
Cartoon: Bikeyface

Yes, but why does one parking lot matter?

Greenvale’s parking lot matters because placing it between the school and the street helps continue the pattern of designing people out of our places and making active transportation unsafe, unpleasant, and unusual. And new schools don’t get built very often.

Building for walkability means more than “there is a sidewalk.” Walkable places site buildings where they are easiest to approach on foot (usually close to and facing the street) with an obvious and inviting front entrance. Parking is better placed behind (or under) the building and away from the street. Working with the City of Northfield for better crosswalks, traffic calming, and other infrastructure improvements would connect the school to the other side of the street.

The author ready to walk to kindergarten ca. 1966

Better site design would not have changed the world in one construction project, but de-emphasizing driving (even making it somewhat less convenient!) would have made encouraging walking easier (Hey school district – how about a Safe Routes to School program?), made walking in the neighborhood more pleasant (Age Friendly Northfield and helping older adults stay active!), and helped connect this part of Northfield to the rest of the city (equity!). It would also have shown that the school district truly cares about its students, their health, and the future of the environment they will live in. This project is an opportunity squandered.

But wait, there’s more

I served on the District’s core planning group for Greenvale to raise these issues and I was surprised that the teachers, administrators, and parents in the group provided detailed and thoughtful input about the design of the building. Energy efficiency, locker placement, accommodating the Community School, ensuring efficient placement of social workers and nurses, and planning the traffic pattern inside were all discussed at length. But these dedicated teachers and community members (who said they cared about climate change, science, and student health inside the building) were silent when I brought up how the placement of the building could support their work and values.

After this group concluded its work, Superintendent Matt Hillman bought me a nice brush-off lunch and suggested my concerns were merely a difference of opinion. I am concerned that our school officials – the ones who are trying to educate our children to be thoughtful, critical, knowledgeable participants in our democracy are so quick to fall victim to the fallacy of false equivalence. And, as a taxpayer, I am concerned that short term expedience has prevented thoughtful, critical consideration of the long-term costs of their choices.

Walking to school should be safe, easy, and obvious. Even for 5 year olds.

2018’s Greatest Hits (and misses)

Because it’s New Year’s Eve, it must be time to review 2018, right?

What I Read in 2018

Although my favorite novel of the year was Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, I’m having a huge amount of fun with The Art of the Fold, and I failed (again) to finish Gravity’s Rainbow, here’s the list of blog-relevant reading ((with some links to real reviews and commentary).

Read it

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. Many people have heard about redlining and restrictive covenants on property. Many Minnesotans know about how I-94 between Minneapolis and Saint Paul eviscerated the (African-American) Rondo neighborhood. There’s much more and Rothstein builds the case for de jure (not “just” de facto) segregation in where African Americans were allowed to live, mixed neighborhoods destroyed to build new segregated housing, government financing and other programs not available to African-Americans…and we can see the effects in Northfield, too.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro. I don’t recommend reading this whole, huge book, but learning about how Robert Moses used the machinery of government to amass great power in appointed positions to build huge projects intended to further a very narrow but very clear vision is jaw-dropping. More broadly, Moses’ New York park, bridge, and parkway projects envision cities where everyone drives a car and neighborhoods in the path of “progress” are expendable; this development pattern was replicated across the country and finally the pendulum is swinging back to building communities which are more equitable, more connected, and more livable.

6 Rules for walkable cities – finding multiple messages for why walkability is important.


Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places by Jeff Speck
. Call this the antidote to Robert Moses with 101 ways (illustrated with case studies, graphs, links, photos from around the country), large and small, to build really walkable, wonderful places. I wouldn’t call this about “rules,” but more a catalog of possibilities and much which could be done in Northfield (and some which already have).



Northfield projects

Here’s a quick look back at the important land use and transportation stuff in Northfield this year from my perspective with links to what I’ve already written about this stuff (or other information and media coverage)

Incremental development developments: ADUs will get easier to build as the City rolls back regulations on accessory dwelling units.

Aurora Pharmaceuticals is the example of the pattern of development we need which is multi-story, on existing infrastructure, with quality jobs.

Division Street reconstruction is a win for people walking and rolling.

The referendum to adopt a sales tax and sell bonds to build a new Ice Arena failed

Big picture! The EDA brought Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 to Northfield and his talk illustrated where the most highly productive property (in tax revenue per acre) in the city is located (downtown’s development pattern is the most productive ). I’ve been pushing Urban3’s ideas for several years (like here and here), but it really helps to have the expert talk about it and watching lightbulbs go on above audience members’ heads was great.

Graphic of tax value per acre – the tall purple spikes are high value downtown (Image Urban3)

On to 2019

Greenvale Park Elementary School: The voters approved bonding to build a new elementary school on the Greenvale Park campus, retaining the existing building for early childhood education. A huge, shining, golden opportunity to think about not only the building, but how kids (and adults) can get to the campus with special focus on helping people walk, roll, and bike and reducing vehicle pickups and drop-offs.

246/Jefferson Roundabout: I look at this one with great hope and sheer terror. This project has the capacity to change (for the better) how Northfielders can get around town for a generation (or continue to force us to drive). The City has received grant funding for a roundabout…this brings down the cost to the City and jumpstarts the project, but leaps to the conclusion that a roundabout is the best solution for this intersection. The goal: an intersection design which prioritizes people first and not vehicle throughput. Because this intersection links schools, senior center, and much much more, ensuring young and old people can safely and enjoyably walk, bike, roll, skateboard, skate, scooter through this intersection is the difference between kids being able to get to school by themselves…or not.

Ice Arena: It hasn’t gone away just because voters said “no” on a bond and sales tax referendum. Northfield needs to work on both the process and the underlying policy issues here before spending a dime.

New Community Development Director: Mitzi Baker began work as the Community Development Director in early December. In my first interaction with her during an event with all the finalists for the job, she said “Transportation and land use must be much more closely integrated” and I almost fell off my chair since I’ve been trying to convince city staff about this for years. I am so looking forward to changes in economic and community development in 2019, especially with the projects on the table.

Sidewalks as safe transportation infrastructure

Crosswalk pavers showing damage

After tripping in the same hole in the sidewalk on Division Street not once but three times in recent weeks, I was relieved to see City workers repairing curbs and repairing trip hazards. Like these:

Marking repairs – including removing the decorative but trip-worthy panels on Division Street

 

My current inconvenience and surprise at tripping aren’t very noteworthy as I’m still pretty spry, but I’m thinking ahead to how important safe sidewalks and street crossings will be for an older, frailer me and already are for older adults, people with low vision, those with limited mobility or using aids from canes to wheelchairs.

Crosswalk pavers showing damage
Crosswalk pavers downtown – decorative, but dangerous unless repaired

 

Northfield is getting much better about constructing safe facilities for walking and doing annual repairs on downtown sidewalks (adding sidewalks on Woodley; the new Division Street), but we can and should allocate transportation resources to do more to help people – all people – travel safely, not just people driving cars.

Crosswalk showing curb extensions and pavers
Curb extensions and shorter crossing distance on Division Street (but still the pavers)

 

In some places – Atlanta, for examplelawsuits have been filed by wheelchair users alleging ADA violations because of the condition of sidewalks. I’m not recommending litigation in Northfield, but am advocating for thinking about sidewalks as basic transportation infrastructure like streets and maintaining an index of sidewalk conditions, mapping sidewalk gaps, and building the addition and repair of sidewalks into the CIP and annual budget.

Then there are the other obstacles…

Pavement is only one kind of obstacle on narrow sidewalks

 

 

Division Street reconstruction: “Are you sure that road is for 2-way traffic?”

“Are you sure that road is for 2-way traffic?” asked KYMN News about the new and improved Division Street. Social media commenters asked whether it was wide enough for school buses, how two trucks could pass, and where are the bike lanes.

Yes indeed, Division Street remains 2-way (as City staff hastened to confirm on KYMN), but it is narrower than it used to be and some of the new features make it look especially narrow. But let’s unpack the first impressions to see that it really is wide enough for 2-way traffic, is wonderful for walking, and does not change the bike situation a great deal (which is not perfect).

Old

The reconstruction project includes Division Street between 6th and 8th Streets, then 7th Street between Washington and Water (currently underway). On Division, the pre-project streetscape looked like this:

Google streetview image of Northfield MN Division Street
Division Street – before

South of 6th Street, things spread out. Econofoods (now officially Family Fare Supermarket) is the only building on its block  and set back behind a large parking lot with few trees, little landscaping and no benches. Buildings on the other side are closer to the sidewalk, but there are only two of them interspersed with another surface parking lot. There is street parking, but less of it because of driveways and less used because there are fewer things to walk to, and so there are also fewer people walking and rolling and the cars start moving faster.

Looking north on Division to the downtown pattern

The downtown development pattern begins heading north from 6th Street. Buildings come right up to the sidewalk with small storefronts, frequent doorways, and large windows; the sidewalks are busy with people are walking (whether from their cars or walking into downtown) to businesses in a space with trees, signs, banners, flowers, bike racks, and benches. Cars move slowly to be able watch for all the walking and rolling people and allow access to the parallel and angled parking. Even with the slow traffic, however, it’s difficult for people walking to see and be seen by cars without inching out into the street to see around parked cars.

Is it safe to cross? Curb extensions would help at 3rd Street, too

New

The new street design looks like this:

New Division Street

And here’s the (annotated) design drawing:

The new design builds safer, more pleasant walking and rolling into the street network by:

  • extending curbs to slow vehicle traffic and shorten crossing distances
  • raising the intersection at Division and 7th to prioritize walkers and rollers (this intersection links the senior condos at Village on the Cannon and Millstream Commons assisted living facility west of Water Street to downtown)
  • different materials for parking areas and driving lanes to visually narrow the street
  • trees and other landscaping to add shade, storm water management, and additional visual cues to slow down.

By slowing traffic and adding features to assist more vulnerable users the new street helps extend the walkable downtown street pattern another two blocks south and makes it even safer to cross the street. People, rather than cars, are centered.

Compare

Visual cues are critical. Compare Woodley Street which was reconstructed in 2015. Woodley Street has 2 11′ driving lanes:

New Woodley Street (at Washington)

So does the new Division Street:

New Division Street

Division feels slower, doesn’t it? The different colored pavement and curb extensions make it look and feel skinnier even with the same width driving lanes.

When Woodley was reconstructed, the street was widened in some places to a uniform 44′ curb to curb width, trees were removed (some ash trees, some in the path of the construction), sidewalk was added on both sides, and parking lanes were kept on both sides of the street. Small curb extensions were added at selected intersections to help walkers and rollers cross the street. The overall look is a very wide street with wide open sky above and the 30 mph speed limit is difficult to observe without carefully watching the speedometer because there are no design cues to slow people down.

Speed perception – via Strong Towns and Planning Peeps

But what about the bikes?

Local riders have complained the street is too narrow and there are no bike lanes. They’re mostly right.

The narrowness extends the downtown pattern another two blocks and this makes these two blocks just as problematic for bikes as Division Street from 2nd to 6th. For experienced riders, the slower traffic and heightened driver awareness should make this area marginally better. But for other riders (new, less confident, kids, seniors and any other people on bikes who are uncomfortable taking the full lane), the angled parking and door zone on the narrower street are scary and uninviting. A sharrow or two might be a small signal that bikes belong, but sharrows are just signs on the street.

There are two messages here.

First, the new street prioritizes people walking and rolling in bold and new-to-Northfield ways. This is good.

Second, there’s more we could do. The lack of bike lanes – or the lack of space for bike lanes – hints at how Northfield (and most other places) allocate space in the public right of way. Parking was a very big deal in this project with local business owners and residents concerned about each parking space removed. If Northfield had chosen to limit parking on these blocks, there would have been plenty of space for high quality bike lanes.

The problem is not that there is not enough space, but that the political climate is not (yet) favorable for allocating that space differently. This project designs people into the streetscape more than any other street project Northfield has built recently, but the focus is on helping people walk, not improving the bicycling.

So, drive slower, walk happily and safely, and consider the cost of free parking to other road users.

More new Division Street