Sidewalks as safe transportation infrastructure

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

What would happen if we treated sidewalks like streets?

Perhaps I am getting grumpy as winter drags on here in Minnesota, but as I was picking my way on the ice, trudging through the snow, and climbing over the snowplow mountains at intersections after the last big snowfall, I thought (again, for I think this every winter):

The City should treat sidewalks like streets.

That is, the City should “plow” the sidewalks rather than relying on individual property owners’ initiative to shovel the snow.

Why have property owners do the work of maintaining public property?  The only benefits I can identify are (1) heart-warming stories of neighborly generosity where people clear the snow from elderly neighbors sidewalks, cookies are baked for the nice folks shoveling their friends’ walkways, and the camaraderie as we get to know each other as we share the burden, and (2) the City (that is, taxpayers) don’t have to pay for it. Yet we do pay for it with our time, money (snowblowers are not cheap and even snow shovels cost something), and limitations in transportation choice.

Helpful neighbor doing the City’s work

Why have the City clear the sidewalks? I believe Northfield could find ways to manage both the cost and logistics (perhaps a snow removal utility – rates would be higher if you live on a cul de sac, but lower on a snow emergency route), so that’s not my central concern.

Sidewalks are critical public transportation infrastructure, not amenities. Whether we cannot drive, cannot afford to drive or choose to walk to carry out our daily activities, we rely on a safe sidewalk network to get around just as much as others rely on the motor vehicle spaces. City maintenance of the sidewalks network (and filling in gaps in the network) would be a strong statement of the importance of transportation choice and do much to implement our environmental, age-friendly, multi-modal transportation policies.

Piecemeal snow removal on sidewalks limits mobility and increases risk for everyone, but particularly older adults. Reading comments on the Age-Friendly Northfield survey recently, snow on sidewalks was mentioned by multiple people as an obstacle to getting around as they age.

Snow removal is one of the biggest objections to adding new sidewalk. Attend any public meeting for a street project where sidewalk is proposed to be built where none currently exists and you’ll hear a concern about the burden of snow removal. Since snow is a problem for less (often much less) than half the year, this means fear of snow shoveling has helped create gaps in the sidewalk network itself which persist year-round. Northfield could remove this excuse my removing the snow.

Snow removal by property owners is not always equitable. In areas with neighborhood associations, the association removes the snow. In others, like mine, my family can buy a big and expensive snowblower; my neighbor can pay for a snow removal service. The rental properties in my neighborhood are rarely shoveled and neighbors who work out of town (or work long hours) often do not have time to clear the snow promptly or effectively. Any one of the properties which doesn’t clear the sidewalk interrupts the network for the block. Maintaining a transportation network should not depend on individuals’ affluence, work schedule, means of paying for housing, or sense of civic responsibility.

Wait, would the City have to clear all the sidewalks at once? No, the City could prioritize sidewalks the same way it does streets as long as it provides a connected, clear sidewalk network in a timely manner (here’s a similar argument for bike lanes). My local street is appropriately plowed later than nearby collectors; my sidewalk can wait, too. Some special cases might include ensuring snow is removed quickly near schools and facilities serving older adults.

What about sidewalk maintenance more generally? The City is will discuss its Pavement Management Index on Tuesday which maps the condition of driving surfaces of City streets. If the City treated sidewalks as transportation infrastructure, sidewalks (and gaps in sidewalks) would be included in their inventory.

Nicely cleared multi-use path in Lapland

Fun (and serious) Urbanism – Child-friendly cities

The Guardian just published an article What Would the Ultimate Child-Friendly City Look Like? which details what five cities are doing to make their outdoor spaces and transportation systems really kid-friendly. We have Age-Friendly Northfield looking at how to make Northfield better for older adults, but what about kids?

Right now, Northfield is somewhat kid-friendly if you happen to live in the right neighborhood. My East Side neighborhood is a good place for a kids – say, 10 years old –  to independently travel on foot or bike to the library, swimming pool, and parks.Other neighborhoods face bigger obstacles like needing to Highway 3. Walking or biking to school is unsafe for many, even those who live close to schools.

What would a truly child-friendly Northfield look like?

Really not kid-friendly

 

One block in the network

Marvin Lane is just one-block long, but it is one block in an important location in Northfield. Marvin Lane connects Washington Street and east side neighborhoods to Division Street/MN 246 and schools, downtown, and out of town. Marvin Lane is one block just at the point where the traditional street grid breaks down in favor of cul de sacs and dead end streets which make it an important connection between major north-south routes is particularly important for people choosing to walk or bicycle because of the lack of alternative routes and the poor sight lines for other streets to cross Division Street.

Right now, Marvin Lane is a 36′ wide street with 9 driveways, mature trees and no sidewalk. Marvin’s pavement is in such poor condition it’s almost a gravel road again, so its place on the 2017 reclamation list is overdue.

Marvin Lane and its connections in context

Sidewalks

The City Council held an improvement hearing two weeks ago to consider the list of 2017 reclamation projects. The Council was enthusiastic about adding the staff-recommended sidewalks to the Nevada/9th Street/Maple curve and asked about taking similar action on Marvin Lane despite the original staff recommendation not to add sidewalks to Marvin. Staff is bringing the issue back on Tuesday, February 21, asking for the Council to pass a Motion directing staff to update the 2017 Feasibility Report (all steps in the so-called 429 Process required to be able to use special assessments to fund part of the project) to incorporate sidewalk on Marvin Lane (The motion to update requires a simple majority; ordering the improvement will require 6/7 votes – an issue in previous sidewalk decisions).

Staff recommends adding the sidewalk on the south side of Marvin Lane and narrowing the street from 36′ to 32′ wide; this is a much better plan than originally offered. Moving curbs at all during street reclamation to help build better facilities for people choosing to bike or walk is a big step for Northfield and the outcome would be a street which is somewhat skinnier which could help slow traffic while making room for sidewalk on one side and preserving trees. The south-side sidewalk could then connect to future sidewalks on Division Street (and perhaps farther future sidewalks on Washington, Sumner and other points east). I’d like to applaud the willingness of staff to bring these types of changes to the Council and thank Council for asking for these steps.

Skinnier streets, slower traffic, and signaling priority uses

Just for fun and future decisions, how else could we think about this? We’ve got a one block street which is not a busy vehicle route, but is a connection we’d like to prioritize for people walking and biking. The big goal is creating a wonderful, highly connected transportation network (where transportation includes people of any age choosing to walk, bike, wheelchair roll, skateboard, etc.) which is well-integrated with the relevant surrounding land uses. For Marvin Lane or another short link prioritized for walking and bike in the network through a single-family residential neighborhood, we could consider:

(1) Forget sidewalks, how about shared space? The initial staff report stated the width of this street provides for both a mixed use of vehicles and pedestrians and sidewalks are not recommended. I think this means staff envisioned people walking in the roadway because traffic volumes are low and there is plenty of space for cars to pass anyone on foot or bicycle. But for people to be able to safely and comfortably walk in the same space as motor vehicles, vehicle traffic must be moving very slowly and which would be unlikely given such a wide pavement surface.

To make Marvin Lane really shared space, the City could deploy some major traffic calming measures to ensure residents could easily drive to their homes, the limited vehicle traffic could move through slowly, and people could walk without sidewalks (and fear). So, for example:

  • Add clear entrance/exit points at either end of Marvin Lane by significantly narrowing the road surface to signal to users they are entering a different kind of space where movement is slow. Since Marvin Lane connects to a state highway on Division Street, the west end would need to help users transition to (or from) the faster traffic, connect to current and future sidewalks and other facilities (like future bike lanes):

Neckdown, Toronto (Photo: www.pedbikeimages.org/Dan Burden)

  • Narrow the street width for the length of the block, or consider chicanes or other measures to calm traffic, encourage users to pay attention, and create places for additional trees (and rain gardens and other stormwater management)public improvements.

Chicane, Toronto (Photo: www.pedbikeimages.org/Dan Burden)

(2) Reallocating space to separate rather than share uses: 32 feet wide is still very wide with (thinking of motor vehicles only) space for two 12′ travel lanes and and 8′ parking lane (or two 11′ travel lanes and a 10′ parking lane) in addition to the one-side sidewalk recommended by City staff. For a one block connection where traffic should be slow and we’re prioritizing the walking and biking possibilities), how could the right of way be allocated differently to slow traffic and add space for people walking and biking?

  • Make the street skinnier to allow one (yes, just one) travel lane plus queueing areas/passing places for oncoming traffic and sidewalks on both sides. Or with two-way traffic, add neckdowns to slow traffic by creating a place where on-coming traffic must give way (but still let people to ride bikes through).

Neckdown with bike access (Grange Road, Cambridge, UK)

  • Put sidewalks on both sides: two (more than wide enough) 10′ travel lanes use up just 20′ of pavement which would seem to allow more than sufficient right of way to add sidewalks on both sides of the street.
  • Bike boulevard: For such a low volume, low speed link, separate bike lanes are less necessary even for young or inexperienced riders (I’d say bike lanes might make sense to connect to other bike lanes in the future, like on Division Street or Woodley Street?) as part of the network. But a bike boulevard would highlight the intention to prioritize people on bikes, add signage (like sharrows and street signs), and make Marvin Lane part of the bike route planning (that’s the hope anyway).

(3) Connections are critical: Decisions are usually made one project at a time which can lead to discontinuous and unconnected links rather than a network. Marvin Lane is, by itself, one block with low traffic volumes. Taken in context, however, Marvin is the first link north of Jefferson Parkway between Division Street and points east (with a cemetery, church and housing on non-continuous street in between), the street with the best sight lines for crossing Division Street, and a very useful connection to reach the High School, Sibley School, Senior Center, soon-to-be-improved 246/Jefferson area. If this block is redesigned for biking and walking now, it sets up future improvements for walking, biking and connectivity.

Bike Boulevard sign showing the network connections

Connecting the Community

The MN246 & Jefferson Parkway intersection is a critical link to connect the community.  For Valentines Day, the Northfield City Council will hear from consultant SEH about the intersection control evaluation of MN 246 and Jefferson Parkway which sought to “identify improvements that alleviate peak hour congestion, improve pedestrian and bike access, improve school ingress/egress, improve safety and understand adjacent intersection operation impacts.”

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

First, thanks to Northfield for starting to plan how to rethink and redesign this intersection (and thanks to continued pressure from residents and the 246 Solutions group for helping move this along). Let’s seize this once in a generation opportunity to reconnect our places by designing this area to improve the safety, walkability, and bike access to schools, community facilities, and neighborhoods.

The opportunity is even more golden than it was even a year ago as the School District is considering building a new high school closer to this intersection and the Mill Towns Trail is planned to be routed along Jefferson Parkway from the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge to Spring Creek Road (creating an off-road link to CROCT‘s MTB trails in Sechler Park and the the new East Cannon River Trail).

The Mill Towns State Trail will follow Jefferson Parkway

What’s happened so far?

My past commentary: I’ve already had much (critical) to say about this intersection and the history of planning decisions which have put much pressure on this link. From choices made when planning the Middle School (Schools and where to put them) to more recent efforts to improve safety (Still Not a Safe Route to School), to looking to change the conversation about streets from vehicle traffic to community connections (Reimagining Woodley), I’ve been talking about this for a long time. Now that the City is moving forward, let’s think how to help the City make good choices to help us get where we want to go.

Roundabout recommendation: SEH’s study has recommends a single lane roundabout. When the recommendations were presented at an open house in December, the roundabout was not considered a poor choice, but the people at the meeting were concerned there was still no significant discussion of how to help young people walk or bike to school, how people could easily reach the NCRC, how the Mill Towns Trail would work, or how other improvements near the intersection could be added (such as a safe crossing to the high school), or how improving this intersection for walking and biking could reduce the school-related vehicle traffic.

Recommended Roundabout (Photo: SEH report)

 

Building support: From the open house concerns came this letter with 75+ signatures urging the City to consider three things (and you can hear Will Schroeer and I chat on KYMN along with a link to the letter there, too, for a multimedia approach):

  • The issue is bigger than the intersection: SEH (to their credit) and community members at the open house understand the scope needs to expand from from just the intersection (a critical piece to be sure) to help all Northfield residents (of all ages and abilities, as our Complete Streets policy states) reach important places however they choose to travel, (whether driving, walking, riding a bike, or transit) requires thinking about the surrounding area, connecting streets, and the important places.
  • Northfield needs to better connect people and places: SEH’s report has some good recommendations, but does not go far enough to address the human transportation needs in the south part of the city where so many important facilities are located.
  • Take time to get it right: The letter asks Northfield “to more fully consider the opportunities for safely serving this area” before immediately adopting the recommendations (but also proposing some short term, cheap solutions to improve safety quickly and sustain momentum for change.

What can happen next?

Northfield is beginning to think more broadly about how its development decisions and, even better, there is growing interest in how good design can rebuild connections among places including addressing these issues: [2/14meeting documents]. To amplify and extend the points in the community letter, I urge the Council to address these goals and questions:

  • Reducing vehicle traffic: The SEH report does not consider how to reduce vehicle congestion caused by school traffic by designing for safe, convenient and pleasant biking and walking. Years of development choices, fewer parents at home, and helicopter parenting have contributed to the steep decline in walking and biking to school. Usually not mentioned is that much of the traffic to the schools is generated by parents chauffeuring their children to school. So, rather than accepting traffic projections at face value ask how this projected increase might be reduced.
  • Slowing traffic by design: Speed limit signs, even the speed feedback signs, must be enforced to be effective.  Redesigning the intersection (and the street corridor) to cue drivers to slow down, look for people walking and biking, and (most importantly) pay attention can make the street “self-enforcing.” Pursuing state of the art designing walking, biking, wheelchair rolling, and transit into the roadway rather than trying to add these “amenities” later will make a safer, slower, stickier street.

Current TH 246 design screams “Drive Fast!”

  • Articulating costs and benefits to capture the long term benefits and cost savings of increasing walking and biking rather than just the short term price tag. A project with bike lanes (for example) might cost more initially, but what benefits can be realized as a result? Reducing vehicle traffic (preserving the road surface and reducing the need for expansion), increasing walking and biking (saving on busing to schools), saving lives (over dollars), adding transportation choices, improving the environment and public health…how can the Council begin to think about community benefits and project sustainability, rather than just initial cost?
  • How can the Council, staff, and public learn about the full range of choices and design options to slow traffic, improve walking and biking, and link land uses? Our Complete Streets policy has high aspirations, “to ensure all streets within the City are planned, funded, designed, constructed, operated and maintained to safely accommodate users of all ages and abilities” but how can City officials and the public learn more about how to do this?
  • Collaboration: .With the prospect of a new high school in this area, how can the City and school district work together to site the new school to reduce traffic, encourage walking and biking, and help community and school priorities work together? Smart siting can help save money on busing, improve air quality near schools, and help kids arrive ready to learn. connect the new school to its surroundings. built the schools with worries but no action for managing traffic and no discussion of non-vehicle access; what’s their responsibility for action/funding? Plus, 246 is a state highway, so working with MnDOT to develop a solution which services Northfield’s local needs as well as regional transportation objectives is critical.

Again, thanks Northfield for starting working on this critical link in connecting our community!

Looking forward to riding from the Peggy Prowe bridge up the Mill Towns Trail through a redesigned intersection as Northfield becomes bike-friendlier (and age-friendlier, walk-friendlier, people-friendlier)

 

 

 

 

 

Fun urbanism: Age-friendly edition

As someone who is only temporarily middle-aged, I’m hoping to live in a place where being old is not made more difficult by my built environment. Northfield might be that place by the time I get old.  The Northfield City Council just heard a presentation from a group working for an Age-Friendly Northfield using the AARP Age-Friendly Communities model which could help make our streets, neighborhoods, and human connections better for older people (and younger ones, too – think of the 8-80 idea).

But beyond friendly, What about fun?  Here are some playgrounds for seniors (and anyone else):

London Senior Playground (Photo: Guardian)

London Senior Playground (Photo: Guardian Cities)

Getting the message right

Northfield prohibits riding bicycles (skateboards and rollerblades) on downtown sidewalks. This ordinance makes sense on Division Street – a busy, pedestrian street with pretty narrow sidewalks populated with street furniture, sidewalk dining, signs, trees, and trash/recycling containers and the people using all of them.

The negative message: Here’s what Northfield stencils on their downtown sidewalks: NO BIKES!

No Bikes!

No Bikes!

Tell or show people what to do:  But really, “No Bikes” is not the message I think we want to convey in Northfield. Rather, bikes welcome, but walk them on the limited sidewalk real estate.  Here’s one way we might improve the messaging to tell people what we want them to do:

Clear and concise

More precise and less negative

And here is another, somewhat broader but equally positive message showing (rather than merely telling) people what to do, rather than what not to do.

Another way (Photo: Transportation Psychologist)

Another way (Photo: Transportation Psychologist)

Show where the bikes go: Then, after showing people what’s desired on the sidewalk, Northfield could also add additional bike-friendly pavement markings like sharrows on Division Street.  Sharrows are no substitute for bike lanes, but on Division Street, with slow-moving traffic as well as angled and parallel parking, sharrows would reinforce the message “Bikes should ride here (and the sharrows could help position cyclists out of the door zone, or far enough from the angled parking to be seen) and not on the sidewalk.

Sharrows

Sharrows to avoid the door zone (Photo: Cornell Local Roads Program)

Extra credit: Reverse the angled parking so drivers can see people on bikes (and pedestrians) better when pulling out of parking spots.