As Minnesotans know, the end of winter brings green leaves and potholes. Fixing potholes and repairing sidewalks are important Spring tasks, but in the meantime perhaps we might simply enjoy them with The Pothole Gardener.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
(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?
(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.
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.”
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).
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.
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):
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:
Again, thanks Northfield for starting working on this critical link in connecting our community!
Tonight, February 7, 2017, the Council will hold a public hearing to consider 2017 street reclamation projects which sounds a bit dull, perhaps, but this year’s projects present two good opportunities to help create a safer, more convenient network connecting schools to neighborhoods.
Reclamation, in the street repair hierarchy, is less than reconstruction (where the pavement and all the utilities under the street are replaced) and more than a “mill and overlay” (where the top layer of asphalt is chewed up and replaced. So, reclamation is chewing up the full depth of the asphalt and repaving, but usually not a construction project which moves curbs or changes street layouts or adds sidewalks or other new facilities.
City staff are seeing golden opportunities to carry out the Northfield’s Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School policies by expanding the usual reclamation project to add sidewalks and narrow streets to do it. This is a huge step forward for Northfield in policy implementation if the Council follows through on the recommendation.
There are two reclamation locations which are critical links in the street network connecting neighborhoods and schools: Marvin Lane and the Nevada/9th Street/Maple squiggle (Professional Drive is also on the reclamation list). The Council must vote tonight and I urge the Council to adopt staff recommendations for Nevada/9th/Maple and ask staff to use the same approach on Marvin Lane.
This little squiggle connects 7th Street to Woodley Street and, in the process, connects the northeast neighborhoods and outdoor pool to Maple Street (one of our few continuous North-South connections), Sibley School, Spring Creek Soccer Fields, southeast neighborhoods, and Jefferson Parkway. The map above shows how few connections exist south of Woodley Street, so making sure the streets which are continuous provide safe sidewalks and traffic speeds appropriate for their context is critical.
City staff recognize the importance of this corridor highlighting the Safe Routes to School plan as “an area with ‘Lack of Sidewalk on Key Routes’” to Sibley School and also looks to address other concerns including slowing traffic on this section of street and preserving street trees. The staff recommendation of Option 2 would move the west curb (beyond the usual reclamation scope) to narrow the street from 36′ to 32’ (which is still pretty darn wide) from Nevada to 7th Street saying “Sidewalks and retaining walls in this area would be placed directly behind the curb to lessen the tree impacts. Removal of the existing curb, coupled with the narrowing of the street results in saving 10 additional trees on the west side.” I’m curious why the street is only proposed to be narrowed on the Nevada Street section, but urge the Council to support Option 2. (Option 1 would still add sidewalks (good) but leave the street wider (and faster) and remove more trees).
Despite getting Maple/9th/Nevada right, staff stopped too soon on Marvin Lane. No sidewalks are recommended on Marvin Lane because “In review of this street, Marvin Lane has limited driveway accesses and low traffic volumes due to its lack of connectivity. Therefore, the width of this street provides for both a mixed use of vehicles and pedestrians and sidewalks are not recommended.” Although this one-block street is not a critical vehicle connection, (as with the Nevada/Maple segment, Marvin is a critical pedestrian connection between Washington Street and surrounding neighborhoods to Division Street, the High School, and points south for students (or it could be). Right now, many high school students cut through the church property just south of Marvin Lane to reach Washington, but adding sidewalks by narrowing Marvin would ensure slow vehicle traffic on this little link and provide a better public link to school.
Marvin Lane is not on the SRTS plan (the high school was not included in the plan), so that piece of specific policy support is not present, but our Complete Streets policy and Comprehensive Plan (as well as common sense) strongly support applying the same “move the curb” design to add a sidewalk to increase safety and add a public connection for to schools and the Northfield Retirement Community (and feeding into the upcoming planning for the 246 and Jefferson Parkway intersection redesign – of which more very soon). I urge the Council to use the reclamation project as an opportunity to create a safe, public connection to Division Street by narrowing the street (which will also ensure slower speeds and preserve trees) and by doing so anticipate changes which will help students cross Division Street to reach the High School.
In 2015, I wrote about building more robust public participation to gather more thoughtful input from the entire community (not just adjacent property owners and those within 350 feet) about how they’d like to get around, educate Council and community about possibilities and issues in a project, and be very intentional about building an equitable and inclusive process for projects which determine how we can get around for a generation.
On one hand, these reclamation projects are routine and the public hearing is required by state law, but is generally treated as equally routine and unimportant. If all the City is doing is munching up the pavement, I’d agree. But when the City uses routine projects like this one to make some real changes – and I am thrilled the City is taking this important step – then being intentional about approaching this project and thinking ahead to future opportunities needs more than the required publication and notice to neighbors.
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):
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!
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:
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.
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.
Extra credit: Reverse the angled parking so drivers can see people on bikes (and pedestrians) better when pulling out of parking spots.
The East Cannon River Trail is the only issue on the Northfield City Council’s special meeting agenda (although there are multiple actions to be taken) tomorrow, Tuesday, April 26 2016 (here’s the packet). While there are multiple pieces in the project puzzle, approving the trail should be easy – no-brainer easy – because building this trail segment is so richly supported by prior planning going back more than a decade. This piece of trail specifically or more general guidance for improving access to the Cannon River and increasing recreational opportunities along it is contained in all Northfield’s major planning documents. The Council can take a big step toward implementing the City’s policy vision by approving this trail.
Right now, there is a section of paved trail beginning at the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge extending south toward Dundas, but the trail stops behind the commercial development. There have been wetland issues (and the Army Corps of Engineers) to manage (and wetland credits are also on the agenda tomorrow) as well as inter-jurisdictional negotiation (Dundas, DNR). Now, however, the Northfield city staff have lined up all the ducks for the Council to approve, culminating in approving a resolution accepting bids and awarding the contract for the East Cannon River Trail Project.
This piece of trail is important for Northfield and Dundas because it helps achieve a long-term vision to capitalize on the Cannon River as a distinctive natural, economic and recreational resource, provides an off-road link (along the busy and otherwise difficult to walk or ride Highway 3) to a charter school, commercial areas, and three parks (including Sechler Park which is being developed by CROCT as an offroad bike facility), forms another link to the Mill Towns Trail under development, and can be another small part of making Northfield good to walk, great to retire, and highly livable. No wonder it is included in all these city plans:
Comprehensive Plan: The Comp Plan highlights the importance of the Cannon River and applauds efforts “to better integrate the river into the community; its scenic beauty and recreational possibilities afford the possibility for further integration of the river into the community. The Greater Northfield Area Greenway System Action Plan is an important resource in helping with this integration.” Land Use, Community Identify and Economic Develop objectives all identify the Cannon River as critical and expanding access to the river, linking to downtown, and connecting parks, places and people.
The Economic Development Plan makes activating and leveraging the Cannon River one of three key findings for economic success; Northfield’s rich sense of place is considered critical. And, the Transportation Plan contains objectives to trail connectivity between areas of the City including current bike and pedestrian route deficiencies (current as of 2008) such as the east side trail dead ending, lack of trail integration into overall design, and challenges linking downtown with the trail system.
Greenway Corridor Plan: Generally, this plan recommended trails should be considered on both sides of the Cannon River as well as some creeks to link neighborhoods to the river. The East River Corridor (east side of the Cannon River from Highway #3 bridge south to Dundas) was identified as the first priority “because it forms the backbone of the system, due to the potential for development, and because creation of this link will help to create strong support for the system.”
Park, Open Space, and Trail System Plan: The plan identifies this trail connection as a Destination Trail (which neighborhood trails and linking trails connect to the rest of Northfield). Individual park plans for Babcock, Riverside Lions Park, and Compostella Park also note development of an east river trail should be integrated into master planning for these currently underutilized parks.
Gateway Corridor Improvement Plan: This plan to improve gateways into Northfield incorporated the Greenway Corridor and other plans to highlight trail connections and other green infrastructure.
Almost half of the approximately $1 million trail construction cost (with bids substantially less than engineering estimates) is from grants with the remainder coming from the general fund (about $200,000), TIF funding (about $175,000), and the City of Dundas (about $93,000). I’m not a big fan of grants, believing too often grants are sought to fund projects the City would not otherwise undertake. In this case, however, the plan to build the trail is well established and grant funding has been awarded to complete this well-documented, long-planned project. The City will need to build maintenance of the trail into the budget and CIP in coming years, but the costs relative to the wide benefits of this long-planned trail segment appear very reasonable.
The question of trail surface material must also be answered. In this area prone to flooding, the choice of a paved rather than crushed rock surface would provide a high-quality surface for more users with better durability. The plans for this trail emphasize its importance for access and connectivity; building for residents with limited mobility, children, skateboards, walkers, runners, and people on bikes; choosing the bituminous option provides bigger benefits to more people. I hope the Council will take action to carry out so many of Northfield’s plans by approving this trail project.
246 Solutions Group is a new grassroots “group of concerned Northfield residents that came together to help change a very dangerous intersection” on MN State Highway 246 near three of Northfield’s five schools by asking MnDOT to reduce speed limits on 246, creating a school zone, and improving the intersection at 246 and Jefferson Parkway.
246 Solutions has also drafted a petition (with about 200 signatures to date) to MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle and other MnDOT officials asking MnDOT to reduce the speed limit, establish a school zone and “follow the Safe Route to Schools Recommendations of the sections of State Highways That Become City Streets.” And here’s a behind the handlebars video view of biking to school by high school student Jake Thomas. Various impediments to change have been raised in response to the petition such as insufficient resources for enforcement, cost to build improvements, etc., but this infusion of new energy is needed to help spur action on this old problem.
The problem of reaching Northfield’s schools safely has existed since before the Middle School opened its doors more than ten years ago and while there has been much discussion and planning, there’s been no action. However, other parts of the transportation landscape have changed in the meantime and tools exist now which were not well-known at earlier points in the discussion; this new grassroots push could finally move Northfield to action.
As a Planning Commission member during the Middle School permitting process in 2001, I wrote:
By locating the Middle School south of Bridgewater Elementary School and the High School…All of our public school children grade 6 and above + our largest elementary school will now attend school in the same area. This is a great opportunity to develop these sites into an excellent educational and athletic campus not possible with more disparate and smaller sites. But this also means we have the safety of hundreds of our children to consider as we try to also manage the vastly increased [vehicle] traffic through the area…the traffic patterns on Jefferson Parkway, through Bridgewater and high school campuses and on 246 are problematic now, before any additional load is added to the area.
The traffic impact study for the Middle School focused on the impact to vehicle Level of Service during the peak traffic at the start and end of the school day and made recommendations to (1) stagger school opening times to alleviate congestion (which was done) and (2) add the median to Jefferson Parkway to “provide more direction for drivers, which will in turn make it a safer corridor” and provide a pedestrian refuge, but which made the roadway too narrow to bike safely and difficult for school buses to turn.
When the Middle School opened, the 4 way stop was added to the now multi-lane Jefferson Parkway and TH 246 intersection. The intersection has seen two fatalities, the latest in 2008, which local bloggers observed:
It is truly sad that it often seems to take a tragedy of some magnitude to get people’s attention about pedestrian and bicycle safety, and make them realize that streets aren’t just for cars and trucks.
But the problem isn’t just a street problem, it’s a land use problem. I blogged about the issues highlighted by the Middle School in 2013 and the 2008 Transportation Plan which observed:
Additional challenges relate to the lack of interconnected neighborhoods in some parts of the City. This is particularly evident in the area south of Jefferson Parkway. The extensive amount of cul-de sacs results in an overreliance on Jefferson Parkway and TH 246/Division Street for all trips in the area.
Northfield has done much planning and policy development related to this area since 2001 and each iteration adds support to the goal of improving this part of town:
Now’s the time to take all the plans and policies plus the new grassroots support and do something.
In the short-term, the 246 Solutions group plan to establish a school zone and slow traffic should be implemented, but the longer term fix should be multi-jurisdictional and address land uses, design speed, and lack of other connections – this problem is not MnDOT’s alone. The 246 Solutions community support is to demand committed and sustained leadership from the school district, city and MnDOT to make Safe Routes to (the majority of Northfield’s) Schools a reality.
Fortunately, much has changed since 2001 in the land use and transportation world. In Northfield, we’ve added all those studies and policies to justify change toward building streets as if people mattered. National Safe Routes to School reports, other cities’ leadership, and federal programs (Mayor’s Challenge, Surgeon General’s Step It Up campaign) all signal a shift in the political landscape which recognizes how we build our cities matters. What used to be a safety issue alone is now a public health, livability, fiscal, urban planning and environmental issue.
Northfield should acknowledge that city development decisions and School District siting choices helped create the problems and these groups need to think together about the long-term plan to rebuild connections among places including addressing these issues:
Redesign the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection for people rather than cars only. The intersection must accommodate school buses, cars, and larger vehicles because 246 is a key route into and out of Northfield, but the trail connections, sidewalks, bike facilities must also be safe and easy for kids (and seniors – the Senior Center is there, too) to navigate.
A version of this post also appears on streets.mn