Crossing the highway one intersection at a time

Crossing Highway 3 in Northfield (on foot) should get somewhat easier soon.  Tonight, March 3, the Northfield City Council will vote whether to order plans and specifications for a redesign of the intersection at 3rd Street and Highway 3.

Diagram of proposed changes to Highway 3 & 3rd Street Northfield
Proposed changes to Highway 3 at 3rd Street

Good for pedestrians

This will be a big improvement for people on foot (and perhaps motorized scooters or wheelchairs).  By capitalizing on the diagonal highway, the new crosswalk will connect the southeast to the northwest corner for a shorter crossing distance (about 106′) than a straight across connection and also shorter than crossing at either 5th Street or 2nd Street (although those intersections have signals).  For comparison, east-west crossing distances at 2nd Street are approximately 115′ from the northeast to northwest corner; the southeast to southwest crossing is about 125.’

Image of Intersection at Highway 3 and 2nd Street
Intersection at Highway 3 and 2nd Street

At 5th Street, the pedestrian islands (“pork chops”) create refuge spaces but increase the complexity of the intersection for pedestrians as well as lengthening crossing distances (southwest to southeast is about 180′ while northwest to northeast is about 190′).

Image of Highway 3 and 5th Street intersection
Highway 3 and 5th Street intersection

Crossing distances are important, especially for older or slower walkers.  Signals are timed for a certain number of feet per second walking speed (it used to be 4 feet per second, now revised to 3.5, I believe, which is still pretty quick for older walkers).  Although no signal will be installed at 3rd Street, fewer feet across mean less time needed to cross.

The addition of a median at 3rd Street will prevent vehicle traffic from crossing the highway as well as creating a more robust refuge space for walkers than the thin median already in place.  The diagonal crossing also protects pedestrians from right turning traffic; cars turning right on red at 2nd Street have contributed to several cases of drivers striking pedestrians.

But not for bicycles

The design which serves pedestrians well makes travel by bicycle more difficult. Bicycles, like motor vehicles, will not be able to cross the highway because the new median will block all vehicle movement straight across the highway. People riding bikes can “play pedestrian” by dismounting and using the crosswalk, of course, but this is counter-intuitive and potentially confusing to both riders and drivers.

Alternatively, people riding bikes can take the right in-right out option but then they will be faced with no easy option for bicycles to turn left at Second or Fifth Street to continue across the highway.  For motorized vehicles, this right in-right out configuration is also less direct, but distances and directness are more critical for human-powered bicycles and crossing lanes of motor vehicle traffic to use left turn lanes at adjacent intersections is a typical and predictable action for cars (but not bicycles)

The bike sensor for the traffic signal at 2nd Street is a bike-only improvement, but using this sensor still requires pretty confident vehicular cycling to ride boldly into the bike box in the traffic lane to trip the sensor.

Image of bike sensor in 2nd Street and Highway 3
Bike sensor

A strange process

The Northfield Roundtable is a group of citizens dedicated to considering “what could be, not what should be” in Northfield through good design. The Roundtable is allergic to political engagement (stating so at Council worksessions) and conducts its work through carefully controlled interactions with a very limited and invited selection of the public (Northfield’s group was inspired by Holland, MI, but has not followed that group’s work to have its plans adopted by the city government).

This project and much of the design were developed at a Roundtable session in 2014 which, through the efforts of a single Roundtable member cultivating relationships with MnDOT representatives, included MnDot engineers. The idea was seized by City staff, discussed at a worksession with Roundtable members, given nods along the way by the Council, and now being developed with grant funding from MnDOT and the TIF District.  Other interest groups like the Garden Club, Save the Northfield Depot, and BikeNorthfield have weighed in, but robust public process has been lacking. As a member of the BikeNorthfield steering committee (although this post is my opinion alone), I appreciate having BikeNorthfield included in the conversation to build bikes back into the transportation planning process, but this kind of private consultation should not define city process going forward.

The big picture

This is an “ends justify the means” project. Despite the less than public process leading to this point, there’s still much to celebrate with the end product.  From the top down, it is heartening to see MnDOT both permitting and participating in a project to help heal the damage caused by their trunk highway (and funding some of it through a Local Road Improvement Project grant). It is also encouraging to see a project proceed quickly from planning to construction planned for 2015 (although less public process helps speed project development). Considering the project as part of the entire Highway 3 corridor, this improvement really does make the highway more permeable to pedestrians and could be an important pedestrian link to a relocated Northfield Depot (especially if it becomes a transit hub). The pedestrian only design, however, should push Northfield to look to other intersections for additional improvements for helping bicycles, pedestrians and other vulnerable users cross easily and safely at all intersections.