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.
Someone asked me recently: “So, Betsey…why bikes?” as in “Why are you focusing on bike advocacy in particular?” It’s a good question since reading back in time on my blog suggests that “just bikes” is a significant contraction of my interests from city government, urban planning and economic development. Also a good question since my goal is to change the conversation (and the world) to foster development which links land use, transportation, and economic development to be more equitable as well as economically and environmentally sustainable; it is not obvious why bikes are so important to this much larger plan.
Presuming most people in and around local government can distinguish placemaking, Strong Towns, smart growth, human-scaled development, urbanism, new urbanism, tactical urbanism, land use, land consumption, built environment, carrying capacity, compact development, green development, conservation development, low impact development, density, walkability, Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets from one another is usually a mistake, in my experience. Assuming they believe any of the principles underlying these buzzwords are desirable or doable does not, again in my experience, lead to much progress. World-changing requires thinking smaller.
Bikes are small
Most people know something about bikes. Maybe they rode a bike to school, have one rusting in their garage, or think they might like to ride for fun or exercise. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps they are committed bike commuters, ride many miles for sport (from fat to skinny tires, pavement gravel or trail) or enjoy taking the family to ride on bike trails. Even if someone thinks riding a bike is unpleasant, unsafe or unworkable, they still know what bikes are.
So, bikes are accessible and talking about riding bikes brings urban design and transportation planning down to earth where particular experiences, specific intersections, individual streets, and different kinds of riders or improvements make sense and generate discussion, debate and disagreement (and also collaboration and maybe consensus).
Finally, on a project by project basis, building bike infrastructure or planning improvements is small, focused, relatively low cost and doable. And, every year Northfield does a couple of street projects and each one of them is an opportunity for improvement. Indeed, changing the street landscape can be very cheap, quick and reversible. Fixing sprawling subdivisions and changing commercial development are not so easy.
If people can and do get around town easily and safely on bikes, other larger things are probably happening, too, so bikes are a lever for larger change.
Places are connected (at a human scale). In a city the size of Northfield, distances are not great (under 5 miles) so kids could get to school without buses or parental chauffeuring if a few obstacles are removed (like Woodley Street and Highway 3). Retrofitting Northfield’s schools for better bike access might also encourage building the next school in a place where it was easy to reach by bike. My daughter probably got tired of hearing me say “You have legs and you know how to use them,” but she did enjoy getting to and from school independently and I certainly enjoyed not sitting in lines like this:
Aging and mobility: If bikes can get around easily, the place has probably calmed traffic and improved transportation options for pedestrians, too. As a temporarily middle-aged person, I’m working for a Northfield where as I slow down, I can keep riding my bike and be able to ride or walk on and cross streets at a slower pace.
Public conversation has been taking place to reconsider public space: A really bikeable place has been rebuilding streets where space is allocated to maximize public benefit, transportation choice, public health, and the environment rather than just moving (or storing) cars. Successful bike advocacy takes networking and community support to change the conversation from what cars lose by adding bike lanes to how public space is used for more of the public.
Working for better biking is also working for building more transportation choices into the place, connecting neighborhoods, and linking people and services. In a town the size and density of Northfield, transit is mostly inefficient, but bike connections make sense.
Equity: Finally, my take on bikes is a privileged one, but it shouldn’t have to be. So, when someone says “Oh, you ride because you’re affluent, white, liberal, etc.” they’re right. I have the money to buy a house in Northfield near work and shopping (on the “right” side of Highway 3) so, strangely, because I have money, I don’t have to spend it on transportation. I have been privileged enough to live in England and Finland as well as visit the Netherlands and Europe and see how cities can enable transit, walking and bicycles so driving is neither as necessary nor as convenient. Working for better biking is also working for building more transportation choices into the place, connecting neighborhoods, and linking services.
The question “Why bikes?” got asked not long after I had attended my last Strong Towns board meeting where Chuck Marohn, after talking about wanting to build a Strong Towns movement, started enumerating all the groups he didn’t like because of the narrowness of their vision. “I hate the bike lanes people,” he said, “and I hate the Complete Streets people.” Sure “bike lane people” might focus too narrowly (as any advocate can see the landscape only through their particular lens, even “Strong Towns people”) and miss the larger picture for the bike lane, but bikes are small enough to get some traction on much larger issues.
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.
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.’
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′).
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.
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.
Back in Northfield, a lack of political will to change policy, planning and projects to provide alternatives to private automobiles – walking, cycling, transit persists. There are certainly leaders around town and, at the moment, a majority of the Council who are interested in increasing transportation options. But I don’t think these individuals and the bare majority of votes constitute political will, but more like dedicated opposition to the status quo. Small progress is made here and there, but there is no commitment of the City Council, staff and appointed leaders to build non-motorized transportation into the budget, planning and life of the city. That would be political will.
Here in Cambridge and the UK, there’s political engagement at higher levels of government – if Northfield’s state representatives and Minnesota’s Congressional delegation were as active as MP Huppert in pursuing cycling policy with their parties and the legislature, that would be a big step up and forward. There’s no discussion of get the US Cycling as there is to Get Britain Cycling, for example.
But I sense Mr Huppert is a strong leader who is still working to get the attention of Cambridge and broader coalitions in Parliament and still trying to generate the needed political will to create different transportation vision where cycling is common, safe and legitimate and (the real issue) resources are allocated to make it real.
Yes, the blog has been silent of late. I’m now writing from Cambridge, England and it took a bit of time and effort to accomplish the relocation. Worth it, though.
Cambridge, like Northfield, is a city of cows and colleges but with more of both: Cambridge University has 31 colleges plus Anglia Ruskin University; the cows are not only within the city limits, but right downtown. But, the time and space scales are very different: Cambridge is about 6 times larger than Northfield in population occupying about the same square footage. By 1855 when Northfield was founded, Cambridge University had been around for more than half a millennium.
I have been thinking about bicycles – both because I have become the accidental cycling advocate, but also because I am just seeing so many regular folks cycling around Cambridge – old people, kids, people in suits, families, cargo bikes, shoppers, workers. You know, cycling for transportation in regular clothes while talking on your mobile phone – just like driving! There are cycle tracks, bike lanes on streets, bike-specific signals and lots of bike parking. The very center of Cambridge is a pedestrian and cycle only area. There’s a national-level Get Britain Cycling Campaign (here are the recommendations including a £10 per person/per year budget increasing to £20 – if Northfield adopted such a budget/policy locally that would be $315,000 for cycling annually) and Parliament itself just had a debate (transcript here) championed by the MP from Cambridge, Julian Huppert.
Compared to Northfield, Cambridge cycling looks pretty amazing. Cycling for transport is so rare in Northfield that most of the real planning and infrastructure questions aren’t even on the horizon (yet). In Cambridge, there are many, many more cyclists (18% of adults cycle to work – the highest proportion in England – and 47% cycle at least once a week – but perhaps exaggerated), more car traffic, narrower streets and more constraints (regulatory, architectural, etc.); the problems of cycling access and safety become regular transportation issues. So, while there is much more bicycle infrastructure, it is not complete nor always well designed (and new development does not always consider cycling appropriately).
“There’s been some criticism about the amount of money we spend on these facilities…But when you do the head count and you really do the cost/benefit analysis, and compare that to how much money we put into the transportation infrastructure for cars — and you look at the benefit, in terms of transportation, in terms of connecting communities, in terms of livability, quality of life and just how it makes people feel about where they live — it just can’t even be compared.”
And, I’d add for Northfield’s TIGER trail, it’s spending to increase the productivity of the existing transportation network by creating a new link between the two halves of town at a very small (compared to auto-spending) cost.
I wonder how the conversation would change if we had (1) Cambridge rates of cycling and (2) elected leaders at the local and state level championing cycling.
Continuing the theme of assigning dollars to different community sectors like arts and animals…the theme of this year’s League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit is Bicycling Means Business (here’s a policy report from the League on the economic impact of cycling).
I’m not interested in demonizing the auto industry here, but rather I’d like to suggest that how our community has been built or will be built in the future is not just market demand, but government regulation and funding, as well as private sector promotion to steer the market. If that’s right and we’d like to see some change in streets and walkability, then what are the policy pieces which need to change? It’s not just requiring sidewalks or bike lanes, but considering the broader context of how our choices have been constrained and what we need to do to make different choices easier (and more affordable).
But some good news at the local level. Tracy Davis, former Planning Commission chair, member of the state Complete Streets external advisory committee, and all-round interesting person has given Northfield’s Complete Streets policy and related issues a little more publicity on the webpage for her new KYMN radio show Think Twice (program notes on Tracy’s blog). She also links to MNDOT’s new multimodal 20 year plan just released for public comment. The Northfield Complete Streets policy draft is considerably shorter (2 pages rather than MNDOT’s 102 pages), so please read it and send comments, criticism, and/or complements before the July 17 Council meeting when we’re scheduled to adopt the policy.
Bike Advocacy from the NRA Playbook got my attention since I am pro-bike and but not pro-gun. The idea is not to whip your handgun out of your saddlebag or jersey pocket to shoot the motorist who ran you off the road. No, apparently the NRA’s success at growing the organization and its almost legendary lobbying power comes from its strategy to make gun ownership something for ordinary people.
So, for cyclists, rather than trying to make riding a bike a special, environmentally-friendly, physically fabulous, morally superior sort of activity, we should be trying to show how regular people ride bikes and you can too. If we marketed cycling and bicycles in NRA fashion, here’s what author Tom Bowden suggests:
The important lesson is to stay on the main messages — the ones most people can accept.
Bikes are good for America! Let people make their own assumptions why.
Bikes solve problems! Just let people decide which ones they care about.
Bikes are fun! But let the riders decide how and where they like to ride.
Bikes are healthy! And riders can decide if they are interested in weight loss or improving their half-ironman times.
Bikes are safe! And let people make their own judgment how much protection they need based on the riding they do.
This won’t help with road and street design which overwhelmingly favors cars or funding more complete streets, but I do think making cycling more appealing for regular folks is more likely to succeed than trying to get them to join the lycra-clad, tech-obsessed racing group.
On the flip side, here are 9 reasons not to ride your bike to work which pokes people for making excuses, but also provides some practical advice (like not worrying about having the perfect bike and rain pants).