Look! Northfield has updated its sidewalk stencils for directing bicycle traffic off the sidewalks:
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)
And some great destinations (again, keeping the sidewalk clearer for walking and access)
And some signage to tell drivers and riders that they are welcome on the street rather than the sidewalk:
The Northfield City Council is poised to approve a design for a roundabout plus bike and walk facilities at Jefferson Parkway and Division Street/TH246.
This is a once-in-a-generation large project to begin to reconnect Northfield could have been avoided or been approached incrementally if the City and School District had made more future-thinking, system-level decisions. Perhaps revisiting the history could/should help the City avoid having to spend taxpayers money to fix problems it largely created for itself.
More generally, how should the Council make its decision? Project cost is often the only objectively comparable metric among alternatives, but City staff could make clearer recommendations about why one alternative is preferable based on Northfield policy and data-supported best practices rather than presenting information as if all options are equivalent. Public input is important for preference, but polling and “dot-mocracy” should not determine the outcome of a complex project.
So, let me put a large number of words in the mouths of City staff to imagine what I wish they had said as they write their staff report for the City Council:
City Council Meeting Date: September 3, 2019
To: Mayor and City Council
From: City staff
Subject: Consider Motion authorizing Jefferson Parkway & Trunk Highway (TH) 246 Roundabout Final Design.
Action Requested: Staff Recommends a motion authorizing Jefferson Parkway & TH 246 Roundabout Final Design with Roundabout Design Alternative 2 that will include a pedestrian crossing with bumpout Option 2 design for the high school crossing.
246/Jefferson Parkway Intersection Control Evaluation
The City initiated the Intersection Control Evaluation study at the intersection of Trunk Highway (TH) 246 and Jefferson Parkway in 2016. The goal and objectives of the intersection study were as follows:
Identify improvements that alleviate peak hour congestion,
Over approximately the last 30-40 years, City land use and transportation decisions have created the problems we are now trying to solve. No single decision caused the significant vehicle congestion during school arrival and dismissal times or the dangerous conditions for people driving, walking, and riding. However, the sum of the approval of residential subdivisions which did not have continuous and connected streets, annexation of land and approval of school site plans without sufficient consideration of how people, especially kids, would reach them has resulted in the problem we now have the opportunity to begin to solve.
Presenting this historical survey before turning to the Intersection Control Evaluation is intended to assist the Council in decision making for this project and in the future by highlighting the consequences of disconnected decision-making.
History of decisions
South of Woodley Street, the grid street pattern of the older Northfield neighborhoods was abandoned with longer blocks, fewer connecting streets, and many cul de sacs or dead end streets.
The residential subdivisions on either side of TH246, both north and south of Jefferson Parkway were approved without requiring streets to connect outside the subdivision except to major collector streets. Homeowners appreciated the low traffic streets, but the long-term consequences are few opportunities to improve connectivity.
The 2008 Comprehensive Transportation Plan called out this “lack of interconnected neighborhoods” resulting in an “overreliance” on TH246 and Jefferson Parkway.
The residential subdivision to the west of TH246 was designed with multiple culs de sacs radiating off a single loop (Roosevelt Drive) with no opportunities to connect to surrounding destinations. The only exit is from Roosevelt Drive onto Jefferson Parkway. And, more recent research shows that the cul de sac – collector pattern is less safe than a more grid-like pattern which slows and distributes traffic. Crash data in the 2008 Comprehensive Transportation Plan seems to support this conclusion:
The Northfield Public School District’s choices (permitted by the City) are also significant. Locating Bridgewater Elementary School and Northfield Middle School directly south of the Northfield High School resulted in the highly concentrated congestion coming from school-related vehicle trips. Bridgewater is a neighborhood school, but all public school students must travel to the very southmost location of the only high school and middle school in the City. Significant bus traffic as well as students driving and middle school parents chauffeuring their children must pass through the TH246 and Jefferson Parkway intersection every day and within a compressed time period because the City prevented alternative routes through its subdivision decision-making.
The October 2001 Traffic Impact Report for the middle school anticipated increased traffic on Jefferson Parkway from the school and continued residential development. Analyzing this corridor, consultant Yaggy Colby Associates recommended installing the median which now exists saying “will provide more direction for drivers, which will in turn make it a safer corridor” and provide “refuge for pedestrians” crossing the wide street. This choice has proved to make Jefferson more difficult for school buses and large vehicles to access schools as well as significantly more dangerous for people on bikes.
In summary, this project highlights how short-sighted decisions over time have made mobility and access more difficult in this part of the City. Northfield should work to change its development approval process to require street connectivity with particular emphasis on helping people walking and biking and people with disabilities move along and across streets. Major community facilities such as schools should be planned with the developer as to siting and access for all to prevent the need for retrofitting in the future.
Northfield Planning documents
At least since Northfield Middle School opened in 2004, Northfield’s planning documents and adopted policies have clearly supported the position that Northfield will be a place where people can walk, roll, and ride bikes safely and easily, streets will connect, and where the natural environment is protected as we work to mitigate climate change. These plans include:
These policy documents guide staff’s recommendation for the design for the TH246 and Jefferson Parkway intersection and are supplemented by other City bike and walk events such as the 2014 Bikeable Community Workshop as well as current best practices in bike and pedestrian design.
As stated above, staff identified these goals for this project
Identify improvements that alleviate peak hour congestion,
All alternatives in the Feasibility Study recommend constructing a single lane roundabout. This design is recommended for improving vehicle congestion more than other intersection controls such as stop signs or signalized intersections.
Roundabouts smooth out traffic flow by eliminating the need to stop. A single-lane roundabout is also safer for cars based on data showing a 78% reduction in severe crashes and 48% reduction in overall crashes. Roundabouts slow traffic which reduces crash severity and the reduction in conflict points make vehicle crashes less likely.
Staff recommends Council consider collaborating with the Northfield School District after this project is completed to update the Safe Routes to School Plan and encourage schools to adopt Safe Routes to Schools programs to increase walking and biking to further reduce school-generated congestion as well as support City goals for transportation and climate action.
Bicycle and pedestrian safety
All alternatives studied include the single lane roundabout, but the other goals for this project are not addressed equally by all alternatives. Staff strongly recommends selecting Alternative 2 for the following reasons; another choice should require findings of fact to justify a less safe alternative for people walking and biking.
The peak hour traffic volume and the “no stop” characteristic of roundabouts make the roundabout design challenging to navigate for people walking and riding, especially school children likely to be using the intersection during peak times. Further, roundabouts have been shown to be especially difficult for people with low vision or blindness.
Staff emphasize that for people walking and riding, safety requires more than statistical safety or “no dead people” but includes whether people feel safe as they move through this intersection. The Complete Streets statement to make streets safe for people of “all ages and abilities” requires subjective as well as objective safety to ensure people walking and biking must feel protected from traffic by a barrier or sufficient distance, be able to navigate turns and crossings easily, on a route is free from debris and hazards as well as harassment or crime.
Staff opinion is that only grade separated bicycle and pedestrian facilities will meet this standard. The Feasibility Study identified underpasses rather than overpasses as more cost effective; Alternatives 2 & 3 both provide grade separated facilities.
Alternative 3 is not recommended. This alternative does provide grade separated facilities, however, the significant space below grade presents maintenance issues, longer trips when traveling in a single one direction, and social safety issues of blind corners and the need for additional lighting and/or supervision. The Mill Towns State Trail heightens the need to avoid diverting all routes to the center which could require additional wayfinding aids to mark the route for the anticipated increase in bicycle traffic through this intersection.
Staff recommendation for TH246 and Jefferson Parkway
Staff recommends Alternative 2. This option is preferred to Alternative 3 as it is the best option for meeting the standard of a safe route for people of all ages and abilities and furthers Northfield’s policy goals through grade separated facilities and short, direct passage beneath the roadway which will increase perceived safety; this is the only alternative recommended to safely and conveniently reconnect this section of Northfield.
Staff recommendation for the Northfield High School crossing
Staff recommends Option 2 for the High School crossing. Both Options 1 and 2 preserve bicycle access through the curb extensions, but Option 2 provides (1) a shorter crossing distance shown to be safer by allowing more rapid crossing and less vehicle delay, and (2) physical protection for people waiting to cross and riders bicycling through the crossing.
This project will be a major step toward reconnecting major community destinations, enabling safe walking and bicycling to school, and improving safety for all users of the intersection. However, additional steps will be needed in the future to complete the network including:
change the High School entrance to a right in-right out design to prevent difficulties turning left onto Division Street in heavy traffic in close proximity to this crossing and to simplify the number of turning movements for people biking and walking making this area more predictable and increasing safety.
complete bike and pedestrian planning along Division Street/TH246 from downtown to the City Limits and on Jefferson Parkway from TH3 to Spring Creek Road including connecting routes.
completing policy update recommendations from Toole Design in the bike and pedestrian plan updates.
evaluate planning policy including annexation, community facility siting, linking transportation to land use decisions, and incorporating metrics which measure walkability rather than vehicle movement.
Conclusion in my own voice
City staff are supposed to be the professional experts. As such, they must frame alternatives for the Council and the public using their professional expertise to distinguish options based on how each option will fulfill policy goals and meet safety or performance criteria. For this critically important project, knowing why an option is recommended needs to be articulated. For a project which is needed to fix prior decision-making, it is also important to learn how not to make similar expensive mistakes (in dollars and human life) again.
Typically, street projects are designed by consultant engineers – Bolton and Menk, in this case – with limited knowledge of the community context of the street. While Bolton and Menk have worked in Northfield frequently, that’s not the same as knowing how the street and surrounding land uses work together, or how Woodley connects more distant parts of the city. Community members, both those adjacent to project boundaries and those who travel through the project area, can inform the non-native designers about the community, how this street connects to other places (or how it doesn’t now, but could in the future), and other local knowledge about the place and how people move around in it. In other words, showing the engineers what matters in human terms so the design can respond to local context rather than just slapping down the standard plate over whatever might be it its path.
It’s no secret I’m interested in broadening the conversation and changing the street to do more and to change the way the space functions for the longer term. Northfield and its hired help need input from the people who currently use or cross Woodley Street and those who avoid it because of perceived problems to determine what change is needed.
I’m also a design idealist (despite believing this video to be all too true). Having had the luxury of living in and visiting other cities, I have seen how well-designed infrastructure makes getting around easy and pleasant as well as experiencing less than well-designed places and struggling as a result. Local people know their places well, but are not street design experts and rather than asking residents (or the City Council) to be citizen engineers and do the drawing, I’m wishing for local people who provide great feet-on-the-street knowledge and innovative designers who can create a street corridor which works for Northfield.
The challenges of public input
Who shows up?
Northfield has made great progress in the last few years publicizing meetings, providing on-line engagement, and increasing the number of face-to-face opportunities for input. Even so, it is difficult to reach and engage community members beyond the adjacent property owners for whom personal notice is built into the legal requirements. BikeNorthfield (I’m on the its steering committee) and other organizations like Sibley School and the school district, advocates for public health, etc. can help spread the word that input is needed about the project (and we should get to work).
Not that the adjacent property owners should be ignored; I appreciate the very real concerns (and have paid my own special assessment in the last few years) – project residents mostly own their homes and their home is likely a very substantial portion of their assets – of course they are concerned about the impact to that asset and whether the project will affect its value or their ability to enjoy their property. The way we assess a portion of the project cost to adjacent property owners makes it completely reasonable that they may have an aversion to loss of “their” property when a sidewalk is constructed or fear how any change in the street corridor will affect their investment. On the other hand, Council members who simply give residents veto power abdicate their responsibility to consider the long term benefits for the community.
What do we ask?
Perhaps my biggest concern is how little education takes place to guide public comment. Most of us do not spend much time looking at street cross sections, learning about intersection geometry, or know what design features have been demonstrated to calm traffic, improve safety or address other relevant issues (hence my comments above that residents supply context so thoughtful designers can get to work). In the past, consultants and staff have done little to help policy-makers or residents learn what design choices are possible, how design could help solve problems identified, and what choices cost in both the long and short term, but instead stood by their diagrams and maps waiting for whatever questions or comments emerge.
If we’re simply shown big diagrams and asked “So, what do you think?” or “Do you like it or not?” we don’t know much about what we’re being asked and are more likely to give feedback which is irrelevant (when I scribble “Make Woodley a 32′ wide street!” when the 44′ width has already been decided) or merely reactive (“I don’t want a sidewalk!”).
How do we ask?
What if we framed the discussion this way: The City is working to implement its Safe Routes to School plan and make its streets more “complete” by improving bike and pedestrian connections to important destinations like Sibley School, the Spring Creek Soccer Complex, the City Pool at Old Memorial Park and downtown. The County requires a 44′ wide street with 12′ travel lanes. The remaining space can be allocated in different ways to provide better bike connections, prioritize private parking, or a combination of uses. Sidewalks are included in Northfield’s policies, too, and can be included in this project. Then, the City could present some alternative configurations with some of the benefits and costs of each.
What do we show?
Flat maps and diagrams don’t help much with visualizing change and can even be rather alarming as this diagram showing trees to be removed as small explosions which make it difficult to see much beyond loss and destruction:
Hennepin County has recently been doing some planning and adding bike lanes on Lowry Avenue. In addition to the flat images, the County has tried to market the change positively. The image shows cars still moving efficiently, but also includes the bikes and new trees to present a positive image of change rather than a documentation of loss.
What is the broader benefit or how do we change?
City staff and elected leaders could emphasize values and priorities as articulated in city policy. Our policies are really good and forward thinking. Allocating space for bicycles is less about space than about making different choices (and allocating all the space for cars was a choice made in the past). If we presume the space is for motor vehicles, then every reduction in driving or parking space seems like a loss or (worse) a threat. If, on the other hand, we start from the position than the public right of way should be allocated for the broadest inclusion and choice across the network, we can use the space to both permit safe, uninterrupted vehicle movement and safe, clearly identified space for bicycles.
Woodley Street needs fixing as anyone who has driven, ridden or walked on it knows. But remembering this needed repair to pavement and pipes is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change, what are the other benefits the city could realize? My interest is how Woodley Street helps us get places and links destinations – and it is a key link to many places in Northfield.
If Northfield and Rice County rebuild Woodley Street by repeating choices of the past – a car-only county highway without sidewalks, safe intersections for pedestrians, or bike facilities, the City will miss the chance to help anyone who walks, bicycles or uses a wheelchair/scooter right now to reach downtown, parks, schools and moving around the neighborhood and, more importantly, will preempt these choices for decades more to come.
I didn’t know there was a term for this, but apparently I’ve been thinking about daylighting at the corner of Washington and 3rd Streets and at the bottom of the hill at Division and 3rd Streets right by the Northfield Public Library for many years.
Here’s a little video from Streetfilms explaining “daylighting.”
Now that the the Library expansion project is about to begin, this would be the perfect opportunity to make some exterior changes in addition to the good stuff which will happen to the Library building.
Daylighting, at its simplest, is just prohibiting parking close to intersections and crosswalks to create better sightlines for cars to see pedestrians and vice versa. The intersections by the Library see much pedestrian traffic, including small children and older adults, and visibility is currently poor. Parked cars limit visibility which is compounded by grade changes. Driving south on Washington Street is an uphill journey making the crosswalk across Washington a particularly difficult place to see pedestrians. As a driver looking for pedestrians, I keep getting surprised by people, especially small people, edging out past the cars to see what’s coming. As a pedestrian, I find the east side of Washington feels safer because the higher elevation gives me a better vantage point to see approaching cars (or bikes). Standing on the Library side of Washington, I’ll keep my dog behind me as I edge out to see what’s emerging from the north.
The problem at the bottom of the hill on Division Street is similar. Creating the high capacity bike parking space did improve visibility at this intersection to the south, but the crosswalk is still obscured while driving south by the angle parking on the west and the parallel parking on the east.
It would be a quick, cheap change to prohibit parking closest to these intersections with some paint and a couple of signs.
Looking at Library expansion plans, there are a couple of changes to the Library which make daylighting an even more appropriate choice. A much needed sidewalk will be added along Washington from the top of the steps down to the Library to 3rd Street putting more pedestrians near and at the intersection (although the architectural renderings are stunningly devoid of real life parking and traffic).
The expansion of the library onto what is now the bike parking plaza means the well-used bike racks need a new home and, as on Division Street, a high capacity bike rack on the street at 3rd and Washington would both provide daylight AND bike parking.
Let’s say the quick and cheap paint solution is a big success. Now let’s think about more substantial permanent changes to enhance the Library intersections.
Right now, the 3rd Street parking “lot” has curb extensions at both ends which mark off the space as devoted to parking and slow through traffic; the extensions create delightfully short crossing distances with great visibility across 3rd Street; compare the length of the crosswalks in the image above). The painted daylight spots could become permanent extensions on Washington and Division which make for even better visibility because they are higher than street level, shorten crossing distances, calm traffic on Division and Washinton Streets and create a larger public space for bike parking, benches (many people now sit on the Library wall waiting for rides, why not provide seating accessible to people of all ages?), street trees, etc.
The Northfield Public Library is well-loved and heavily used, it draws people of all ages and is at the heart of our most pedestrian-oriented space. The expansion of the Library is a golden opportunity to improve the streetscape, too.
Recent news about cycling safety (more accurately described as cycling danger) warns cycling deaths are on the rise (…or not). Reporting on deaths and injury-causing collisions/accidents shapes the public sense of cycling for non-cyclists because these are the numbers we have.
As a get-around-town sort of cyclist, I don’t worry about dying when I go to the grocery store (and I don’t even wear a helmet). I also don’t worry about dying when I get in my car to drive somewhere, but my risk of dying in a car accident is considerably higher (and I don’t even wear a helmet).
No, I worry about (and just dislike) the common non-injury, non-death interchanges between myself and motorists. Like the man yelling at me for being on the road even though I was in the bike lane at 5th and Division Street or the right-turn-on-redders at 2nd Street and Highway 3 who look left for motor traffic but do not check right for bikes/pedestrians or the drivers on Jefferson Parkway who attempt to squeeze by me despite the median pinching the space (and yelling at me for taking the lane when the median ends and they can pass). Most cyclists have multiple near misses like these, but they’re not reported as accidents and don’t “become data.”
In the USA, Ft. Collins, Colorado has its own “near miss” reporting which it uses “to assess potential conflict points and the frequency of near misses at these locations. Bicycle and pedestrian related crashes are typically under reported and this offers another way to address issues before they result in a crash.”
Northfield has taken two steps toward collecting better information about cycling this year. First, we participated in MnDOT’s bike count to help both the state and Northfield know where the bikes are now and to plan for the future. Then, BikeNorthfield and the City of Northfield (with the help of many others) applied for Bike Friendly Community status (we got Honorable Mention) which required quantifying the bike infrastructure, policy and other tools in place in Northfield. Next year, perhaps, Northfield could begin to collect and map near miss information to continue to build the database for better transportation in Northfield.
Who came? Northfield’s workshop attendees included the chief of police, city administrator, Community Development director, 3 Planning Commission members, 1 member of the Northfield YMCA board, 2 City Council members, 1 Environmental Quality Commission member, a long-time bike trail advocate and senior citizen cycling leader, a couple of college staff and faculty, 1 school board member and more bike advocates and enthusiasts. Some of these folks regularly ride in and around town, but others do not (at least not yet); some know City plans and policy intimately, but others do not (at least not yet). In other words, a good mix of people to bike and learn together how to build on Northfield’s strengths.
What did we learn? The 5 E’s, of course, as well as some of the many reasons why bicycles can or should be part of a community like tourism (if Lanesboro and the Root River Trail can bring in $2.2 million annually, what could Northfield capture when the Mill Towns Trail is completed?), jobs (Northfield already has two bike shops and Tandem Bagels), community events (come to Northfield for the July 4th Criterium – to race or to watch; stay for the fireworks!) and benefits from public health to equity to cleaner air. And, we learned that half of all trips are 3 miles or less—a reasonable bicycling distance –which is certainly true in Northfield.
Where did we go? Following some safe cycling training, we took to the road to visit some of the high and low points of Northfield’s cycling infrastructure including crossing MN 3 at 3 different intersections (but, unfortunately, did not take the extra few minutes to visit the site of the recently approved TIGER trail crossing) and the difficult intersection of TH 246 and Jefferson Parkway near 3 of Northfield’s schools.
What will we do next? Focusing on projects or objectives we could accomplish in the next 6-12 months in the 5 E categories, we identified:
Infrastructure/Engineering& Evaluation top projects: (1) Increase/improve signage to direct folks to bike routes, trails, and parking; (2) identify “easy” paint locations (such as painting Water Street as a bike boulevard for an early and obvious change); (3) create an advisory group to the planning commission (a previous non-motorized transportation task force reported to the Park and Recreation Advisory Board), and (4) do bicycle and pedestrian counts.
Education & Enforcement can help build confident cyclists who can manage the infelicitous infrastructure, so we identified (1) Hosting a Train the Trainer “Traffic Safety 101” course in Northfield this summer and recruiting participants for the October LCI training in Rochester to build a critical mass of local bike safety instructors; (2) engaging Community Ed (and the YMCA) to introduce a bike curriculum; (3) engaging business leaders on bikeable workplaces, bike friendly businesses and workplace wellness
Encouragement & Events celebrate success, create interest and build community so we plan to (1) offer bike clinics at existing community events; (2) encouraging bicycle commuting among local businesses (including, I hope, both colleges); (3) increase the number of group rides and adding education/evaluation components to rides; (4) collaborating with community organizations to expand cycling, and (5) producing comprehensive maps of bicycle facilities and recommended routes – both recreational and destination routes – for the community.
If BikeNorthfield and its friends follow through on this list, then the longer term, higher price projects such as improving important intersections, adding bike lanes on higher traffic streets, etc. will have that critical mass of support needed for change. And, for a city the size of Northfield, relatively few major changes are needed to be able to create a really great town for cycling.
Is it OK to kill cyclists? asked Daniel Duane in the New York Times. In the US, if you’re going to kill someone, bumping off a cyclist with your car is a pretty good way to get away with murder. Even here in England, where the cycling climate (and the regular sort of climate) is quite different, killing cyclists goes largely unpunished (though “my” MP Julien Huppert has been working on it). Apparently, we’re expendable.
I blogged earlier about strict liability (where the driver of the motor vehicle is presumed liable for the accident, unless she can prove she is not at fault) and “my” MP Julien Huppert has also raised this issue. In a related development, exposing the “blame the victim” problem with pedestrian and cycling fatalities is on the upswing, see this New York example (police say pedestrians should carry flashlights so cars don’t jump the curb and kill them).
After the NY Times piece, the Economist has a very good summary of the policy and what would happen in a variety of circumstances. To sum up:
This regulatory regime places an extra burden on drivers. That burden can be summed up as follows: before you turn, you have to check carefully in the mirror to see whether there’s a cyclist there. That’s it. When you are driving in the Netherlands, you have to be more careful than you would when driving in America. Does this result in rampant injustice to drivers when accidents occur? No. It results in far fewer accidents.
In Northfield, we’ve put pretty good policy in place for encouraging cycling and walking, as well as for building sidewalks, bike trails and on-street bike facilities as we take on street projects. Each new project, however, which tries to build non-automobile facilities continues to meet with resistance from some Council and community members while being championed by others.
For the record, I’m trying to sell my road bikes (the kind one rides in spandex shorts) and keeping my beater bike for riding around town from point A to B in my regular clothes (even skirts), but I’d kind of like one of these.