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)

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Mayor Graham – Bike and pedestrian safety edition

MayorChallengeSignUp-cDear Mayor Graham,

I hope you’ve been thinking about joining Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx’s  Mayor’s Challenge for improving safety for bicycle riders and pedestrians of all ages and abilities this year.  Northfield is so well-positioned to make significant progress on this issue already that your strong leadership of the Council and city staff in this effort could make significant change happen now.

Secretary Foxx’s challenge requires (1) issuing a public statement about the importance of bike and pedestrian safety, (2) forming a local action team, and (3) local action through Mayor’s Challenge activities.

A public statement is easy, of course. The local action team would also be simple to form from Northfield’s appointed commissions, community groups and the passionate local advocates for bike and pedestrian safety who are already working on these issues. Northfield is also so ready to tackle the Challenge activities which include:

Take a Complete Streets approach.

Northfield’s nationally recognized Complete Streets policy established our commitment to this way of rethinking streets. The next two major street projects – Woodley Street (2016) and West 2nd Street (2015) – designed using the Complete Streets approach to reallocating space across entire right of way to serve all users safely could — with strong support from the mayor, council and city staff — bring transformative change to these two critical street corridors.

Woodley Street is important for implementing Northfield’s Safe Routes to School Plan for improving safe access to Sibley School as well as the outdoor pool, high school and downtown.  West 2nd Street is our most important east/west connection from St. Olaf College, past Way Park, and into the heart of Northfield.

Mayflower Hill to Sibley, etc.

Woodley Street is a critical link

Complete Streets is also an incremental approach which uses regularly scheduled street projects to capture opportunities to build on-road bike networks during routine resurfacing.  After all, bike lanes and crosswalks can start with just paint; space can be reassigned easily and cheaply after any resurfacing project.

Identify and address barriers

Northfield has already done substantial work toward identifying barriers. Highway 3 is the largest barrier and Northfield has already gathered information about the importance of providing safe, convenient crossing of the highway with the documentation for the TIGER trail project and upcoming 3rd Street improvements.  Northfield’s Safe Routes to School Plan is focused on removing barriers to safe access to our schools  (but Northfield High School, St. Dominic’s School and Arcadia Charter School still need study). The NDDC has done substantial work collecting information and making recommendations for improving bike and pedestrian safety in and around downtown starting in 2005 at the request of then Mayor Lansing and continuing in 2006, 2007 and as part of its contract with the city in 2014.

A sidewalk along Highway 3, but still hard to cross

A sidewalk along Highway 3, but still hard to cross

As a City Council member, my constituents at the Village on the Cannon repeatedly asked for safer crossings of Water Street at 7th Street by finding ways to slow traffic and connect sidewalks on both sides of the street.  I also heard from Sumner Street residents who worried about pedestrian safety with fast traffic on that very wide (MSA), sidewalk-free street as well as Woodley Street folks asking for continuous sidewalks on that collector street. No doubt you and the current Council have your own stories.

Safe crossing of 7th Street needed

Safe crossing of 7th Street needed

Gather and track biking and walking data

While Northfield has been thinking about bike and pedestrian safety for a long time, 2014 marked the first bike and pedestrian count as part of MnDOT’s statewide count giving us initial baseline data. Northfield’s application to be a Bike Friendly Community (for which we received Honorable mention) also required assembling data on bike lanes, bike racks, plans, policies and more. The Challenge is a great opportunity to continue gathering the data which inform planning.

2014 Bike Count data

2014 Bike Count data

Context sensitive solutions 

Institutionalized context insensitive design is a problem Northfield (and most other cities) face with each project. Standard designs for collector streets like Woodley do not consider the local character of the street; MSA-funded streets are required to be designed to standards which do not consider the street in its local context. Overbuilding streets costs the city money, too, in more pavement, more stormwater to manage and by designing bikes and pedestrians out of the picture. Fortunately, much work is being done at the highest levels to change this and build safety, access, and convenience into street design. Secretary Foxx asks engineers to consult a range of manuals including the NACTO design guides. In December, three senators asked the GAO to evaluate how conventional engineering practices (like those currently being considered for Woodley Street) encourage higher speeds and higher fatalities. The Mayor’s Challenge is a fine opportunity to better integrate land use with transportation for greater access and safety.

Addressing more of the 5E’s

The Mayor’s Challenge works to improve all 5E’s: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation which contribute to Bike Friendly Communities. I’ve focused on infrastructure improvements above since there are critical street projects underway right now, but the Challenge also calls for cities to improve walking and biking safety laws and regulations and educate and enforce proper road use behavior by all.

Northfield's 2014 Bikable Community Workshop

Working on all 5E’s: Northfield’s 2014 Bikeable Community Workshop

Please accept the Challenge, Mayor Graham. Having the Secretary of Transportation ask for change can give Northfield the encouragement and justification it needs to implement the fine policies already on the books and add value with each street project. Like the GreenStep Cities program helps Northfield’s work toward sustainability, the Challenge gives direction and structure to building bike and pedestrian into the system (and helps with sustainability, too!). Northfield has already been recognized as livable, great for retirement and working toward being a Bike Friendly Community; meeting this Challenge could add to this list of accolades and give you something you could be very proud of accomplishing in your administration.

With warm wishes and high hopes,

Betsey Buckheit

From Money Magazine: This man is not retired, but does enjoy cycling in Northfield

From Money Magazine: This man is not retired, but does enjoy cycling in Northfield

Across the pond, happily

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.

Cattle in (the middle of) Cambridge

Cattle in (the middle of) Cambridge

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.

Kings College with cow

Kings College with cow

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).

Improvements to a difficult 5-way intersection

And, sadly, Cambridge is not immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous politicians.

Meanwhile, back in Northfield, the TIGER trail had no bids for construction, but will be re-bid this Fall.  TIGER funds continue to be awarded for retrofitting the auto transportation system for other modes of transportation and in support of Complete Streets.  As Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx noted “This is investment. It’s investment in safety. It’s investment in community. It’s investment in mobility.”  Minnesota State Senator Scott Dibble (from an interview with Streetfilms) said of the Sabo Bridge

“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.

 

Changing the terms of the debate: fix car-centric language

42 Bromptons (folded) to one minivan

One of my guiding principles is to make “transportation” when used in city and other planning and projects include ALL the ways people get around urban areas rather than transportation signifying only cars and trucks and then struggling to include other sorts of mobility with special terms: public transportation/transit (buses mostly), non-motorized transportation (bike/ped), etc. You know, just like “astronaut” should be gender-neutral. The Complete Streets model is, of course, one strategy encompassing both a planning philosophy and a shift in language for describing streets and their functions.

In pursuit of better ways to talk about transportation and land use which might help get to better ways to design and build the infrastructure, I’ve stumbled upon a new favorite blogger – in addition to considerable expertise on transit and transportation planning, Jarrett Walker also provides thoughtful commentary on the finer points of language and rhetoric on his blog Human Transit.

Like this post: Avoiding car-centered language which is a tidy analysis of a City Transportation Language Policy memo from West Pam Beach, Florida.  The memo is refreshingly direct in identifying car-centered vs objective language:

Biased: The problem is speeding traffic. The traffic queued back for one mile.
Objective: The problem is speeding motor vehicles. The motor vehicles queued back for one mile.

 

Or, more simply If you mean “car,” say “car.”

 

Northfield’s Complete Streets policy one of the nation’s best!

Northfield’s Complete Streets policy has been recognized as one of the top 10 policies in the country for 2012 (we ranked #5 out of the 125 Complete Streets policies adopted in the US in 2012).

What’s so great about having a Complete Streets policy?  My big policy goal is to link transportation and land use planning to increase the productivity and sustainability of Northfield.  To reach that goal requires some consciousness-raising, disseminating information about the costs of development for cities, and many incremental steps.  A Complete Streets policy is part of making transportation planning more intentional, better linked with surrounding land uses, and increasing awareness of the critical role streets play in cities’ budgets, safety, economic development, stormwater management, quality of life and, of course, getting around town.  By itself, the policy won’t accomplish much, but it is a piece of the bigger picture.

Here’s a bit more news coverage of the announcement: Envision MN highlights Northfield’s  accomplishment; Streetsblog provides some criticism about Complete Streets policies; Better Cities calls Complete Streets a “key strategy” for revitalization of cities.  Here’s some old coverage about some of the people who helped organize the Complete Streets effort in Northfield and even a mention in Rice County’s public health information.

 

Making change

Silos are not good for public policy

I’m a fan of enlightenment and The Enlightenment, so any title like Social Change’s Age of Enlightenment is bound to get my attention.  It was enlightening, appropriately enough, and  reflects what we’ve been seeing emerge in Northfield: address social (as well as what I’d call institutional) issues by supporting the innovators and entrepreneurs who are working for social change, looking for fund programs which have successful outcomes over the long term, and collaborating with groups and individuals across the usual division lines.

In Northfield, recent discussions between the City Council and Northfield Hospital about leading efforts to improve public health by coordinating City, hospital, education, and non-profits fit here – we’ve talked about what health status indicators tell us about Northfield’s health right now and how we can harness the power of the community for improvement.  Perhaps (I’m speculating at this point) obesity or diabetes will become the focus – how can we (the big plural we) help increase physical activity, education, healthy food, etc. through coordinated decision-making and incremental change rather than throwing money at a single project?

In the arts, community leaders (I’m thinking of you, Dean Kjerland, Ann Mosey, Philip Spensely, Barbara Burke, Christie Clark and more) have brought attention to arts and culture (defined broadly from “high art” to popular music to community events like the Riverwalk Market FairLow Brow High Octane and the DJJD) in Northfield and lead collaboration with the Arts and Culture Commission, Northfield Arts Guild, Colleges, etc. and enlisted the City as one player.

In infrastructure planning, the city and school district jointly developed the Safe Routes to School Plan which provides support for incremental improvements in bike/ped safety around schools, then projects like the TIGER trail project, Complete Streets, etc. looked to other community groups (Grassroots Transit, HCI, Milltowns Trail, Colleges and more) to build support and create tools to work with MnDOT, County, developers for better long-term planning for street corridors which serve all users, address stormwater, and are inviting places to walk, bicycle and drive.  We’re trying to figure out how to benchmark these efforts, too, so we can document successes, adjust programs, and ensure money is spent well.

Long term, big picture stuff – not big dollar stuff – where your passion can help make a big difference in the community and we’ll be able to measure it, too.