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)

 

 

 

 

 

Still not a safe route to school

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.

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

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.

Speed limits on TH 246

Speed limits on TH 246

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.

Old problem

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:

  • 2009 Safe Routes to School plan highlighted this area and proposed a range of solutions for the Jefferson/TH 246 intersection from a traffic signal to a roundabout.
  • 2012 Complete Streets policy was adopted.
  • 2014 Bike Friendly Community application (we received an Honorable Mention).
  • 2014: TAP Grant Application in 2014 for a traffic signal at Jefferson Parkway and TH 246 was withdrawn after discussion that a signal was likely not the best solution.
  • 2015: Bike Friendly Community process continues with a visit by Steve Clark

Now’s the time to take all the plans and policies plus the new grassroots support and do something.

Northfielders consider how to make the Middle School more Bike Firendly with Steve Clark (Photo: Griff Wigley)

Northfielders consider how to make the Middle School more Bike Firendly with Steve Clark (Photo: Griff Wigley)

Bigger Picture

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:

  • Reducing vehicle traffic by encouraging bus ridership as well as actively promoting 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 (When my daughter was a middle school student, I joked about adding a toll booth to the Middle School driveway to raise funds for improvements and to allocate the costs of driving more equitably). A recent MinnPost piece highlighted how change is happening in Minneapolis to encourage active transportation.
  • Slowing traffic: Speed limit signs, even the speed feedback signs, must be enforced to be effective.  TH 246 screams “Drive fast!” and it needs to be redesigned to cue drivers to slow down, look for people walking and biking, and (most importantly) pay attention.
  • TH 246 design screams "Drive Fast!"

    TH 246 design screams “Drive Fast!”

    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.

  • Create at-grade connections from neighborhoods to schools (and the Senior Center): Bridges and underpasses are usually put forward as solutions, but I’d advocate for changing the roadway design to build people back into the street network and make the public right-of-way truly public (as well as safe and attractive). Newer design guidelines (like Seattle’s Safe Routes to School Engineering Toolkit or NACTO standards) can provide guidance.
  • Politics and money: The Northfield City Council will vote on next year’s tax levy very soon. Some Council members want to avoid any levy increases because fund balances are flush, but clearly there are needs which have gone unmet for a decade. Voting for a small levy increase would help take advantage of Northfield’s favorable financial position to start to fix this important area at last.

A version of this post also appears on streets.mn

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

Soup and Cycles 2.0

soup&cycles_webThe 2nd Annual Soup and Cycles event will be Thursday, January 15 at 6 pm.  The inaugural Soup and Cycles event was organized by Councilmember Suzie Nakasian in November 2013 as “an information gathering and brainstorm for representatives of Northfield area bike clubs and bike-interested groups, community leaders and educators.”  The event was intentionally broad with discussions ranging from bike education to infrastructure to off-road cycling to tourism.

Soup and Cycles 2 is an opportunity to reflect on what’s been accomplished in the last year on bicycling related matters as well as continuing to plan for the future.  I missed last year’s event because I was bicycling in Cambridge, but I’ve been working with the advocacy group which was created: BikeNorthfield

Bike advocacy

BikeNorthfield has been busy resuscitating bicycle advocacy in Northfield and getting stuff done. The Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force (a subgroup of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board which existed for two years and disbanded in 2008) was the last organized bike advocacy group; it had significant influence with Woodley Street east of town, the Parks, Open Space and Trail Plan, creating Northfield’s Safe Routes to School Plan, and organizing Walk/Bike to School events.

Bike Northfield in 2014

A quick list of what BikeNorthfield has done, helped to do, and thought about last year:

Laura and Derek Meyers

Laura & Derek Meyers – LCIs and HCI Making a Difference winners (and the high capacity bike rack on Division Street)

Looking ahead in 2015

Here is a really quick glance at what BikeNorthfield could be doing this year, but you should come to Soup and Cycles and help fill out this list (and volunteer to do some of the work).

  • Infrastructure projects are huge opportunities for improving cycling, walking, environmental sustainability, quality of life, economic opportunity and more.  Woodley Street, Second Street, and TH 246/Jefferson Parkway are big projects starting in 2015.
  • Working toward a bike advisory committee for the City. A continuing challenge for improving bicycling is the combination of education for decision-makers and building a critical mass of support.  Committed bike advocates often have looked at solutions in other places, talked to other cyclists and thought longer and harder about good design solutions; we need to share both the design thinking (which often conflicts, at least superficially, with the “way we always do things”) and bring our friends to convince elected officials and city staff of the demand and the design. The time line, scope and structure for such a committee needs your help.
  • Bike Friendly Community revisited. Honorable Mention is an irritating recogintion – close, but not quite.  BikeNorthfield hopes to work for improvements in Northfield, apply again and get the Bronze. Because the BFC application and review process is concrete and specific, it helps Northfield look at which of the 5E’s need more attention and how to focus efforts.

BFC_Fall2014_ReportCard_Northfield copy

My list reflects my interest in improving land use and transportation; there’s also more to be done educating, encouraging, evaluating and enforcing. Please come help!