Woodley Street: Narrowing the focus

Northfield’s City Council is getting ready to discuss Woodley Street’s sidewalks on October 28. If this work session conversation follows the well-worn path of earlier sidewalk and street improvement projects, it will go something like this: progressive Council members who consider projects in the context of Northfield’s adopted policy (Comprehensive Plan, Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets), support building transportation equity into the system, and generally look for long-term, high return on investment solutions will support sidewalks noting the importance of the corridor for schools, parks, and downtown. The others will respond to the project in isolation, highlight the shortest term bottom line, question the need for sidewalks, and respond immediately to NIMFYs. Sidewalks have become the litmus test which reveal the Council’s and individual Council members’ priorities and values rather starkly.

Woodley Street project area
Woodley Street project area

My earlier post about Woodley tried to expand the conversation to think about streets as public space, but now let’s narrow it – by 2’ per travel lane to be exact – to help the Council think about sidewalks. Jeff Speck, of Walkable City fame, wrote for CityLab recently that “the single best thing we can do for the health, wealth, and integrity of this great nation is to forbid the construction, ever again, of any traffic lane wider than 10 feet.” While the statement is grand, the rationale is simple:

“When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.”

For Woodley Street, this statement (and much of Mr Speck’s post) makes great sense since there are three likely arguments against sidewalks on (both sides) of Woodley Street. They are…

There’s not enough space!

Rice County encourages sidewalks (and trails and earthen berms) along minor arterials like Woodley Street (although classified as a minor arterial, the current design of Woodley Street more closely matches the standards for major collectors), but requires they be placed outside boulevards which demands an additional 10-16’ of ROW for 5-8’ sidewalks. For Woodley, which functions as a local street with driveways, homes fronting the length of this segment, and multiple intersections, and its context which connects schools, homes, downtown and more. constrained by the homes on either side, this is not very encouraging at all.

Northfield, in its Comprehensive Plan, calls for 10-12’ travel lanes with an assortment of other requirements for parking, sidewalks, bike lanes, and boulevards depending on how we classify the street. The policy guidance could be seen as more encouraging – narrower lanes, variable shoulder/parking requirements etc. appear possible – but also less clear. Northfield’s Complete Streets guidance to narrow lane widths as part of developing better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure also gestures in the right direction, but does not require action.

So we could make “more” space by shrinking travel lanes if Rice County could be convinced to consider design changes, and help solve some of the issues noted earlier – shrinking crossing distance for pedestrians and building more function and value into this corridor.

It’s not safe!

“Safe” has become one of those red-flag words for me. When someone on either side of a debate uses the “S” word, it’s intended to stop debate because no one can argue against safety, can they? But what is really safer (and supported by relevant data)? Jeff Speck’s piece lined up the literature showing narrower lanes are often safer, rather than the reverse, in urban settings.

Woodley Street Death Curve
Woodley Street Death Curve

Woodley Street serves as a local street with driveways, regular intersections, etc. but it is also a County road intended to move traffic through town. For a rural County road between, say, Northfield and Faribault through agricultural land, the transportation and access needs are rather different from a street through the Urban Core and the design should shift accordingly.

Narrowing travel lanes (and perhaps the shoulder) on Woodley Street would help cue drivers they had left the wide open rural roadway and should slow down, look for entering and existing traffic, pay attention to intersections and consider non-motorized transportation. Safety could be enhanced, rather than the opposite.

Sidewalks cost too much!

If there’s space and it’s safe, we can still argue about cost. In Rice County, the city bears most of the cost of building (and all the cost of maintaining) sidewalks since these are (quite properly) a city need and the city gets the benefits, too. So, yes, sidewalks will cost some money, but what offsetting savings could there be? Narrower pavement saves money on the paving (initially, and when maintenance is required), reduces stormwater runoff, improves safety by slowing traffic and reducing crossing distances (especially in a corridor with limited sight distances for pedestrians like Woodley’s Death Curve), promotes active transportation and public health and increasing transportation options. Northfield’s Complete Streets policy explicitly calls out the intent to realize long-term savings on the triple bottom line to offset higher short-term costs.

Reallocating space and priorities

Really, the issue is not so much a question of space as priorities. County roads allocate space exclusively to motorized traffic; this is not unreasonable for roads with limited access to property and few intersections intended to move vehicles, including large farm equipment, between cities at high speeds. City streets – or county roads in the urban core – have also allocated almost all their space to motorized traffic, too, with 12’ lane widths and inconsistent sidewalks.

Northfield has waved its policy-making hands at shifting priorities, so at the safe distance of a Comprehensive Plan and Complete Streets policy, sidewalks and non-motorized transportation are important and should be improved, but fall by the wayside when particular projects are on the table. For both County and City, there has been willingness and eagerness to fund “soft” improvements like the Bikable Community Workshop and bicycle safety training (through Rice County Public Health and the City of Northfield), but stopping short of “hard” infrastructure change.

I have two fears. First, the Council will take the County design standards as inviolable and, at best, try to scrape as much accommodation for bicycles and pedestrians as possible under those very limited circumstances/strict constraints. Multi-jurisdictional projects are always more complex, but the Council could ask questions about real safety (rather than just conversation –stopping “safety”) and adapting the standard collector/arterial design to better fit the surrounding land use and community needs. There’s more space for sidewalks than the County standard design suggests, narrowing the street is safe and efficient, and the long-term benefits are great.

Second, NIMFYs (Not In My Front Yard) are loud, angry and persistent in Northfield, especially when it comes to sidewalks. In a recent sidewalk issue on Maple Street, Councilmember David Ludescher stated “Citizens know better than we do what they want” so if current property owners don’t want sidewalks, that’s sufficient for deciding the issue against them. Again, as policymakers for the city as a whole, the Council should consider how to build value and equity into the system for the long-term and broader population rather than capitulating to the loudest and most personally interested voices.

My hope is the Council will see this project as an important time-limited opportunity to both expand and focus their conversation next week by paying attention to lane widths. Considering the simple change of narrowing travel lanes (without sacrificing safety or traffic flow) could change the broader landscape for the better.

A version of this post appears on streets.mn