A Nonmotorized Waste

August 8, 2009

I say it on the About page, but I will reiterate that posts on this site do not reflect the Task Force’s opinion. In fact, there may very well be a few TF members who would disagree with me on this post.

Historic Downtown Northfield?

Historic Downtown Northfield?

The Bolton-Menk concept to tunnel Fifth Street (Hwy 19) under the railroad crossing has attracted a lot of flak, and for good reason: it’s expensive, unnecessary, and perceived as unlikely to be funded. But what about the other proposals of the 3/19 Multimodal Integration Study?

The main catch phrase of the study is “pedestrian bridge” (or much duller-sounding “mixed-grade pedestrian crossing”). The perception is, apparently, that both highways are just so dangerous and unpleasant that it would be better to remove pedestrians from the road altogether. I am not completely opposed to a mixed-grade crossing at Malt-O-Meal on Fifth Street, but I am absolutely against a crossing on Highway 3. Here’s why.

1. Highway 3 mentality

There’s an attitude that I encounter almost universally when talking with other Northfielders, a perception that Highway 3 is this thing that just cuts through town, a massive highway filled with all these Others just eager to get through our town and move on their way. While that is true for a small percentage of travelers, it’s important to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of the traffic on Hwy 3 through Northfield is Northfield traffic. The traffic counts speak for themselves.

2. (General) Highway mentality

With this in mind — that we are the people on Highway 3 — we need to ask why we Northfielders and visitors are being hostile to pedestrian Northfielders and visitors. The answer is partially that the road itself has influenced us. It’s wide, smooth, with little to react to other than stop lights. Compare that to the stretch of Division Street just a couple blocks to the east — there are cars coming in and out of parking spots, pedestrians at almost every corner, and the occasional bicycle in the mix, too. We’re prepared to react, and most of the time, as drivers, we do yield properly to pedestrians.

3. Pedestrian assertiveness

The vast majority of pedestrians would not walk across 3rd and Highway 3 (which has no traffic signals) with the same confidence they’d walk across 3rd and Division. Why? Because they don’t think cars will react to them. Why won’t cars react to them? Because there are so few pedestrians — and because those that are there are timid enough to wait for a large gap in traffic.

4. Not a solution

So what, really, does a pedestrian bridge resolve? Not any of problems 1-3 listed above. If anything, it will make pedestrians more timid around vehicle traffic, and make vehicles even less likely to expect crossing pedestrians. It could also result in higher vehicle speeds (it’s already a rare sight to see a car actually going 30 mph in the 30 zone).

It also takes away pedestrian’s rights. While ordinarily a vehicle must yield to a pedestrian crossing at an intersection, “[a]ny pedestrian crossing a roadway at a point where a pedestrian tunnel or overhead pedestrian crossing has been provided shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway” (169.21).

5. There are less expensive, better alternatives

A pedestrian refuge island

A pedestrian refuge island

How do we a break the chicken-and-egg cycle described in 3? Encourage crossing, and make it as safe as possible without removing pedestrians from the road.

Automatic pedestrian signals

The Second and Fifth Street lights should include a pedestrian signal automatically. Requiring pedestrians to press a button to cross implies that they are not part of the normal cycle and all but assures they will have to wait to cross. The street sensors should also be upgraded to respond to bicycles (I’ve spent several long waits on Second hoping a car would come along to trip the signal).

Marked crossing and refuge island

While pedestrians rights are the same at intersections regardless of crosswalks, I believe people are more respectful of pedestrians in crosswalks. Therefore, I think a marked crosswalk should be added at Third Street. In addition, the median should be widened in the middle to create a pedestrian refuge island.

These two solutions would cost a fraction of a pedestrian bridge, they would maintain three pedestrian crossings (instead of compressing into one), and they would keep the streets for people.