Northfield’s 10 worst sidewalk omissions

September 19, 2009

As I’ve already mentioned, Northfield is in the process of making full sidewalk coverage the standard. In the last few years, they’ve consistently added sidewalks during street reconstructions — many on both sides. All new roads within the last fifteen years (save for a few rogue culs de sac) have sidewalks. However, there are definitely some areas that are missing this essential piece of a safe roadway. Note that these roadways are not limited to city-maintained streets or the city limits. This is about Northfield-area problems, and I do note when an entity other than the City of Northfield is responsible.

10. Greenvale Avenue and North Spring Street

Greenvale Avenue -- Image by Google Street View

This is only #10 because it actually no longer is missing a sidewalk. The City installed a sidewalk along the north side of Greenvale Avenue when the road was reconstructed in 2003 and along North Spring Street in 2008. Why do I mention it? Because it’s shocking to think that for more than 40 years, two busy residential collector streets less than half a mile from a school had no sidewalks whatsoever. While only one side of each street received a sidewalk, the sidewalks function well and, outside the downtown, Greenvale’s is one of the most heavily used sidewalks I see. Both of these are City-maintained streets.

9. Spring Creek Road

Image by Bing Maps
This could be a poster for problematic suburban design. The 1980s Mayflower Hill development has sidewalk coverage. It’s not terribly far from the downtown. And yet Spring Creek Road — which for years was the only access road — is extremely narrow and has no sidewalks. It makes the neighborhood isolated from the surrounding community, and essentially treats walking as a novelty — not any serious form of transportation. Spring Creek Road is the responsibility of the City of Northfield.

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Are bike paths too dangerous?

August 31, 2009

Richfield -- 76th Street I recently came across an excellent blog on redevelopment along 76th Street in Richfield (South Minneapolis). Richfield is an unusual kind of city for today, a suburb built on an urban grid — a grid that could serve nonmotorized uses very well — but missing one critical piece of a vital city: sidewalks.

While Richfield has had somewhat of a change of heart since it was originally laid out, retrofitting unsidewalked streets can always be difficult. The solution proposed by the consultants for 76th Street was a beefy 10′ shared-use path along one side, designed to handle all nonmotorized users of the road. This post does an excellent job of pointing out issues with sidewalks and shared-use paths. (Note that this excerpt treats the two as synonymous; Northfield considers a sidewalk to be 6-10′ wide and made of concrete; a shared-used path would be asphalt and 10-12′).

The problem with [the 75th/76th Street plans] is the belief that sidewalks are safer than streets for biking. Bicycle side paths such as the one on 75th have proved so dangerous that even the US government instructs that they be used in only the few locations where their dangers are insignificant. The problem is not just pedestrians; urban sidepaths cause difficult and dangerous car-bike conflicts at every driveway and intersection. How so?

A car backing down a driveway will slow down at street level before entering expecting fast moving vehicles. This is not the case for a sidewalk. Not seeing pedestrians the car will back out past the sidewalk to the street .

A car is more likely to see a bicyclist in the street when making a right hand turn but is less likely to see the bicyclist up on the sidewalk entering in to the street when making the turn.

The author goes on to back up the claim with solid numbers, which the Task Force has also discussed in the past:

Contrary to intuition, cyclists riding on bicycle paths (now called “shared use paths”) have a higher crash rate than cyclists riding on roads, although not as high a crash rate as cyclists riding on sidewalks (Aultman-Hall and Kaltenecker 1998). The risk of injuries on paths compared to roads has been calculated as 40%, 80%, and 260% higher (Moritz 1998, Aultman-Hall and Kaltenecker 1998, Kaplan 1976).

Northfield’s Uses

Though fine for recreational use, the frequent street crossings make the shared-use path unsuitable for bike transportation

This picture -- on East Woodley -- is an example of excessive path/road crossings, creating more opportunities for accidents with turning drivers

The Northfield Parks/Trail Plan proposes several shared-use paths on streets without bike lanes: Jefferson Parkway, South Division Street, Rice County 1, and 7th Street.

Good Uses

I think that shared-use paths are only appropriate in situations where most bicyclists cannot safely interact with traffic. Rice County 1 and Division Street (MN 246) south of Jefferson Parkway are two instances where this may be the case: both are 45+ mph roads that carry around 4000 cars a day. Both also have relatively few driveways and intersections, so the risks pertaining to shared-use paths are less severe. While an ideal solution (from a nonmotorized perspective) would be to simply slow down the roads, shared-use paths are a good solution to an inhospitable road.

Bad Uses

A bad use would be unnecessarily segregating motorized and nonmotorized traffic, or putting a path where there are frequent intersections or driveways. A 7th Street shared-use path would then probably be the most questionable, since the street handles relatively little vehicle traffic at only 30 mph and is lousy with driveways. Jefferson Parkway — like Woodley Street, which just received a shared-use path — is somewhere in-between. It’s a high-traffic road with no driveways and a fairly low speed (30 mph posted; I would guess 30-35 in practice). It could have a shared-use path with somewhat lower risk, but there’s no obvious reason why it could not have a bike path instead.

Who Benefits?

Ostensibly, the beneficiaries of a shared-use path would be casual riders, but for truly inexperienced users (e.g., kids learning to bike), there’s little a shared-use path can do that a sidewalk can’t. I think the real beneficiaries are drivers, who avoid having to interact with cyclists in the same way they would have to in a bike path.

Of course, interactions are inevitable, and if more of those interactions result in accidents, nobody really wins.

Clarifying Crosswalks

August 19, 2009

I’ve often felt, driving or walking, a lot of confusion about pedestrian crossings. Obviously when there’s a marked crosswalk, a pedestrian has the right to cross. And I suppose when there’s a stop sign, a driver should wait for a pedestrian. What about when there’s neither?

Though I imagine a lot of complexity to it, as it turns out, Minnesota’s pedestrian statute, 169.21, is actually quite blunt:

“Where traffic-control signals are not in place or in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk. The driver must remain stopped until the pedestrian has passed the lane in which the vehicle is stopped […].” (169.21 Subd.2a)

So essentially the rule of thumb is that a car must stop at any intersection unless controls are in place. This wasn’t that surprising for a residential grid, but it just didn’t seem right for a busy intersection like West 3rd Street and Highway 3. So I asked a helpful Mn/DOT engineer who confirmed that, yes, even at the intersection, cars must yield to pedestrians.

The restrictions

So while that is the rule of thumb, there are several limitations:

Traffic signals

As mentioned in the above quote, if there is a traffic light, pedestrians must abide by it.

Reasonable stopping distance

169.21 2a also specifies that “No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield.”

Pedestrians must use mixed-grade crossings when provided

169.21 3b specifies that “Any 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.”

What about bicycles?

People operating bicycles are not considered pedestrians. If a bicyclist wanted the rights of a pedestrian s/he could dismount and walk the bicycle temporarily — helpful to keep in mind for difficult-to-cross roads like West 5th St (Hwy 19).

And yet…

Of course, the illegality of ignoring pedestrians does not seem to affect all drivers. I’m just amazed to see Malt-O-Meal employees crossing 5th Street. There are several warning signs both directions of pedestrian crossing, big flashing lights at the well-painted crossing, and occasionally even fluorescent yellow “STATE LAW STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS IN CROSSWALK” signs in the middle of the road. There are still cars that don’t stop.

Why? Because they don’t think the pedestrian is going to exercise his or her rights. Which is mostly true: we as pedestrians are not as aggressive as we should be. While I’m not advocating anyone walk out in front of a moving car “which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield,” being more assertive would go a long way to making pedestrian crossings safer and driving calmer.

Sidewalk explanation in Northfield News

August 17, 2009

The Northfield News ran a fun article in Saturday’s paper, What’s up with that? Local curiosities and oddities.

Why are some residential blocks either missing sidewalks or the sidewalks end mid-block?

When taking a leisurely stroll on Washington Street, between Woodley and Fremont streets, walkers have a decision to make: Saunter through homeowners’ yards or take to the street where the sidewalk abruptly ends.

The strange phenomenon of unexpectedly ending sidewalks is also found between Union and Washington streets on both Woodley and Fremont, to name a couple.

“Typically development over time has taken different approaches to construction of sidewalks,” said City Engineer Katy Gehler-Hess.

Whereas development today begins with the construction of streets, sidewalks and utilities before homes are ever built, according to Gehler-Hess, around the ’50s or ’60s sidewalks built along with streets was very spotty. City leaders believed sidewalks were not needed on streets with low traffic volume — thus the missing sidewalks.

Partial sidewalks, however, are likely due to a homeowner or group of homeowners later putting in their own sidewalks, said Gehler-Hess. If only a few chose to construct a sidewalk in front of their homes, a partial sidewalk was born.

Today, the city’s current policy is to incorporate sidewalks on both sides of the street when completing a reconstruction project, looking at areas where the greatest need is: paths taken to school or high level construction areas.

The city is also working on a Safe Routes to Schools project study and is expected to recommend completion of sidewalks near the city’s elementary and middle schools to help make routes safer for children.

I liked the question and the explanation, though an even more burning question to me than why sidewalks are missing on some residential streets is why they’re missing on our two busiest streets — West Fifth Street (19) and South Highway 3. Highway 3 was reconstructed from Woodley to Hester St in Dundas in the mid-90s, but the sidewalks run only from Woodley to Jefferson Parkway. The 1990s were not a great time for sidewalks, but certainly beyond the post-WWII idea that sidewalks were obsolete.

The further explanation regarding the abruptly ending and beginning sidewalks was interesting. I’ll use the opportunity to point out my favorite one-house sidewalk, on West Woodley Street. “A” for effort!

The one-house sidewalk

Attack of the Medians, 2009

August 10, 2009

Unhelpful faux medians

In 2004, medians were added to Jefferson Parkway. They looked beautiful, and the claim was that the narrower lanes would calm the traffic. However, as any bicyclist knows, the lanes were made too narrow in some areas of the road (near the Division St intersection), with not enough room for a bicycle and car to ride safely side-by-side.

The other frustrating part of this is that the curb lip is unusually wide -- a bike lane could have been integrated into a curb lip (as on Hwy 3) without increasing street width

How narrow?

Well when I saw the new striping on East Woodley Street (Rice County 28), it felt like Jefferson Parkway all over again. While there’s no physical median, the road now has a faux median painted in the middle. At some points this is helpful, like where it’s used as a suicide lane. In other areas, though, it simply pushes traffic closer to the curb, leaving virtually no space for bicycles. The Nonmotorized Transportation Task Force did request bike lanes (before I was on the TF), but they were rejected by the County. What’s bothersome is that these lanes could have been incorporated without widening the street surface.

Now I’ll say that overall the East Woodley reconstruction is a dramatic improvement for all users of the road. But this is a frustrating and apparently unnecessary impediment to bicycle use. I’ve included a gallery of the good and the bad of the reconstructed East Woodley.

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.

Volunteers needed for Aug. 15 Tour de Art

August 7, 2009

Virginia Kaczmarek of the YMCA sent me this info. Help is needed this Saturday, Aug. 15, for the Tour de Art / Ride with the Mayors! Please let her know if you can help.

Hi Bill, It looks like we need 2 more volunteers for the Dundas Trailhead location so yes I’d love for you to send out an email asking for some help.

I’d guess those volunteers would need to be at that location by 10:00 – the group should be by sometime after that time. Once the group comes by — (they head back to Northfield along the trail) — then the volunteers are done — so maybe 10-11:15 or so? Their job would be to put streamers and ribbons on the kid’s bikes while the adults listen to the ‘art sculpture’ expert talk to the parents about the art sculpture at that location. My Y email address is

There’s a flier about the entire event on the front page of our website (Mary Rossing put it together).