Small steps add up to big changes

Last week, I posted about the political difficulties with Northfield’s TIGER grant funded project, but the TIGER trail is the only latest and largest project to improve biking and walking. It’s worth celebrating the smaller steps toward a more walkable, bikeable city Northfield has been taking for more than decade.

Northfield sidewalks

Northfield’s sidewalks

To be sure, Northfield starts with some distinct advantages:

  • Size: 20,000 people and a compact core means shorter distances, many well-connected streets with sidewalks, and lower traffic volumes to make walking and cycling a pleasant experience. While the city spread out with the housing boom, its 8 square mile footprint is still small enough to make walking and bicycle travel very practical for many trips.
  • Colleges: Carleton and St. Olaf students are more likely to walk and bicycle around town.
  • Northfield’s downtown is thriving.  Having a clear central destination with the library, grocery stores (and other day to day retail and services), restaurants, residents, and 800 workers helps shape the city and its transportation options.  Makes it great to visit, too – especially lovely in the Fall.
  • Committed and engaged people: Northfield has key individuals and groups who support and work for more bicycle and pedestrian options.
  • Active cycling community: Beyond cycling for transportation, Northfield has many cyclists from recreational riders to racers and is a hub of cycling activity (like the inaugural Minnesota Gravel Championship and longstanding 4th of July Criterium Racing and Rotary-sponsored Defeat of Jesse James Days Bike Tour and the groups who ride regularly from/to Northfield) and commerce (two bike shops plus bicycle inspired Tandem Bagels).

From that firm foundation, Northfield revised its long-term plans between about 2005-2009. From all the pages, focus groups and community meetings involved in the Comprehensive Plan and others, three clear principles emerge:

  1. Downtown, the Cannon River and Northfield’s distinctive sense of place are critical assets for economic development, recreation, and land use planning.
  2. Multi-modal transportation is a priority which is linked to the larger picture of more compact development and a central, walkable downtown in the city plus connections to regional trails in southern Minnesota.
  3. Places need to be better connected to each other: schools to parks, homes to downtown, schools to homes, Northfield to the Mill Towns Trail, colleges to downtown, etc.

And Northfield has been working the plan(s):

Street projects used the Streetscape Plan to add bike lanes, walkways and places to gather (Sesquicentennial Legacy Plaza).

Ray Jacobson “Harvest” sculpture and Ames Mill

Downtown parking planning includes conversations on increasing cycling and walking to reduce the parking demand.

Countdown timers on TH3

Counting down on TH3 (photo: Griff Wigley)

Non-Motorized Transportation task force of the Park Board (with representatives from the school district, colleges, city and other knowledgeable folks), led the way to Northfield’s Safe Routes to School planning grant in 2008 to develop much needed recommendations for improving bicycling and walking to local schools (most of Northfield’s elementary schools and its middle and high schools were built in the suburban model) and prioritized bike lane locations (among other things)

Multi-modal integration study stipulated by the Transportation Plan lead to the TIGER grant application to find ways to bridge TH3 and TH19 plus railroads.

Complete Streets policy was developed following a difficult street project which sacrificed mature trees for a standard street width spurred development of policy to shift the design process to accommodate users and surroundings when designing street projects going forward.

Plum Street (photo Griff Wigley)

Mill Towns Trail: Building the Mill Towns Trail to link the Sakatah Hills Trail and Cannon Valley Trails has been going on for 2 decades with state-level interest from the Parks and Trails Council.

Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge (named for Northfield’s tireless and undauntable trail advocate) spans the Cannon River and is a link for the Mill Towns Trail.

Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge (photo Griff Wigley)

There have been some missed opportunities, of course, both small (recent work on Maple Street near Sibley School omitted a critical sidewalk link because of vitriolic neighbors’ objections) and large (lack of street connections through residential areas, for instance, and school placement), but Northfield has now plucked most of the low hanging fruit – the policy changes, simple fixes like bike racks and ensuring regularly scheduled street projects fill gaps in the sidewalk network – now it needs another infusion of citizen advocacy and political will to allocate resources to tackle the very ripe, but less accessible fruit higher in the tree.

In addition to completing the TIGER trail under TH3, really safe routes to school could include cycletracks on Jefferson Parkway (and the other, relatively few, high volume and higher speed routes).  Reconstruction of Woodley Street in the next few years, a County road, could add much needed sidewalks on a critical minor arterial through town. Higher density senior housing has been built downtown; additional attention to making sidewalks and intersections accessible to older people is needed. The Northfield City Council will discuss the Capital Improvement Plan tonight; this would be the time to consider which improvements can be built into the budget and planning process over the next few years.

So, great job Northfield and let’s get to work!



Betsey Buckheit

About Betsey Buckheit

Betsey rides her pretty blue city bike, walks her energetic black dogs, and agitates for more thoughtful, long-range decision-making in Northfield, MN. You can follow her blog at