Northfield should be the sort of city where bicycling makes a lot of sense because
- it’s small enough to put most destinations within a couple of miles,
- there are regional trail connections (existing and planned)
- we have multiple formal and informal cycling groups (lycra-clad road cyclists, off-road, gravel riders, seniors and cruisers)
- Carleton and St Olaf Colleges provide 5,000 students who are young, active, environmentally conscious people less likely to have cars
- low traffic volume local streets
- the City has adopted strong policies supporting cycling (Safe Routes to School, Comprehensive Plan, award-winning Complete Streets policy)
- new infrastructure projects have been approved.
Despite all these assets, cycling is still not normal transportation around Northfield. Fortunately, Northfield also has a new cycling advocacy organization BikeNorthfield which sponsored a day-long Bikeable Community Workshop last week (along with co-sponsors: Chamber of Commerce, NDDC, Northfield City Council and Rice County SHIP) led by representatives from MnDOT, MN Department of Health and Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota for local leaders, advocates and enthusiasts who want to develop the bikeable potential of their community.
Who came? Northfield’s workshop attendees included the chief of police, city administrator, Community Development director, 3 Planning Commission members, 1 member of the Northfield YMCA board, 2 City Council members, 1 Environmental Quality Commission member, a long-time bike trail advocate and senior citizen cycling leader, a couple of college staff and faculty, 1 school board member and more bike advocates and enthusiasts. Some of these folks regularly ride in and around town, but others do not (at least not yet); some know City plans and policy intimately, but others do not (at least not yet). In other words, a good mix of people to bike and learn together how to build on Northfield’s strengths.
What did we learn? The 5 E’s, of course, as well as some of the many reasons why bicycles can or should be part of a community like tourism (if Lanesboro and the Root River Trail can bring in $2.2 million annually, what could Northfield capture when the Mill Towns Trail is completed?), jobs (Northfield already has two bike shops and Tandem Bagels), community events (come to Northfield for the July 4th Criterium – to race or to watch; stay for the fireworks!) and benefits from public health to equity to cleaner air. And, we learned that half of all trips are 3 miles or less—a reasonable bicycling distance –which is certainly true in Northfield.
Where did we go? Following some safe cycling training, we took to the road to visit some of the high and low points of Northfield’s cycling infrastructure including crossing MN 3 at 3 different intersections (but, unfortunately, did not take the extra few minutes to visit the site of the recently approved TIGER trail crossing) and the difficult intersection of TH 246 and Jefferson Parkway near 3 of Northfield’s schools.
What will we do next? Focusing on projects or objectives we could accomplish in the next 6-12 months in the 5 E categories, we identified:
Infrastructure/Engineering & Evaluation top projects: (1) Increase/improve signage to direct folks to bike routes, trails, and parking; (2) identify “easy” paint locations (such as painting Water Street as a bike boulevard for an early and obvious change); (3) create an advisory group to the planning commission (a previous non-motorized transportation task force reported to the Park and Recreation Advisory Board), and (4) do bicycle and pedestrian counts.
Education & Enforcement can help build confident cyclists who can manage the infelicitous infrastructure, so we identified (1) Hosting a Train the Trainer “Traffic Safety 101” course in Northfield this summer and recruiting participants for the October LCI training in Rochester to build a critical mass of local bike safety instructors; (2) engaging Community Ed (and the YMCA) to introduce a bike curriculum; (3) engaging business leaders on bikeable workplaces, bike friendly businesses and workplace wellness
Encouragement & Events celebrate success, create interest and build community so we plan to (1) offer bike clinics at existing community events; (2) encouraging bicycle commuting among local businesses (including, I hope, both colleges); (3) increase the number of group rides and adding education/evaluation components to rides; (4) collaborating with community organizations to expand cycling, and (5) producing comprehensive maps of bicycle facilities and recommended routes – both recreational and destination routes – for the community.
If BikeNorthfield and its friends follow through on this list, then the longer term, higher price projects such as improving important intersections, adding bike lanes on higher traffic streets, etc. will have that critical mass of support needed for change. And, for a city the size of Northfield, relatively few major changes are needed to be able to create a really great town for cycling.