“Are you sure that road is for 2-way traffic?”

“Are you sure that road is for 2-way traffic?” asked KYMN News about the new and improved Division Street in Northfield. Social media commenters asked whether it was wide enough for school buses, how two trucks could pass, and where are the bike lanes among other questions.

Yes indeed, Division Street remains 2-way (as City staff hastened to confirm on KYMN), but it is narrower than it used to be and some of the new features make it look especially narrow. But let’s unpack the first impressions to see that it really is wide enough for 2-way traffic, is wonderful for walking, and does not change the bike situation a great deal (which is not perfect).

The old design

The reconstruction project includes Division Street between 6th and 8th Streets, then 7th Street between Washington and Water (currently underway). On Division, the pre-project streetscape looked like this:

photo of Division St South View

Northfield’s Division Street looking south

South of 6th Street, things spread out. Econofoods (now officially Family Fare Supermarket) is the only building on its block  and set back behind a large parking lot with few trees, little landscaping and no benches. Buildings on the other side are closer to the sidewalk, but there are only two of them interspersed with another surface parking lot. There is street parking, but less of it because of driveways and less used because there are fewer things to walk to, and so there are also fewer people walking and rolling and the cars start moving faster.

528 Division St S Google Maps

Division Street looking north from 6th Street

The downtown development pattern begins heading north from 6th Street. Buildings come right up to the sidewalk with small storefronts, frequent doorways, and large windows; the sidewalks are busy with people are walking (whether from their cars or walking into downtown) to businesses in a space with trees, signs, banners, flowers, bike racks, and benches. Cars move slowly to be able watch for all the walking and rolling people and allow access to the parallel and angled parking.

Even with the slow traffic, however, it’s difficult for people walking to see and be seen by cars without inching out into the street to see around parked cars.

photo of UPS truck blocking view from crosswalk

Is there anything coming?

The new design

The new street design looks like this:

Img 5949

The new Division Street looking north


And here’s the (annotated) design drawing:

3 Approved Concept Division Seventh Street


The new design builds safer, more pleasant walking and rolling into the street network by:

  • Extending curbs to slow vehicle traffic and shorten crossing distances
  • Raising the intersection at Division and 7th to prioritize walkers and rollers (this intersection links the senior condos at Village on the Cannon and Millstream Commons assisted living facility west of Water Street to downtown)
  • Different materials for parking areas and driving lanes to visually narrow the street
  • Trees and other landscaping to add shade, storm water management, and additional visual cues to slow down.

By slowing traffic and adding features to assist more vulnerable users the new street helps extend the walkable downtown street pattern another two blocks south and makes it even safer to cross the street. People, rather than cars, are centered.

Compare the experiences

Visual cues are critical. Compare Woodley Street which was reconstructed in 2015. Woodley Street has 2 11′ driving lanes:

Img 5967

Northfield’s Woodley Street


So does the new Division Street:

Fullsizeoutput 168f

More of Northfield’s new Division Street

Division feels slower, doesn’t it? The different colored pavement and curb extensions make it look and feel skinnier even with the same width driving lanes.

When Woodley was reconstructed, the street was widened in some places to a uniform 44′ curb to curb width, trees were removed (some ash trees, some in the path of the construction), sidewalk was added on both sides, and parking lanes were kept on both sides of the street. Small curb extensions were added at selected intersections to help walkers and rollers cross the street. The overall look is a very wide street with wide open sky above and the 30 mph speed limit is difficult to observe without carefully watching the speedometer because there are no design cues to slow people down.

But what about the bikes?

Local riders have complained the street is too narrow and there are no bike lanes. They’re mostly right.

The narrowness extends the downtown pattern another two blocks and this makes these two blocks just as problematic for bikes as Division Street from 2nd to 6th. For experienced riders, the slower traffic and heightened driver awareness should make this area marginally better. But for other riders (new, less confident, kids, seniors and any other people on bikes who are uncomfortable taking the full lane), the angled parking and door zone on the narrower street are scary and uninviting. A sharrow or two might be a small signal that bikes belong, but sharrows are just signs on the street.

There are two messages here.

First, the new street prioritizes people walking and rolling in bold and new-to-Northfield ways. This is good.

Second, there’s more we could do. The lack of bike lanes – or the lack of space for bike lanes – hints at how Northfield (and most other places) allocate space in the public right of way. Parking was a very big deal in this project with local business owners and residents concerned about each parking space removed. If Northfield had chosen to limit parking on these blocks, there would have been plenty of space for high quality bike lanes.

The problem is not that there is not enough space, but that the political climate is not (yet) favorable for allocating that space differently. This project designs people into the streetscape more than any other street project Northfield has built recently, but the focus is on helping people walk, not improving the bicycling.

So, drive slower, walk happily and safely, and consider the cost of free parking to other road users.

A version of this post appeared on Small Town, Big Picture.

15 thoughts on ““Are you sure that road is for 2-way traffic?”

  1. Brian

    How would paid parking improve the biking? If they put a meter at each parking space to charge for parking there still wouldn’t be space for a bike lane.

    1. Betsey BuckheitBetsey Buckheit Post author

      I did not mean to imply that adding payment for parking would change the space allocation, but that the insistence on parking (and in Northfield there are no longer any parking meters so it’s all free) and resistance to removing spaces constrained design choices.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Was the issue that the businesses insisted they had to have parking right in front of their door, or that if the spaces were removed there wouldn’t be enough public parking in the area in general, or both.

  2. Scott

    Great article. I appreciate such critiques of road projects because it is helpful to have examples of what works and what doesn’t. I’m very impressed that Northfield designed and constructed this project in way that prioritizes walkers.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Lovely post here. Next time I am in Northfield I will be looking to see how this changes things. It reminds me of the bump outs that are being installed on Grand Avenue as I write this…

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I’ve always wondered why Northfield has insisted on angle parking on Division St. As a pedestrian, I’ve felt invisible at a few corners (as you note, others feel the same way). Why didn’t they just go to regular old parallel parking? That would have provided more space for sidewalks, sidewalk amenities, and possibly even narrow bike lanes. As it stands, Division’s sidewalks can get rather congested at certain choke points.

    Though I am glad to see that the parking bays, if built for angle parking, are built to accommodate eventual re-striping to back-in-angle parking. I’d like to see Northfield and other places move towards back-in-angle parking, since it’s much safer for people exiting parking spaces in a crowded urban environment such as Downtown Northfield.

    Thanks for the write up on this street redesign!

    1. Monte Castleman

      1) You can fit more cars on a given length of street

      2) A large number of people don’t know how to parallel park so they don’t want to limit the people that can park downtown.

  5. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post Betsey. Probably no surprise to anyone is that my first thought is what would Dutch, Dane, Swede or Finnish traffic engineers do?

    First, lots of good elements of safer European design here. Visually narrowing streets like this is a key and proven element in their design of safer streets in Europe as is tabling/raising the junctions and making sidewalks a consistent material and color across driveways. Good to see these being used.

    Overall, I think EU engineers would either have single direction protected bikeways on either side (between the walkway and parking) or make this a bicycle street where bicycle riders have absolute priority. I’m not aware of anything in their toolboxes between these.

    To maintain the highest level of accessibility and parking for automobiles they would do the protected bikeways. This would loose about 30% of the parking, require narrower driving lanes (about 9′ vs the 11′ above) but also create a much safer and more pleasant and desirable shopping atmosphere. I believe they also will limit un-signalized crossings to about 18′ (5.5m) though will occasionally go up to 19.5′ (6m). Crossings of more than 18′, like the 22-26′ here, usually require a full traffic signal (and no right-on-red and no permissive lefts) as they are considered unsafe otherwise.

    A bicycle street by their standards must have at least a 2:1 ratio of bicycle riders to drivers (though rarely will they do one resulting in less than 3:1) which would be difficult here. However, perhaps a psuedo bicycle street might be more palatable to retailers and allow more people to ride bicycles than otherwise?

    Before I’d guess this street would have been useable by about 1-2% of people – the less than 1% Strong & Fearless and a few of the Enthused & Confident? With the new design perhaps 4%? Which is a good improvement.

    What if we could make streets like this in the future useable by 10% of people? How can we reduce and slow motor traffic enough to accomplish that? The raised/tabled junctions and visual narrowing cues help get us to 4%. Chicanes are a favorite of traffic engineers elsewhere, can some bit of chicane be added? A key element in creating safe bicycle streets is in providing other routes for through motor traffic so that only those going to a destination on a specific block will drive on the bicycle street. Is there something to be done with this to encourage through motor traffic to use alternate routes?

    1. Brian

      Nine foot lanes would mean no buses, trucks, or other vehicles that are 8 1/2 feet wide. These vehicles are actually wider than 8 1/2 feet when mirrors are included. Two of them opposite of each other would almost certainly hit.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Other countries do 9′ lanes routinely and I believe their buses are the same widths as ours. All large vehicle drivers must drive much more cautiously and pay closer attention though. I believe their mirrors don’t stick out as far as ours do and it’s not extremely unusual to see drivers reach out to pull their mirrors in when they’re passing. I think the reality is that such double-wide encounters do not happen that often and I’d guess the drivers, particularly regular bus drivers, are good at waiting in wider spots for opposing large vehicles.

        On the plus side, much safer streets that are more enticing for walking and fewer deaths and injuries.

        1. Brian

          I own a coach bus. It is at, or over, 9 feet wide with mirrors and I can’t just reach out and fold them in as you suggest. US rules permit vehicles to be 8-1/2 feet wide and mirrors are not counted in the 8-1/2 feet.

          The reality is I would probably never drive my coach bus on a road with only nine foot lanes, but transit buses and delivery vehicles may have no choice.

  6. Rosa

    the different colored pavement really does make a difference in driver behavior. We were just on Minnehaha Ave in South Minneapolis tonight and it reminded me of this post because drivers are so much more respectful of the bike lane than they were before the latest updates – a few years ago it was really scary to cross the street at dusk because drivers routinely used the bike lane as a passing lane, and I hardly ever see that anymore.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Alas, I often commute that way and see drivers use it as the passing lane all the time. But maybe the look first? Because I agree it’s much better, to the point that I go out of my way a bit to get there.

  7. Andrew Evans

    Old Europe is worse!
    Here are a few fun addresses to look up on street view.

    This is a one way street that opens up into a large confusing traffic circle – 6 Rue Fontaine de la ville Nice, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

    Here is a two way street, with some parking at spots, going through town. There is a larger bus if you street view going up Avenue de Roquefavour – 2 Cours Charles Galland La Fare-les-Oliviers, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

  8. Paul L Nelson

    Very nicely written. I like Northfiled and when I had friends that lived there I would bike or take a bus to visit. The first time I visited Northfiled I was immediately impressed by all of the preserved 1800s architecture and buildings. And in various places there were landscape designs that were noticeable and beautifying; trees planted in a straight line in a park or field.

    Looking at the photos of Division, i am wondering if there were parallel peaking on both sides of the street, that there might be room for protected bike lanes on both sides of the street. Hard measurements would be needed to know.

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