“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:
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.
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.
The new design
The new street design looks like this:
And here’s the (annotated) design drawing:
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:
So does the 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.