Safety of Mill Towns Trail’s bike lanes questioned


In Wednesday’s Northfield News, there’s a letter to the editor titled Mill Towns bike route isn’t safe from Andrea and Gary Iseminger questioning the safety of the bike lanes for the Mill Towns State Trail as it passes through Northfield.

Do they have a valid argument? I’m not sure. See their letter below.

Mill Towns bike route isn’t safe

To the editor:

Residents should be alarmed by the dangers to cyclists and drivers of the Mill Towns State Trail, approved by both the Friends of the Trail and the city of Northfield. Bicycle lanes are already on the pavement on East Fourth Street from Union to Prairie. Although the route claims to be based on the Minnesota Bicycle Transportation Planning and Design Guidelines, these guidelines set five feet as the minimum width for bicycle trails; lanes marked on Fourth Street are barely half of the recommend width. The city council resolution that established these lanes acknowledges the inadequacy of their width: “The bicycle route design guidelines note that ‘experienced’ cyclists will be comfortable with this facility whereas ‘average’ cyclists are less likely to use the facility.”

On the contrary, we believe that “average” cyclists are indeed likely to use the lanes and will find themselves uncomfortable and seriously at risk. Minnesota guidelines state that routes should be designed for the average cyclists. The Bicycle Federation of America estimates that “fewer than 5 percent of riders qualify as experienced.” Consider this in the context of the Mill Towns website, “We believe the Trail will deliver 100,000 riders a summer to downtown, mostly on weekends.”

The Northfield Public Works Department advised residents that an earlier plan for the trail was changed “in order to avoid routing bicycles behind parked cars on Fourth between Washington and Division.” Surely the same risk to safety exists for all of the current route.

East Fourth Street is a main route carrying heavy traffic, often at excessive speed, from Division Street out of town to the east. Those who have traveled on other trails for recreational cycling in the Minnesota system will attest that many of the riders are parents accompanied by young children on bicycles or by babies being pulled in trailers behind bikes. All parking on Fourth for residents and guests is concentrated on the south side. Residents backing out of their driveways will have difficulty seeing cyclists approaching behind the cars and will not see the smaller vehicles for children. The same is true for all vehicles trying to cross Fourth Street from the south at any point; drivers will have difficulty seeing approaching riders and will have restricted passage through the lanes of cyclists, expected to be several thousand each day on summer weekends.

Beyond Fourth Street into town, there are no separate lanes for riders of the Mill Towns State Trail. Cyclists and vehicles must travel together without bike lanes from Fourth and Union across Division to the Fifth Street bridge, with “Share the Road” signs posted, one per block. Does anyone think that this will create safe passage through the congestion of downtown?

We wonder why the Friends of the Mill Towns State Trail and the city council of Northfield have approved this route under any circumstances, especially when there are alternative routes that are less invasive to the city and its historic district on the East Side.

Andrea and Gary Iseminger, Northfield


  1. Griff Wigley said:

    And more criticism of the trail’s route through town:

    We must find a better Mill Towns Trail route

    Guest Columnist

    My wife and I love to bicycle. We cycle more than we walk or drive. We are quite happy to imagine a bike trail running by Northfield. Our problem – everyone’s problem – is the route now proposed for the Mill Towns State Trail.

    As planned, it would cut through the center of town; run the length of East Fourth Street, bisecting the East Side neighborhood; plunge down Wall Street Road; jog north across Spring Creek; continue through Carleton’s Arboretum; and cross Highway 19. You don’t have to live along the route or cherish the Upper Arb to see this plan as ill-advised.

    Safety: Anyone who has traveled a State Trail knows how it feels to bike along unimpeded. You are on a dedicated thoroughfare, with a continuous right-of-way. Do we really think that bikers coming into town will suddenly yield to cross traffic at Division, Washington, Union, College, Winona, Nevada, Maple, Elm, Oak and Prairie? Will they even stop at our stop signs? But if not, how will motorists, or children, or parents with strollers, or elderly walkers, or local cyclists safely cross the “trail” during periods of heavy bike traffic?

    Road Use: Ask any expert – city traffic and trail traffic do not mix. Look at the other towns along the Mill Towns route. In every case but ours, the existing trail goes around not through the center of town and bypasses residential streets. Planners have understood that a “multi-use state trail” is not the same as a “bike path.” By contrast, Northfield drivers would be expected to share 12 city blocks with trail users! This is a frightening recipe for accident and injury.

    Amenities: One trail proponent said recently: “It’s important to sell the trail as an amenity to locals, some of whom will resent all of the visitors invading their ‘backyard’ when the trail is completed.”

    What amenity should we “locals” anticipate? The plan includes a trailhead by Walgreen’s parking lot. Visiting bikers may park their cars there, find toilets, and so on. Nothing prevents them from using Central Park or the Arboretum or the swimming pool as their trailhead. Where would you prefer to park, or to picnic?

    Numbers: This same advocate advised: “Think carefully about how the trail goes through town; thousands of people will be coming.” The Mill Towns State Trail Board has projected the total number of bikers passing through Northfield at 100,000 per summer, “mostly on weekends.” Allowing for rainy periods, this works out to about 4,000 visitors on every pleasant weekend day. But let’s assume that these numbers are grossly inflated. How would you respond to just 2,000 visitors per day? 1,000?

    The Arboretum: State rules require the asphalt “trail” through the Arb to be at least 10 feet wide. Set-back regulations would place this new road well in from the existing roads, gobbling up even more territory. A wide new bridge would need to be built across Spring Creek and an overpass constructed at the crossing of Route 19. Many trees would have to be sacrificed – most regrettably from the area by the creek and from the handsome small woods opposite the cemetery. Doubtless the tranquility of the Arb in summer would be sacrificed as well.

    Reading this, you may wonder how a route with such obvious faults ever got off the drawing board. State trail enthusiasts, after all, are intelligent folks; many are our friends. This flawed plan was neither their first choice nor their second. They adopted it only after several less dangerous, less disruptive routes were blocked. If any other route were found to be viable, I believe they would embrace it.

    The enthusiasts dream of a continuous trail from Mankato to Red Wing, a multi-use route for “hiking, biking, and snowmobiling or skiing.” They have worked for years to achieve this dream; we can’t expect them to abandon it. We can, however, ask them to appreciate the harm that bike tourism on this scale would do to a formerly peaceful, formerly safe neighborhood. Tourists of any stripe are “just passing through.” But this is where we live. Let us work together to develop a better plan. We cannot accept the present one.

    So far, the only people fully involved in the trail’s planning have been its advocates. So far, the state, the city, and Carleton have heard only one account of the matter – an account that has been partial in both senses of the word. It is time for the rest of us to speak out; to resist the potential damage to our safety and quality of life; to insist on a less invasive route. When the first child is injured by a cyclist, or the first cyclist is struck by a car, it will be too late.

    April 2, 2007
  2. John Thomas said:

    After church today, our family rode by Central Park, and took 4th street home.

    I must say, I am MUCH more comfortable on fifth street.

    The bike path on 4th is very narrow, and feels like it is only about the width of my handlebars. If I look over my shoulder, I come out of the lane.

    It would be so much better if the bikelane was a barrier, and the parking lane was the bikepath, thus eliminating parking on 4th.

    This whole thing was not a very good implementation, especially for families.


    April 22, 2007
  3. Griff Wigley said:

    Good to have more observations, John. I wish the trail folks would keep their website updated with communications about this controversy.

    April 23, 2007
  4. Cynthia M. Child said:

    Tourists of any stripe are “just passing through.” But this is where we live.

    Sounds a lot like “not in my backyard” to me.

    “We can, however, ask them to appreciate the harm that bike tourism on this scale would do to a formerly peaceful, formerly safe neighborhood. “

    Never thought about the danger of bicyclist gangs. I suppose it is better that we all just ride our cars around and create more carbon monoxide.

    May 11, 2007
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    Cynthia (and others): the conversation on this issue is now happening is this more recent topic so join us there. I’m flipping the comment switch to ‘off’ here.

    May 12, 2007

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