A couple of parklets/street patios on the horizon, too

    It’s quite possible that a few years from now, downtown Crookston’s main two traffic arteries, Main and Broadway, will be home to two lanes of traffic as opposed to the current three lanes of traffic. In the world of civil engineering and architecture, the amount of traffic that typically travels on a road, the number of lanes that traffic has available to utilize, and the possibility of reducing the number of lanes is known as a “road diet.”

    But, City Administrator Shannon Stassen noted at Saturday’s Crookston City Council strategic planning retreat at the Crookston Inn & Convention Center, when the words “road diet” made their way into a headline a while back in regard to Main and Broadway and the number of lanes they may or may not have at some point in the future, some people, most notably downtown business owners, kind of freaked out.

    “There were strong reactions and erroneous thoughts,” Stassen said. “It was, we’re going to take away all the parking, we’re going to take away business, but it’s exactly the opposite. This is pro-business. We would only do this because it enhances businesses.”

    That’s because, the thinking is and the research apparently shows, when you reduce the number of traffic lanes in a downtown setting, it makes it possible to make the area more friendly to and safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and anyone else who might find themselves downtown but not behind the wheel of a vehicle, and it also slows down the people who happen to be behind the wheel, and in doing so they’re more apt to notice what downtown businesses and services have to offer.

    Instead of “road diet,” the words used more frequently during Saturday’s discussion between Stassen, council members and Downtown Crookston Development Partnership Board members were “traffic calming.” Reducing Main and Broadway from three lanes to two would be a “traffic calming” measure that would bring with it numerous benefits, Stassen and DCDP members said.

    So at some point over the next two or three years, things seem to be tracking toward downtown Crookston being home to a Minnesota Department of Transportation “demonstration project.” For a reasonable amount of money, temporary measures would be put in place to reduce the number of traffic lanes on Main and Broadway from three to two, just to give everyone a feel for what it would be like if the reduction was ever made permanent.

    “It’s not abrupt,” Stassen explained. “You’d put in measures to show what could happen, then see it how it goes and what kind of feedback you get.”

    Stassen said the effect would likely be similar to what transpires on stretches of Main and Broadway downtown during Crazy Days in July, when there are vendors on the curbside and barricades narrowing the roadways so merchants can bring some of their inventory outside for shoppers to browse through.

    “If you think about Crazy Days, people automatically slow down,” he said.

    The demonstration project could consist of things like pylons, painted markings and other indicators that make it clear the streets are home to two lanes of traffic and not three. Tim Denney of Bike Crookston said the community of Bagley along U.S. Highway 2 east of Crookston this summer will be embarking on a similar MnDOT demonstration project to reduce traffic lanes going through their downtown.

    Related to the traffic-calming push is a DCDP initiative involving the addition of two “parklets,” one on Main and one on Broadway. Also called “street patios,” they are portable places that could be moved by a front-end loader or forklift, and when they’re in place they give people a chance to have a seat, chat and otherwise spend time downtown.

    “It’s not necessarily about making downtown better for biking, it’s about ‘pedestrianizing’ downtown and giving it more of a community feel, and as a result you have a more viable downtown and a more viable community over the long haul,” Denney explained. “When it comes to millennials and post-millennials we’re trying to attract, the research is pretty clear: They’re looking for communities with viable downtowns that are walkable and bikable. These people see a point in the future where cars are a secondary mode of transportation.”

    While much of the traffic-calming data involves larger metropolitan downtowns, Denney said the feedback from Bagley’s demonstration project will be especially vital, and he added that he’s currently working with MnDOT to gather traffic-calming data from cities home to less than 15,000 people. Council member Bobby Baird said he can’t help but wonder if Crookston’s traffic-calming efforts would have less of a positive impact because of the bypasses built that help so many motorists avoid downtown altogether.

    Denney added that the research findings he’s looked into so far almost across the board show that traffic-calming efforts in downtown settings show an almost immediate boost to economic activity. “They’re called ‘complete streets’ and they give equal preference to vehicles, bikes and pedestrians,” he explained. “You make it easy for bikers and pedestrians to access the same physical parts of the community that cars do, and in doing so you increase the number of people willing to stop and do business. If you’re in the middle lane right now, you’re sort of stuck.”

    Stassen stressed the MnDOT demonstration project in Crookston is likely at least a couple years off. “We can’t talk to 8,000 people at once, so a demonstration project would allow people to see it and experience it,” he said. “The research shows that people are going to go where the infrastructure is inviting.”

    DCDP Board member Dan Svedarsky, UMC’s director for sustainability, said much of making a downtown vital involves people being able to interact with each other. That’s more apt to happen if people encounter each other when they’re not driving a vehicle, which might elicit a wave at the most. “It’s the intangible of building community just by setting the stage for these little interactions,” he said.

    Council member Jake Fee acknowledged he’s “not a big fan” of talk that involves reducing traffic lanes downtown, but he’s OK with a demonstration project at least providing an opportunity to see what it might be like. “If we’re going to do it, we need to do it right,” Fee said. “I don’t want to get into something we can’t get out of.”