Connecticut Makes Progress as a Bicycle-Friendly State, But There's a Long Way to Go

The good news for folks wanting to make Connecticut a better place to ride a bike and walk is that — after decades spinning our wheels — this state is finally making a bit of progress, according to a top official of the League of American Bicyclists.

"Some things are going in the right direction," says Bill Nesper, the LAB's vice president of programs.

That's one of the points Nesper plans to make at a statewide "Summit on Creating Bike-Friendly, Walk-Friendly Places" scheduled for Saturday at Yale University.

The other side of the coin is that Connecticut still has a long way to go to catch up to places like Washington state, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Those three locales top the League's 2012 Bicycle Friendly States rankings, while Connecticut is sitting down at the mid-range 20th spot.

Only two towns (Simsbury and South Windsor) in this state have achieved the LAB's "Bike Friendly Communities" list. Only four state businesses, including two private companies (REI West Hartford and Whitcraft LLC in Eastford), the CT Mental Health Center (a partnership between the state and Yale University) and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, have achieved bike-friendly business status. And the only bike-friendly university on the league's listing for last year was Yale.

For comparison, take a look at Michigan, which sits just above Connecticut at No. 19 in the LAB's state rankings for 2012. It has eight bike-friendly communities, 11 bike-friendly businesses, and four bike-friendly universities.

Nesper says one reason that so few Connecticut communities, businesses and schools have made the league's awards list is that not very many appear interested. "Part of the reason … is that only a small number of communities in Connecticut have applied," he explains.

"It's completely an opt-in program," Nesper says. Those who want to become known as "bike friendly" need to be motivated enough to fill out the free, online application. And, he adds, they have to actually do stuff to encourage bikers: "It's not a gimme."

Connecticut's DEEP, for example, has done things like put bike racks in garages, have showers for employees to use after riding to work, allowing workers to attend bike safety and repair classes, and sponsoring "Bike To Work" days.

There are signs that people and institutions in Connecticut are getting revved up to make this a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly state.

"Connecticut is now 20th [on the LAB listing], up from being in the 40s just a few years ago," Nesper points out.

The state now has a fill-time bicycle-pedestrian coordinator at the state Department of Transportation. We have a statewide organization (Bike Walk Connecticut, which is sponsoring Saturday's summit at Yale) dedicated to making Connecticut a better place for walkers and bikers. We've recently passed new laws to require drivers to give bikers at least three feet of space while passing, and increased penalties for accidents that injure vulnerable users (read walkers, bikers and highway workers) of the roads.

Last year, for the first time in anyone's memory, the DOT put a dangerous stretch of a state highway on a "road diet" by drastically narrowing the travel lanes to protect bikers and pedestrians. That section of Rt. 44 (Burnside Avenue) in East Hartford had seen three fatal bike accidents in less than two years.

Nesper says the LAB's intent with its "Bike Friendly America" program is to "provide a roadmap" to help communities and businesses become nicer places to walk and ride. Everyone who applies, whether they get an award or not, will get feedback on what they need to do better and what's worked in other places.

Connecticut and other states are facing nasty fiscal problems right now, Nesper admits, but he insists that doesn't mean states and municipalities need to cut back on pro-bicycling and pro-pedestrian projects and concepts.

"I think [budget deficit problems] have forced communities in a lot of places to become more creative in the way they invest their money," Nesper says.

Even in these lean fiscal times, there is federal funding available for bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly projects and Nesper argues that kind of money can often be more productive than old-style highway grants.

According to Nesper, new studies have shown that money spent on bike-friendly projects "creates more jobs than traditional road projects." That's because more of the money tends to be spent on salaries than on highway materials, he points out.

Creating bike-walk-friendly communities is also a proven way to attract the sort of young, talented people cities and towns want as residents, according to Nesper.

That's what the Bike-Friendly, Walk-Friendly summit in New Haven is all about. The event will include sessions on how to apply for bike-friendly status from the LAB, engineering streets to make them safer and more comfortable for walkers and bikers, and advice on applying for funding for those sorts of projects.

Saturday's summit will run from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Yale's Linsly-Chittenden Hall, 63 High St., New Haven. Preregistration is required, and registration fees up to $45 per person will be charged. For more information and registration, go online at bikewalkct.org and sign up.

 

ghladky@hartfordadvocate.com

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