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ANTHONY CHEROLIS

Too often Connecticut forgets that there are lives lived without cars and SUVs, but the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) remembers.

To make sure that those walking, biking, and using transit were kept safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, NACTO quickly put together a best practices Rapid Response Toolkit.

I would like to celebrate the adoption of half those recommended changes in Hartford; not bad for a city that has been operating for years on austerity budgets.

Advocates and residents worked with the City of Hartford’s Department of Public Works to get more of the city’s crosswalks switched over to an automatic setting, such that pedestrians did not have to touch the beg button to call a walk signal.

To date, Hartford’s DPW has modified seven intersections across the city and has requested that the CT DOT modify signals on Albany Avenue, State Route 44. Signs were just installed at modified intersections reminding pedestrians that they no longer need to touch the button. This change both reduces touch points and virus transmission risks and increases safety for those walking.

With almost a third of Hartford households not owning a car, it is important that CTtransit quickly implemented rear-door boarding, waived farebox use, and recommended that bus transit be reserved for essential trips only, while we get the surge of COVID-19 cases under control. The buses and Hartford Line rail cars are also getting additional cleanings. Essential workers, including bus drivers, aren’t just heroes for keeping our state functioning, they’re also contributing less to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. We should keep that in mind as we plan transportation investments going forward.

The State of Connecticut’s team that defined essential businesses deserves kudos for following the lead of other states in listing bike shops as essential businesses. With many no longer riding transit, bicycles have become increasingly important for mobility in the state’s low car ownership cities: Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Waterbury. Hartford’s BiCi Co. Community Bike Shop modified operations to reduce COVID transmission, including moving the spring BIKELIFE youth and teen bike safety courses online. BiCi Co.‘s upcycled bicycle sales, bike repair services, and Bikes for Jobs program have been keeping residents safely mobile, while also physically distant. Many have turned to bicycles and the state’s parks and multi-use trails for physical fitness, family outings, and a mental break from being cooped up at home.

In the realm of pedestrian safety, the City of Hartford will be re-installing bright centerline yield signs at uncontrolled crosswalks across the city. Uncontrolled crosswalks have neither a stop sign nor a light for the crossing traffic. These signs were first put out in the fall of 2018. The number of crosswalks with signs will be increased in 2020. The signs make a significant difference in how likely a driver is to yield, as legally required, to a pedestrian in the crosswalk. 

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To discourage gatherings, the city has made changes for vehicles accessing the parks. These changes are fluid and may change, but here are several modifications that were observed on Thursday afternoon:

• Pope Park’s entry gate to the parking lot was closed and locked. This parking lot had been a repeated site of gatherings of those cruising and riding off road vehicles for several weeks.
• One gate at the Colt Park Warwarme Avenue entrance was closed, but the other entrance on Wethersfield Avenue remained open. Colt Park had experienced a cruise-in type gathering the past Sunday afternoon.
• At Keney Park, the gate at the Main Street entrance was closed at one point in the afternoon, but then open later. The remaining Keney Park entrances appeared to be open, and the golf course was still operating.
• No changes have been observed at Elizabeth Park, although some residents would like to see the through park road closed to vehicle traffic during the times when walking and biking traffic is busiest to provide more space for those outside of cars to maintain physical distance.

These changes are similar to what other cities have implemented, and it will be interesting to see how they evolve and which changes stay on after the crisis.

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There are currently two COVID-19 testing sites in Hartford. Initially it was unclear, but it has been confirmed, that both Hartford Hospital and St. Francis can take walk-up patients. This unfortunately has not been widely publicized. As of publication, there are no satellite testing stations or options in Hartford’s other low-car ownership neighborhoods.

News agencies, hospitals, and our elected leaders need to get better at communicating what testing options exist for those without cars. Organizers of mobile food pantry events and the like should also heed this advice. If the event location is only accessible and advertised to car drivers, it is potentially leaving out a third of Hartford’s families.

Don’t worry, the city didn’t forget about cars. Early in the crisis, Hartford Parking Authority set up special pickup zones to accommodate the spike in food delivery from local restaurants.

The Parking Authority in conjunction with the City of Hartford then went further, opening up school parking lots and waiving parking meter fees. The Parking Authority will not be booting cars, towing, or applying late penalties on tickets during the crisis, though they will continue to ticket and tow for safety issues like blocking fire hydrants, so car drivers still need to demonstrate some level of parking awareness.

In the past, bus transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks were too often overlooked as critical components of the region’s transportation system. The City of Hartford has done an admirable job responding to those zero-car household needs during this crisis.

Beyond the crisis, and looking to the future, the City is keeping up that momentum.

The Development Office hosted their first online Complete Streets Task Force web meeting in April and spent most of the meeting reviewing a draft of the city’s first Complete Streets Plan. The Reimagining Main Street project is moving forward with online public meetings, and the city wrapped up the final public input sessions in March for the Hartford 2035 Plan with web meetings. That plan is aiming for a total buildout of the city’s Bicycle Master Plan and 10% of work trips to be taken by bicycle by year 2035. Now, that is a city to look forward to as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Anthony Cherolis is a former aerospace engineer, BiCi Co. founder, a Hartford resident, and the Transport Hartford Coordinator at the Center for Latino Progress. He also writes at All Famous Together

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.