What do cars and trucks on the road have to do with climate change, public health, and economic injustice? It turns out, a lot.

Motor vehicles carrying only one or two passengers are generally the most inefficient and polluting mode of ground transportation because so much fuel is burned per passenger mile. But cars are embedded deep in American culture, and our government leaders have been slow to consider the damage done when forming public policy. Our streets have been constructed, especially in the last 70 years, as if everyone drives a car, and that imposes burdens on everyone who does not drive, roughly one-third of the population. Connecticut’s environmental and bicycle-pedestrian advocates are making the case for more active transportation to address climate change, degraded public health, economic injustice, and traffic congestion.

Active transportation means getting from place to place by human power – walking, bicycling, wheelchair, and even skateboard. For some, active transportation is a necessity because they cannot afford a car, or because they do not drive due to age or disability. Others prefer to get their exercise on their commute, perhaps because it is the only block of time available for a workout in a busy day. Whatever the reason, active transportation has the virtue of not burning fossil fuels and not polluting the air. We would realize many benefits, including financial ones, if fewer people relied on motor vehicles and more often walked or rode a bicycle. We would be healthier, our air would be cleaner, our society would be more equitable, our highways would be less congested, and we would waste less space on parking craters (AKA parking lots).

In many European cities and towns, the streets are used heavily by those on foot and riding bicycles because they were built for safe and convenient active transportation.  Spaces are tight for parking, and the culture supports bicycle travel and walking in many ways. Looking at Connecticut metro areas and towns, one notices that many commercial and residential developments include no sidewalks and few crosswalks, not to mention largely absent bike lanes, as if 100% of the public would be driving. It is no wonder that so few Connecticut residents walk or bicycle.  Transportation decisions are largely based on perception of safety, and we have not designed with safety for those walking and biking as a priority.

Those days are changing, and they need to change faster. We need to build trails, bike lanes, and shared-lane, traffic-calmed bike routes, and not just in suburban and rural areas. Most importantly we must build those facilities through cities and town centers, reaching shops, medical services, places of residence, employment, and connections to rail and bus transportation.

The good news is that Connecticut has a fair number of multi-use trails for bicycling and walking that would encourage more active transportation if only the gaps were filled.  For example, the Central Connecticut Loop Trail was identified by the Connecticut General Assembly in 2019 as a partially completed 111-mile circular route in the center of the state. As shown in the map it would provide safe routes between communities such as Cheshire, Simsbury, Hartford, East Hartford, Willimantic, Middletown, and Meriden, passing the CTrail stations in both Hartford and Meriden. From those stations, one can hop on a train with one’s bike and travel to New Haven or Springfield.

The funding to fill the gaps in the Loop Trail would be a tiny fraction of what we spend on transportation (perhaps $30 million over 5 years, or .24% of CTDOT’s 2019-2023 capital budget of $12.1 billion). As it is, all our spending on even wider interstates encourages more dependence on motor vehicles and spurs additional, car-centric sprawl. The induced demand from the increasing sprawl then clogs the wider highways and we are back to traffic jams and gridlock – and even more polluting emissions.

The Loop Trail includes sections of existing, long, heavily used multi-use trails such as the Air Line Trail, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, the Charter Oak Greenway, and Hop River Trail. These trails are part of the two hundred miles of the East Coast Greenway in Connecticut, a 3,000-mile trail from Key West, FL to Calais, ME.

The Jonah Center for Earth and Art based in Middletown/Portland, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, and Transport Hartford Academy are promoting the Central CT Loop Trail and asking Governor Lamont and state legislators to fund, design, and construct new sections to close the gaps. These gaps are in East Hampton, Portland, Middletown, and Meriden; between Simsbury and Hartford; and in East Hartford, between the Founder’s Bridge and the Charter Oak Greenway. Additional spurs, neighborhood sidewalks, and bike lanes connecting to the loop trail would enable bicycle commuting from residential areas to places of work, shopping, entertainment, and medical services.

Anyone who wishes to help promote active transportation and the Central CT Loop Trail should contact John Hall at Jhall@thejonahcenter.orgMore info here on the Loop Trail, from a presentation at the Nov. 23, 2020, Northeast Multimodal and Transit Summit.

By completing these trails we can encourage more active transportation, offer more routes for recreational cyclists, and provide options to people who are health-minded and wish to reduce their carbon footprint.

John Hall is the founder and Executive Director of the Jonah Center for Earth and Art based in Middletown and Portland. Since 2004, the Jonah Center has been mobilizing the local community to build access to local waterways, improve streets for bicyclists and pedestrians, address climate change, reduce pollution from lawn chemicals, stop commercial trade of snapping turtles, preserve open space, and replace the trees that are dying all over Connecticut. He can be reached by email.

John Hall’s op-ed above was recommended for publication by the Transport Hartford Academy at the Center for Latino Progress as part of a follow-up series of articles on transportation issues discussed at the 2020 Multimodal and Transit Summit, and underwritten by the Academy.

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