Contributing columnist Anthony Cherolis is bicycling across North America and will be sending us occasional updates on what he’s seeing in other states and cities in terms of better transportation infrastructure and policy. You can follow his journey on Instagram.
Seeing another fatal crash on Hartford’s dangerous New Britain Avenue reminded me that our history of designing Connecticut cities for the throughput of suburban car traffic degrades public safety and neighborhood quality of life. At the same time, that car-centric approach increases urban air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention stressful noise pollution. As I wander cross country on my bicycle, I’m finding other cities have made major investments in cross-city, safe multiuse trails and bicycle routes. Most of these cities would not yet call themselves panaceas for biking or wallking, but the cross-city routes do get well used.
Indianapolis is in the process this Summer of renovating and widening the cross city Monon Trail due to popularity and adjacent infill development. Starting from the booming Broad Ripple neighborhood, I biked on the Monon Trail 22 miles to a second ring suburb. The trail goes right through many neighborhoods, industrial areas, past the state fairgrounds, and Downtown Indy. It is a well-used transportation connection that doubles as a convenient recreation and fitness amenity.
The multiuse trails and bike routes in Hartford and the wider region seem almost intentionally disconnected, orphaned, and patchwork. One can’t ride across the city in any direction on a safe bike route without getting stranded by a dangerous gap or car-centric terrifying intersections.
Cities and regions that have a much higher share of residents biking and walking have constructed cross-city bike route networks, including connections to nearby towns and job centers. Why isn’t that the case in the Hartford region and many other US cities?
To find impressive bicycle commute levels and world class bicycle route networks, one has to look to outside the US. For example, 13% of all trips are made by bicycle in Berlin, Germany. Berlin is targeting 23% of trips by bicycle by 2030 and has committed to a significant expansion of their existing bicycle network.
The City of Hartford does have a comprehensive Bicycle Master Plan, adopted in 2019, and a 2020 Complete Streets Plan. The Bicycle Master Plan shows a connected, cross-city network of safe bike routes. Additionally the City of Hartford set a goal to reach 10% of trips by bicycle in 2035 in the Plan of Conservation and Development. These great plans and goals are for nought without safe routes. Unfortunately, the paving projects that can bring that network into existence are not coherently connected. The funding for traffic signal updates and intersection redesigns are usually not aligned with the repaving projects and bicycle route plans.
Additionally, the CT Department of Transportation has been slow to incorporate walking, biking, and transit system improvements into their state routes in Hartford and the region – including dangerous New Britain Avenue. If anyone has walked or biked near one of CT DOT’s interstate ramps in Hartford, you know immediately that they didn’t design it for safety or convenience for those outside of motor vehicles.
Hartford and the inner ring towns have a very real opportunity with changes in priority at the federal US DOT level, and a great set of bicycle and complete street plans at the city level to close the gaps in the city’s network of bike routes and multiuse trails. One distraction is the state’s love of rural rail trails, sucking up a lot of CT DOT’s funds and bandwidth, but serving very little transportation use. Most of the trips on those rural rail trails are drive-to-bike or drive-to-walk recreation and fitness.
We also need to look hard at big projects putting trails along the riverfront, as those riverfront trails end up flooded for a month or so each year and do not have good connections to housing, jobs, or other destinations. Those recreational trails are are nice, but not a transportation-sector necessity like urban and town center bike routes and traffic calmed streets that are safe for those walking, biking, and getting to bus stops. In the face of a clear climate emergency, we need to prioritize investments that are proven to increase active transportation in cities and town centers. The side effect is increased mobility options for low car-ownership households coupled with reduced air pollution in those communities that have historically experienced concentrated pollution.
Another consideration in City of Hartford is the robust uptake and ridership on the Link e-scooters, including the discounted Linkup rides for low-income residents. These e-scooter riders willl benefit from connected bike routes and multiuse trails, particularly in areas where the sidewalks are too busy with pedestrians for e-scooters and those on foot to share that space – meaning that bike routes need to be connected to and through Downtown Hartford where many e-scooter rides end for those connecting to the region’s bus transit hub on Main Street. With many offices converting to downtown housing, why does the Downtown Hartford transportation network still bend over backward for suburban car trips with excess lanes? Other cities throughout my travels have dedicated one or more of those lanes to a bi-directional cycletrack and some have widened sidewalks to increase room for restaurants, shade trees, and outdoor events.
What can one do? City of Hartford has a recurring Complete Streets Taskforce public meeting, and residents from Hartford and neighboring towns are welcome to attend. One can get onto the BiCi Co. email newsletter list. There are organized bike/walk groups in West Hartford, Rocky Hill, Wethersfield, Glastonbury, Farmington, Bolton, Simsbury, and South Windsor. If there is not a town group to join, there is the statewide Bike Walk Connecticut group and the monthly Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board meeting with the CT DOT. There are many ways to advocate for safe and connected bike routes, along with traffic calming that makes it safer for all road users.
I’ll follow with several example maps from other states. These are all cities that I have recently cycled to and through. The cross-city connections stood out. That said, some of the cities are lacking in safe cycling routes outside the primary cross-city corridor. I think the lesson learned from my trip is that a central cross-city multiuse trail is great, but not enough to allow for most folks in the city to consider biking as a safe and viable way to get around. Safe cycling routes and traffic calming need to be universal as city-wide design principles.