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.
When your state or local government is not getting it done, there are some things we can just do ourselves, or with friends and neighbors, to make a difference. These projects are called tactical urbanism or Do-It-Yourself (DIY) fixes – also known as “just effing do it” or #JFDI. Beyond cities and urban areas, the DIY concept applies in suburban towns and rural areas, too. You should know that sometimes local government might get upset if you do something in a public space without a permit and forms in triplicate, but in my experience smart little projects with community support fly under the radar or get quietly accepted. Sometimes the #JFDI projects even embarrass a government department or laggard agency into finally taking action themselves.
Artist Tao LaBossiere lives in Art Space next to Union Station and the busy on/off ramps for I-84. He has personally struggled with and seen others braving the unsafe, long crosswalk across Asylum Avenue. When City of Hartford shut down Farmington Avenue and a portion of Asylum Avenue for the June 26 DomingGo Hartford open streets event, he saw an opportunity to improve public safety while building community connections. Tao brought out spare paint and supplies and engaged community members and visitors to paint bright colorful blocks between the white bars of the crosswalk. The art-enhanced crosswalk visually “pops” and helps drivers entering and leaving the interstate remember that they are in a place where humans walk, bike, take the bus, and yes, cross the street.
Folks were into it, grabbing brushes and rollers even after they understood it was not a city-sanctioned improvement. Now that crosswalk is more visible, more fun, and a bit safer for those near his home and the region’s rail and intrastate bus hub. Nice!
Bus transit is Hartford’s next biggest share of how folks get around aside from cars. Too often the city’s bus stops are little more than a sign on a pole, without a bench, without a trash can, and with no shelter from the elements. Before I left on my wandering bike tour, I reached out to my neighbor Donna Swarr and local artist (and bike mechanic) Dwight Teal. We teamed up to install a bench for the bus stop on Wethersfield Avenue near the C-Town grocery.
Transit buses are fare-free in Connecticut through the end of November 2022, including express buses.
Donna split the cost of the bench and paint with me, I built the bench from a kit and painted the base colors, Dwight painted the sunflowers, and we installed it with soil anchors that Donna had researched and purchased. Since it was installed, the bench has been appreciated by bus riders, youth and parents waiting for the school bus, and others just looking to sit in the shade next to Colt Park. Benches at busy bus stops are common in other cities. Why not Hartford? In the meantime, you can put a chair or bench out there yourself.
The Hartford South Green neighborhood I lived in was a clear example of a community where it was hard to find city trash cans. We ended up with a lot of trash on the sidewalk, in yards, and gathering in the gutter. Community cleanups were not the only solution, as we were doing those already. Our neighborhood needed more city trash cans. One location was the previously mentioned Wethersfield Avenue bus stop. A city can that had been damaged was removed years before but never replaced. We could not figure out the right form or request to get a replacement at that bus stop, and we knew it was needed based on the litter in the area, the nearby grocery store, school bus pickup/dropoff, and being right next to a busy city park.
Rather than put in another fruitless request, I cut the top off of a free 55-gallon plastic barrel and put that where the city can had once been, with a rope to the fence to keep it from blowing away on windy days. The bright blue trash can was used immediately by bus riders and those walking by. The City of Hartford trash crew emptied it weekly into the garbage truck like a city trash can. Then, a month later a standard city can arrived and the janky blue upcycled barrel was gone. I also got a phone call from the city asking what other locations in the South Green neighborhood needed City of Hartford cans, and we soon had five more trash cans in the area. Embarrassment is an important and powerful tool. #JFDI
Anyone who has gardened knows that at certain points in the season you will have an overload of zucchini, cucumbers, radishes, or tomatoes. At the Hudson Street Knox community garden, we put those veggies freely out into the community with a milk crate zip tied to the garden fence, clearly labeled. Common veggies were the most popular and were gone within an hour of going into the bin. Folks in the adjacent senior housing apartments were quick to see veggies and snap them up. A plastic sun shade, also secured with zip ties, kept the veggies from drying out too quickly. I used a spare milk crate for the basket and a white painted political sign for the sun shade.
A new section of multiuse trail in East Hartford was built in the corridor next to I-84. I noticed that the trail bollards to keep out cars did not have reflectors. Both of the bollards were located where the view was partly blocked by vegetation or a turn in the trail. The bollards were a crash risk for an early morning or evening rider. CT DOT said that the trail was only designed for daytime use, as if second shift and restaurant workers did not have reason to use the safer trail for getting home. The shortsighted CT DOT design also ignores short days in the winter when a 9 a.m.-5 p.m. worker is going to be bicycling home in the dark.
It was an easy #JFDI fix with a package of reflective tape from the local auto parts store, costing just $3 per bollard. I have noticed these DIY fixes (added reflective tape, not by the local DOT or town engineer) on trail bollards across Connecticut and the wider United States on my wandering bike tour. Many folks know they can and should just do these little improvements on their own rather than waiting on a slow-moving, car-centric transportation agency to understand bicycle route safety details.
The City of Hartford has a visionary, citywide Bicycle Master Plan, but one of the issues is that folks still park their cars in the bike lanes, causing bike riders to swerve out into the traffic lane unexpectedly. No parking signs on the side of the road are the city’s typical approach, but they are often ignored. A regular citizen or community member can get a “No Parking” stencil, some spray paint, and amplify that message on the pavement in the bike lane. That is what we did on Wethersfield Avenue, in addition to reminding Hartford Parking Authority to give warnings and start writing tickets.
The stenciled “no parking” messages were not 100% effective, but they certainly helped communicate the intent of the bike lane. Safety Note – When you (and friends) are in the street doing any sort of marking it is important to wear reflective vests, use blinking lights, and put some cones out, just like one would see at a construction site. Do not make yourself a crash statistic while implementing a DIY safety improvement.
Donna noticed that the concrete planters used for traffic calming in the new installation on Wethersfield Avenue were not getting renewed plantings after the first season so she put in seasonal plants, flowers, and bulbs to beautify the street and draw positive attention to the center islands that now keep cars from racing down the center turning lane. She also waters and trims plants in the center islands, keeping them looking lush when there is not enough rain. The full traffic calming installation was put in by the city in 2021, but Donna’s efforts show how a resident can contribute in other little ways to show how much they appreciate the safer street design and traffic calming.
These are just a few light and simple examples of DIY and #JFDI community fixes. Not all community and neighborhood fixes are physical changes. One can pick up litter on their walk to work, or organize a Saturday neighborhood cleanup. There are many little ways to improve one’s local area that do not require going to a City Council meeting, but instead connects you with immediate neighbors and the shared experiences within your network of friends.
I hope you are inspired to try some of these, look for other examples, and come up with your own. It feels good to make a positive change no matter how small, especially when walking or biking past each day and seeing it put to use by others. And whatever you do, be safe!