Freedom. Choice. Public safety. Balanced budgets. These are widely shared American ideals. Towns, cities, states, and our federal government impact those ideals when making systemic infrastructure choices and around transportation and setting funding, policy, and design standards. With the noise of the mid-term elections behind us, we can look forward to, maybe, getting stuff done at different levels of government over the next few years.
Is your child’s walking or biking route to the school and nearby parks safe? If not, that is the result of those governmental transportation decisions, funding sources, land use and zoning regulations, and design standards upheld by government officials, municipal staff, and the transportation engineering discipline.
In too many places, our streets and street-adjacent public spaces are “Dangerous By Design.” There are reams of articles, research, and examples of safer street designs (both urban and rural) that most communities in the United States have been slow to implement. Those proven interventions have drastically lowered severe and fatal crashes in many developed nations, while sadly, the US experienced a drastic 57% increase in annual pedestrian fatalities from 2009 to 2020. Over the same period, overall US road crash deaths grew by 14.6%. We are failing all road users on safety, and it is not just a pandemic-related phenomenon. The national trend of increasing pedestrian fatalities is also demonstrated locally in Connecticut.
We are collectively less safe on our roads, whether driving or walking, than we were in 2009. Buying ever larger SUVs and pickup trucks is not going to resolve that issue. In fact, the taller unforgiving front ends of those large vehicles are part of the problem, making it much more likely that a struck pedestrian, bicycle rider, or wheelchair user will suffer fatal injuries.
The large vehicles have significantly worse visibility, increasing the likelihood of front-over crashes, turning into pedestrians at crosswalks, and back-over youth fatalities. Front-over and back-over crashes are just a small slice of the increased fatalities, but they are especially tragic. What parent or caregiver wants to be involved in a situation where a child is crushed by that “safer” tall vehicle? Not crushing toddlers is a commonly shared value, I hope. There is a US proposal at the federal level to require a technology solution to reduce front-over crashes, 75% of which are by larger vehicles.
Unlike the United States, the European Union has since 2005 required front end vehicle design that is less dangerous to those outside the vehicle. The EU has moved forward with additional vehicle safety standards (2017) that are way ahead of the United States. We should be able to find some common ground and lessons learned either at the federal or state level of government and moter vehicle regulation that increase safety for all of us, from kids to seniors, whether inside or outside a motor vehicle.
Can cities, towns, and states get beyond division and partisan sniping to come together around goals for improved road safety, all ages walkability, and economically successful communities? Let us look at New Britain, Connecticut and Republican Mayor Erin Stewart. Mayor Stewart was elected in 2013 at age twenty-six. She was the youngest mayor elected in New Britain and also the youngest serving female mayor in the US for a while. Mayor Stewart says she ran for office because, “there was a big disconnect between the level of service that people in our community expected from their government and what they were getting. I thought that I could do a much better job at bridging that gap and be a uniter amongst dividers.”
New Britain is a small city with 73,841 residents in central Connecticut and has a diverse and blue collar demographic. The post-industrial city is challenged with blighted lots and empty manufacturing buildings. The city is challenged structurally on budgeting with around 50% of the city’s property being untaxable.
Under Mayor Stewart the city has seen a surge of downtown development, apartment building, and a visible shift in transportation priorities to bus transit and active transportation. In 2015, the CTfastrak bus rapid transit corridor between New Britain and Hartford started operations, with the dedicated corridor’s hub right next to downtown New Britain. The city chose not to build a new parking garage or surround the hub with a low-value surface lot. Instead, the area is being developed as walkable, transit-oriented development with several new apartment developments filling in prior vacant or surface parking lots.
The transit-oriented development, walkability and road safety, and bike lanes connectivity did not just happen out of thin air. In 2013, the City of New Britain and prior Mayor Tim O’Brien (Democrat, 2011-2013 mayoral term) started preparing for the opportunities of the bus rapid transit line and station with a Complete Streets Masterplan for Downtown. All eight goals of that plan were met within eight years, with the implementation occurring under Republican Mayor Erin Stewart.
In parallel, the city created a a Bicycle Connectivity and Traffic Calming Study (2013) that laid out the citywide goal for a connected bicycle route network. Local bicycle advocates involved with that planning process went on to partner with the city to form Bike New Britain, that operates a community bike shop within sight of the CTfastrak downtown station. Since 2013, with Erin Stewart as Mayor, the city’s Department of Public Works under Director Mark Moriarty, has been striping bike lanes and implementing multiuse trails and safe, connected bicycle routes and traffic calming projects as a matter of course when paving and redesigning streets.
The city has seen downtown development and transit-oriented investment boosted by this planning and investment in multimodal and active transportation. Those investments were recently featured in the Hartford Business Journal, Complete streets: Here’s how streetscapes, bike lanes and sidewalks can spur major economic development. The new in-fill apartments and redevelopment of historic buildings are visually impressive for anyone taking a CTfastrak trip to New Britain and hopping off for a walk around the downtown transit hub.
Beyond sidewalks, bike lanes, and traffic calming projects, New Britain and many other Metro Hartford towns worked with the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG) and transit-oriented development specialists to update their local zoning and parking regulations to better fit with higher density, walkable near station development. These efforts along the CTfastrak corridor and the Springfield-Hartford-New Haven commuter rail corridor have facilitated many walk-to-transit apartments and mixed-use transit-oriented development. You can see many of the involved town plans, zoning recommendations, and station area plans here. New Britain’s first plans (2004) predate the opening of the CTfastrak bus rapid transit corridor starting operation by more than a decade. CRCOG also has a regional Complete Streets Plan and a Quick Build Guide, informing connectivity between cities and towns in the metro region. Useful sidewalks, multi-use paths, and bike lanes do not unexpectedly end at a town line.
Sandy Fry, a West Hartford resident and the Chair of the statewide CT DOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, says:
“I’ve always loved to bicycle and walk. Just as importantly I’ve learned in my career as a bicycle and pedestrian planner that most everyone wants to live in a community that is inviting and comfortable for bicycling and walking. Not only do people want to live in communities like this, but developers find walkable and bikeable communities a good place to invest. Further, development that is mindful of people powered movement and not just vehicle movement can fill in empty blocks and knit communities together.
This is what happened in West Hartford when Blue Back Square transformed an area characterized by auto dealerships and vacant lots into a vibrant mixed-use center with multistory offices, residences, and retail. The redevelopment increased the value of taxable property while also adding a significant town amenity and social destination for residents and visitors.
Investments in bicycle facilities, such as restriping a four lane road to three lanes with bicycle lanes, can be very inexpensive, requiring only restriping. Simple changes like this can enable more people to choose bicycling and walking as a way to get around and can decrease the need for parking.
Any town can achieve a walkable and bike-able community. It takes commitment from leadership and determination to use every project – in-fill development, roadway paving, sidewalk maintenance – as an opportunity to improve walking and biking connections and safety.”–Sandy Fry
Sandy has been working on transit and active transportation in the metro Hartford for years, from her time at the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), to working at the Greater Hartford Transit District, and most recently in her role as the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for the City of Hartford before her retiring in mid-2020. Sandy’s accomplishments while at the City of Hartford include the 2019 City of Hartford Bicycle Master Plan and the 2020 Complete Streets Plan.
Matt Hart, the Executive Director at the Metro Hartford Capitol Region Council of Governments thinks that Central Connecticut is continuing to work together and plan for a more multimodal, safer, and economically bustling future with increased walking, biking, and transit-ridership. Prior to this position at CRCOG, Matt was the Town Manager for Mansfield and then West Hartford, where both towns made significant progress on active transportation projects during his tenure. When I asked Matt about why cities and towns could find common ground on transit, road safety, and active transportation he replied from a regional perspective:
“CRCOG is committed to supporting and encouraging safe street design, transit-oriented development, and improvements to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit systems in communities throughout the Capitol Region. Our recent projects include the completion of a Transit Priority Corridors Study, an on-going Transit-Oriented Development Study, and submission of a Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) discretionary grant application to update our Regional Transportation Safety Plan.
We’re excited about the opportunities presented by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other funding, both for planning and implementation grants. I think we’ll see some significant progress over the next several years as we enhance public transit, expand access to natural resources such as the Connecticut River, build micro-mobility infrastructure across the region, and do other good things. All of this work serves to promote equity, sustainability, economic vitality, and livability for our residents.” –Matt Hart
The best walkable, bike-able, and all-ages enjoyable communities do not sprout fully formed from the minds of professional planners and transportation engineers. Without input from residents, local businesses, transit riders, local leaders, and interested developers, the pieces are unlikely to come together. If your town does not have a bike route and/or complete streets plan, you can spur that discussion by contacting your mayor or city council and point out the many existing plans in the Hartford Metro area.
If you are bummed out by the oceans of surface parking craters in your town center or near a transit station, you can encourage your city or town to change the zoning regulations to reduce or eliminate parking minimums for new developments – a very interesting national trend near transit hubs and in city and town centers. The City of Hartford Zoning Commission under the chair Sara Bronin eliminated parking minimums in the downtown district in 2016 and then citywide in 2017. Since then, several new apartment buildings have gone in with either no new parking (using an agreement with an existing lot or garage) or with significantly less parking than would have been required under the city’s prior parking heavy zoning that resulted in fewer buildings and too many surface lots. The zoning changes have been working as intended, slowly shifting the city towards more walk-to-work and transit-oriented housing, meshing well with the city’s increasingly human-scale and safer street designs. The progress is slower than some would like, including myself, but zoning regulations are a slow acting medicine, only having impact when a building is newly built or heavily renovated.
When local, state, and national leaders are campaigning, it helps to ask them what their plans are for reducing vulnerable user crash fatalities and for making it safer for folks of all ages to walk, bike, and cross the street in your community. Too often politicians are not well versed in the subject, and they fall back to interventions with limited effectiveness, citing the need for awareness campaigns and increased police enforcement. More effective design changes, traffic calming, and other proven safety improvements have not yet made it into the awareness and everyday knowledge of most local and state leaders. That is understandable as they may be new to thinking about and talking about road safety topics. That education of local and state leaders about walkable communities and safer street design starts with good questions from voters.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The chart showing Connecticut’s pedestrian fatalities was updated to reflect two additional years of data over the chart in the original version.