There are times when I have to ask why we are even having this discussion. One of these times was last week, as Simsbury held a public hearing to allow residents to weigh in on whether bicycles belong on sidewalks. The ordinance banning bicycles from sidewalks in town was passed in 1990 and those caught violating it can be fined. News coverage of this took the embellished controversy at face value, framing the issue as keeping cyclists safe at the risk of endangering pedestrians, particularly those with hearing loss or mobility issues.
The reporting ignored the underlying issue: once again, pedestrians and cyclists are pitted against one another to fight over scraps, while the fiscally irresponsible status quo of car-centrism is allowed to continue. If it’s not that, then how else can we explain the way that Americans routinely ignore physics? Being hit by an automobile poses a far greater risk than being hit by a bicycle, yet somehow in 2022, when the rise in pedestrian fatalities has received national attention, we are fretting over the myth of the scofflaw cyclist.
The only notable detail about the fuss in Simsbury is that the town has been recognized by the League of American Bicyclists as a silver-level Bicycle Friendly Community. Our progress is positively glacial when the safety of cyclists is up for debate in a place allegedly friendly to those pedaling through.
How many cyclists have caused serious injury or death to pedestrians on Connecticut’s sidewalks this year? Do a Google search on that and see what you find.
Since the beginning of 2022, however, motorists in this state killed 68 people who were walking or biking, and according to the Connecticut Crash Data Repository, over 1,200 collisions between motorists and pedestrians/cyclists have resulted in injuries. Those harmed in these crashes have almost exclusively been those outside of the motor vehicle.
Why are we looking at non-issues – people almost but not actually hit by cyclists – when the obvious threat to both pedestrians and cyclists is that of the poorly designed road where neither group’s safety has been prioritized?
The sidewalks along Route 10 in Simsbury are not especially wide. Instead of suggesting anyone ride on this state road as is, the obvious solution is to either increase the width of the sidewalks so that both pedestrians and cyclists are separated from dangerous road users and able to comfortably co-exist in the same space, or to build barrier-protected bike lanes on Route 10.
There are other places in town that could use attention, but this road was mentioned as a concern by those in the public hearing, as it should be. When a serious crash involving a pedestrian occurs, what the street looks like can be envisioned with almost 100% accuracy before it is reported: an arterial with a lack of bump-outs, few marked crosswalks with pedestrian lights, long waits for those lights, multiple lanes, and overly wide lanes – all ingredients for encouraging motorists to travel at speeds that are unreasonable and unsafe in areas with stores and other amenities to which people want to walk or bike.
When the fatal crash involves a cyclist, the scenario is even simpler to imagine: a roadway where there are no barrier-protected bike lanes. That looks like Route 10, and unfortunately, like most other state roads.
Automobiles are an expensive lifestyle choice any way you look at it, from the debt they create for many owners to the toll on the environment to the increasing amount of pedestrian fatalities. Undoing some of the human and climate costs means spending money, but are Connecticut’s municipalities showing commitment to this cause?
The town of Simsbury has not yet applied for construction funds from the Safe Streets and Roads for All federal program. Neither has West Hartford, which just experienced what was at least its fourth pedestrian collision in its town center this year. The most recent happened on Saturday afternoon – a sunny day with clear skies – near the public library. Current reports are that the victim sustained serious, non-life threatening injuries, though the road was closed for hours and a crash reconstruction team – typically called in for fatal or near-fatal collisions – was on the scene. In June, a pedestrian was killed about a tenth of a mile north of there.
There are other ways to pay for the infrastructure that prevents people from losing their loved ones or needlessly suffering serious injuries, but it’s hard to ignore that some towns chose to not apply for grants that would fund traffic calming, safe routes to school, separated bicycle lanes, and more. That is a conversation we should be having in public hearings: what is our government doing to keep us all safer? Show us the receipts.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) program has two stages – an opportunity to join the planning cohort either as an individual town or as part of a larger group, in this area it is the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG). The second stage is to apply for implementation funds for the redesign and construction of safer roads. Several towns joined the planning cohort through CRCOG and also applied for implementation funds by the September 2022 deadline. West Hartford joined the planning cohort through CRCOG, according to West Hartford Town Manager Rick Ledwith, but opted not to wait until 2023 to apply for implementation funds. This op-ed has been changed to reflect West Hartford’s status under the SS4A.