In a four-wheel world, bicyclists want more of the road

By Rachael Scarborough King
Sept. 14, 2008

Many roads are narrow and old. The drivers have a reputation for aggression. And then there’s the weather.

While Connecticut has traditionally lagged behind other areas of the country in encouraging cycling — a national group recently ranked it 42nd out of the 50 states for “bicycle friendliness” — some local towns are hoping to improve conditions for cyclists.

Proponents say that, despite some adverse conditions, the compact geographical layout of Greater New Haven offers many commuters the option to bike to work or school.

Old Saybrook recently formed a committee to study bicycle transportation in the town. The committee’s goal is to “improve conditions for bicyclists and to promote bicycling as a means of transportation,” according to the selectmen’s office.

Committee Chairwoman Kathy Connolly said it will study “dangers and opportunities,” suggest possible safety improvements and look for ways to facilitate biking in town.

“Saybrook is an interesting town for a bicyclist in that it looks like it should be really easy to bicycle here — relatively safe, certainly very flat — however, the roads just really aren’t taken care of in a way that acknowledges bicycles as sort of full participants in the traffic process,” Connolly said.

For example, she noted, many roads have shoulders that vary in width, meaning that a bicyclist may suddenly run out of pavement and be forced into car traffic. One of the committee’s efforts will be to encourage town planners and the Board of Selectmen to add safety features like bike lanes or wide shoulders to all roads when they are repaired or repaved.

During a family road trip this summer, Connolly visited several cities known for their bike-friendly roads and policies, including Madison, Wis., Portland, Ore., Seattle, and Davis, Calif. She noted that cities on the West Coast often have a leg up because their roads are newer and incorporate up-to-date features.

A recent national study from the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., put Connecticut 42nd in ranking bike-friendly states, behind all other Northeast states. Washington ranked first on the list, while West Virginia came in last.

“It’s sort of like you think ‘bike’ at every level along the way, from the width of the travel lanes, to laws about when you can pull out and where you can’t pull out, to where they put special tunnels to take cyclists over or under heavy traffic zones, to signage, to regulations,” Connolly said.

The committee is having its first organizational meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Old Saybrook Town Hall.

David Streever, a board member with New Haven bicyclist group Elm City Cycling, said the organization works to educate drivers and bicyclists about how to share the road safely. He noted that the city police department has created a traffic safety hotline for residents to call in concerns about driving behavior they have seen.

“I think geographically it’s an ideal city — it’s flat, it’s very small, everything’s pretty close together,” Streever said. “In terms of driver attitude and the ways that people behave on the road, we definitely have a long ways to go right now.”

During the summer and continuing until Nov. 27, Elm City Cycling has hosted a bike to work breakfast on the second Friday of every month. The event includes free breakfast in front of City Hall in New Haven as well as information about bike commuting. Streever said the breakfast has drawn as many as 150 people.

“I do think that there’s a public perception that it’s very dangerous here,” he said. “My first year living in New Haven, I definitely felt like I was in danger almost constantly (when) biking. After learning, though, where to bike, how to bike, how much of the roadway to be taking up, how to signal properly and how to communicate with the drivers, my perception of the danger dropped dramatically.”

Elm City Cycling is working with the city’s Transportation Department to improve safety conditions for cyclists. New Haven has one bike lane on Orange Street, and city buses feature bike racks on the front, but Streever said that the city could benefit from having a full-time employee focused on bicycle infrastructure and related issues.

State officials are also hoping to improve cycling conditions in Connecticut. As part of an update to the Statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, officials are holding a series of public meetings next month, including one Oct. 6 at 5:30 p.m. at the New Haven Free Public Library.

Connolly, the chairwoman of the Old Saybrook commission, said a number of factors are contributing to a greater interest in cycling. She bikes to work at least once a week and said she tries to replace an additional five car trips every week with bike rides.

“We just keep trying to improve things for bicyclists and the basic idea, of course, is to acknowledge that with gas prices high and probably getting higher, more people might want to ride their bikes and also to acknowledge that it’s basically good for people to be able to get that kind of exercise,” she said. “It’s good for a healthy community.”

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