Bicycle Thoughts in Deep Winter

The winter of 2012 was a wonderful aberration. In most of New England it was the “winter without a winter”. While some people remember the lack of skiing, skating, ice fishing, or snow plowing, my memories involve bicycles. Not the lack of bicycles, but the amazing gift of a winter bicycling season. Unseasonably warm temps meant that I was taking rides around town in January, and not covering every inch of exposed skin against frostbite-inducing winds.

This winter, not so much. It has been business as usual with heavy snows, cold arctic-born winds, and our favorite form of frosty excitement: Wintry Mix! If it is, say, 37F and raining, and maybe some ice, sleet, snow, or other unknown matter is along for the ride, you’ve got Wintry Mix. Actually it is formal slang for “crappiest of winter weather” and can mean anything from a foot of ice nuggets to rain showers onto frozen ground at 19F… black ice machine weather. As a result there has been less time for riding and more time for thinking about riding.

Bike Curious

On top of that I have been following the progress of CT Fastrak, the project previously known as the New Britain Busway. It has many of the markings of a successful transit diversification project. As a pure transit service concept, this particular project is a loser. It provides one mode, rubber-tire buses on a closed roadway, in an effort to provide a service that nobody asked for. At least not that we know of. I have been around Connecticut long enough, and New Britain specifically, to know that it is possible that *many* people in New Britain are big fans but don’t have a voice or don’t feel comfortable in the current discussion.

There is a silver lining for some of us, tarnished as it may be: the southern half of the Fastrak project includes a 5 mile bike/pedestrian path. That solves a problem for me by eliminating one of the worst sections of my bike-to-work route. As usual, it creates another problem by dumping me in a residential area with zero bike infrastructure. That is where I would have been anyhow, but the idea is that the bike route ends near absolutely nothing. If there is nothing but the chance to ride on the shoulder of the road and battle it out with the texting and driving crowd, it can very easily turn into a kevorkian-esque piece of social machinery.

One thing I would like to find is a commitment to development that leverages the Fastrak project. If you are a struggling city you could do worse than have your own transit corridor to jobs and commerce. Location of residential or commercial development with good access to the Fastrak system would seem to be a given. To me, that is the identifying trait of successful transit development. The city needs to buy in for it to be a success. This could mean residential development in the South End or on the East Side, with solid tie-in to Fastrak.

I need to see more about mayor Tim O’Brien’s planning vision before resolving that question. I think he is doing a solid job as mayor, so maybe I need to look harder. In fact, I will. To hear the anti-busway voices, providing transit from New Britain to Hartford, Connecticut is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy. And of course, if that drives the dialogue, they could be right.

Bike Friendly

I recently had the very good fortune to attend a few events where the new direction of the Connecticut DOT has been touted, and even illustrated. The Bike Walk Connecticut membership dinner was a last minute thing, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Bike geek stuff is usually a hit with me. On top of that I was able to see Dan Esty, the Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP, where I am employed), speak on the topic of transit infrastructure and how great bicycles are! I have seen the same thing as part of my job, but seeing it “in the wild” was good for some perspective. Dan Esty was an infotational and positive as always. That is a compliment.

As well, there is a 600lb gorilla in most of the high-level communication about bike transit. I appreciate the enthusiasm, no doubt, but most of these presentations miss the fact that those bicycles are ridden on roads with zero bike-safety structure. You might get some painted lines, maybe even a “sharrow” or two. Might. probably not.

Bike Agnostic

Being bike-friendly at the destination is about showers and bike storage. We have had that at DEEP headquarters for a while now thanks to a few people who saw opportunity and bingo! Bike Racks! I had the good fortune to attend an awards event where a Deputy Connecticut DOT Commissioner awarded a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Business award to DEEP because of the agency’s bike-friendly policies and basic infrastructure (Bike Racks!). The DOT showed up with a great slide show on the bicycle infrastructure improvements in Connecticut. I am looking for a link to that content. It is a good example of how priorities at the top effect the actions of the agency.

One of the projects he brought up was Fastrak. I took the opportunity to ask, after the meeting broke up, “why didn’t we get the last 5 miles of bike trail on Fastrak?” Apparently the right of way was too narrow to accommodate more bike lane. I nodded and all, but I have a hard time believing it. I believe the answer, but I wonder what the prospect for the entire project is with the half measures and lack of continuity. As another attendee said “If they needed the space for cars, they would get it”.

I am happy to have a 5 mile section of bike path, so it is a net positive for me [less likely to be run down by a driver hitting 65mph on Cedar Street]. But, it would be many times more useful if Fastrak extended into Hartford. The right of way issues should be a spur in the replacement infrastructure department, but it seems to be off the radar. The challenge now will be to upgrade the roadways that extend from the ends of the bike path, giving them wider shoulders and better sightlines, and allowing more of the surrounding population to reach the trail by bike, and end up in bikeable distance to their destination. That is how you link a community to a job source, and consumers to stores, without tying them to the car as a solution..

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