CT Sustainable Streets Forum Fosters Ideas for Safety, Growth

Jim Travers of the City of New Haven spoke about plans for a bike share | Photo: TSTC

Every new M8 rail car for Metro-North in Connecticut will eventually accommodate bicycles, and the City of New Haven is in early discussions to launch a bike sharing system. These are just two signs that state agencies and local municipalities in Connecticut continue to move toward a more multimodal transportation system. Many more were discussed at yesterday’s “Sustainable Streets” forum in Bridgeport, which was sponsored by Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the One Region Funders’ Group, the Fairfield County Community Foundation, and the City of Bridgeport.

The event, held at Housatonic Community College, was attended by an audience of over 70, composed of local officials, school principals, police, advocates, private engineers, and planners. The range of interests of the attendees showed the broad-based support for more complete streets in the state.

Bike-Ready M8s and Connecticut’s Trail Network

During the forum, ConnDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker promised that every M8 car will include bike accommodation by the time the final car is delivered, through changes to the original design and retrofits to cars that are already in service. He claimed that New York had balked at the cost of retrofitting the cars, but that “we’ll cover 100% of the costs [of the bicycle accommodation] if we have to. We’re happy to do so.” (Connecticut typically pays for 65% of the cost of New Haven Line improvements, with the MTA covering the remaining 35%).

Redeker also said ConnDOT wanted to take on more responsibility for completing the state’s trail network. He said the agency hoped to complete the East Coast Greenway through Connecticut, and fill other gaps in trails such as the Farmington Canal Trail and Charter Oak Greenway. He also reiterated the department’s commitment to helping municipalities complete their sidewalk systems.

High-Impact, Low-Cost Roadway Improvements

While Redeker did not touch much upon the broader need for an on-street cycling and pedestrian network, representatives from municipalities picked up the slack. In a keynote address, New York City Department of Transportation Policy Director Jon Orcutt showed slide after slide of low-cost, quickly implemented interventions that the city has used to create public space and improve traffic safety. Until Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was hired in 2007, Orcutt said, New York’s street network “hadn’t really been changed since Eisenhower.” But as the city has reversed its population losses of the 1970s and continued to grow, it’s become critical that the city make changes to stay globally competitive.

Bridgeport Sustainability Director Ted Grabarz linked his city’s complete streets efforts to broader goals like stormwater absorption and climate change. Under Mayor Finch, he said, the city was committed to retrofitting major thoroughfares like Park and Lincoln Avenues with safety improvements and water management tools like trees and bioswales. Grabarz highlighted the city’s BGreen 2020 plan, which includes recommendations for enhancing mobility through increased cycling, walking, and transit infrastructure. He also provided an overview of the city’s existing and proposed cycling network and discussed how Bridgeport is using complete streets to help existing businesses, like Sikorsky Aircraft, and attract new ones.

Community Involvement in New Haven and Norwalk

New Haven Director of Transportation, Traffic, and Parking Jim Travers said that his city was seeking funding for a public bike-share system and was in “preliminary talks” with Yale University, hospitals, and other major employers about such a system. He also pointed to the city’s “Street Smarts” education campaign and low-cost successes, such as countdown pedestrian signals and the enclosed bike facility at Union Station. “We put in one 20-bike bike rack, and it filled up. People were locking bikes to other bikes. So we put in another 20-bike bike rack, and that filled up. We put in another bike rack. That filled up. … Now the [enclosed facility] is about 80 percent full, and already at capacity on some days.”

Norwalk Public Works Director Hal Alford said that in a time when local governments are increasingly stretched, harnessing community enthusiasm for safety improvements was crucial. For much of its street tree planting, Norwalk relies on volunteer “tree liaisons” from the city’s dozens of neighborhood associations to determine where trees should be placed and assist in their maintenance. Similarly, outreach to neighborhood associations is critical for complete streets improvements, especially as the city begins to implement the Transportation Management Plan that is currently being finalized.

But even with all the progress, there’s still a long way to go. Speaking about how the state can build upon its complete streets law, Tom Harned, Vice Chair of the state Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, said ConnDOT should use its funding to help drive local change by giving priority to towns that have implemented local complete streets policies. A similar policy exists in New Jersey, where towns that are designated Transit Villages (i.e. have committed to development around major transit stations) receive technical assistance and are given priority for state Local Aid funds.

Tri-State plans to release a digital tool that documents the lessons learned during the forum. Stay tuned to Mobilizing the Region for details.

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