Here’s an interesting fact for you, courtesy of the League of American Bicyclists: There are currently no bicycle friendly communities in Connecticut. Despite the fact that the state’s carbon reduction plan includes bicycles as a mode of transportation, the state doesn’t support it with funding or education. And even if they did, the state would still be lacking in bicycle friendliness. We need more bike paths, bike racks, and pedestrian crosswalks.
Even worse, Connecticut’s bicycle ranking is 44 out of the 50 states. We’re even lowest in New England. For Bicycle Friendly Communities (BFCs), Maine ranks in the top five of all the states coming in at number three. New Hampshire comes in at number eight while Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island are ranked at 19, 21, and 35, respectively.
Two towns are trying to change that statistic: Simsbury and Fairfield. In Simsbury, they have already applied to the League of American Bicyclists to be registered as a BFC. Representatives from the league visited the area last week to assess the community’s ability to become more bicycle friendly.
“It makes sense for Simsbury as we also have ‘Rails to Trails’ here and the East Coast Greenway,” said Paul Mikkelson, an avid cyclist and committee head for Simsbury, as quoted in a December 24, 2009 article in The Simsbury News.
Steven Mitchell is Mikkelson’s partner in getting this movement off the ground. Mitchell said biking with his kids is one of his favorite things to do. He agreed with Mikkelson that Simsbury is in a good position along the East Coast Greenway, a proposed bicycling path connecting new and existing non-traffic areas from Florida to Maine.
As Vice President of Mitchell Auto Group, he said he doesn’t feel his career as a car dealer is a conflict of interest. “Planes, trains, and automobiles. They all have a part,” he said. “We can drive cars when we need to and not have it be a conflict. There’s just too much emphasis on cars and not enough consideration for bicyclists.”
Mitchell has an invested interest in better biker awareness. At age 32, he was hit from behind while out for a ride and went backwards through the car’s windshield. He also has his own web site, Biking Is Cool, which promotes the activity as well as safe routes for kids to school.
But it’s an accident like Mitchell’s that make Fairfield bike riders afraid. With busy streets and crossways along Post Road and Black Rock Turnpike, bikers and pedestrians can sometimes feel like they are taking their lives in their own hands.
A small group of citizens have banded together to lobby for a Bicycle Friendly Community. Fairfield’s First Selectman, Ken Flatto, is considering the options. “Fairfield has been progressing as a clean energy and environmental leader,” said Flatto in a recent e-mail, “and we realize that creating bicycle and pedestrian friendly routes are essential to improving air quality while promoting citizen health.”
Fairfielders hope that Flatto’s remarks are not just lip service. “A lot of people signed [our] petition,” said Alyssa Israel, one of the residents promoting the proposed bike plan. “It remains to be seen what will actually happen, but we’re hoping the plan will go through within the year.”
As a fellow resident of Fairfield and one who lives on a busy street close to the center of town, I can attest to the danger of the traffic. The road I live on runs parallel to Post Road. When I-95 backs up, the excess traffic spills out on to Post Road. And when the traffic gets congested on Post Road, it inevitably spills on to mine.
With small children and pets only blocks away from an elementary school, I shouldn’t see big trucks barreling down my street to avoid a few lights to get back on the highway. If even just 10 per cent of the regular drivers on Post Road could walk or bike to their destination, it would markedly cut down on traffic congestion not to mention carbon emissions.
But, towns like Fairfield and Simsbury are not the only ones working toward bike friendliness. According to an article dated January 2nd in The Norwich Bulletin, Lebanon resurfaced a five-mile portion of the 27-mile Air Line Railroad bed with fresh gravel to be used as a hiking and biking trail.
“It’s wonderful,” said Lebanon First Selectman Joyce Okonuk, as quoted in the article. “The fact that our town will be connected to the other towns gives people a much greater sense of community, and it will encourage them to travel the whole trail without interruption.”
And thanks to a $70,000 grant for the town of East Granby, efforts to rebuild the Salmon Brook Bridge have paid off. The bridge is part of the greater Farmington Valley Trail. As one biker said on TrailLink.com, “The work on the new Salmon Brook Bridge is terrific. The trail is, for the vast majority, very far from any roads and passes some pretty bogs and a large plant nursery.”
A side benefit to connecting these trails is eco-tourism. That concept was not lost on Mitchell. “The most enlightening aspect is the number of people who come to [Simsbury] to stay and use the bike paths,” he said. “You don’t have to go to Vermont. We will attract tourism in the state that people can benefit from.”
Based on statistics from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism, or “nature” tourism, has been on the rise from 20% to 30% per year since the 1990s. Globally, ecotourism is growing three times faster than other forms of tourism. This is good news for areas that are looking to promote their towns and bolster their economy.
It’s now news that there is a clear environmental impact in walking and biking instead of driving a car. But as First Selectman Flatto pointed out, the health factor is just as important. With a rampant obesity rate in this country along with a rise in diseases like diabetes, it is a smart idea for towns to support alternate methods of travel. More than that, it’s a great way to keep families as well as communities together.
“My kids and I always bike together on Father’s Day,” said Mitchell. “Instead of them inside playing video games, we get to see our neighbors.”
One short bike ride for you and the kids, one big trip for the whole community.
Image courtesy of the Farmington Valley Trail Council.