Biking In: Connecticut's Slow Embrace of Commuter Cycling
"Biking for transportation is a socio-economical equalizer."<br><i>Alice Shea</i>
When Alice Shea decided to start biking to work, it wasn’t easy at first. The ride from her house in East Windsor to her job at Travelers Insurance in Hartford was about 17 miles, and at the time, she wasn’t an active cyclist.
Shea thought that taking a local bus line part of the way until she built up her stamina would be the easiest solution. There was only one complication: in 2006, there was no place for Shea to put her bike on the bus.
Shea pressed the Connecticut Department of Transportation to follow through with their commitment to install bike racks on buses in the Hartford area (the Stamford and New Haven systems already had them). By the next spring, public buses in the Hartford system were fitted with racks.
Eight years later, Shea commutes by bike and bus regularly -- and every CT Transit bus in the state can carry up to two bikes at a time.
But Shea doesn’t yet have much company in the way she commutes. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that .3 percent of Connecticut commuters bike to work regularly, slightly below the national average of .6 percent, though Hartford totals .94 percent, and New Haven 2.7 percent. Studies also show there’s a demographic divide in American bike usage: whites and Hispanics bike the most, whites generally for recreation, and Hispanics to get to work. And 76 percent of all bike trips are made by men.
Shea thinks if commuters combine multiple modes of transportation -- transit advocates call this “multi-modalism” -- some of those statistics might change.
“Biking for transportation is a socio-economical equalizer. Because recreational riding, competitive riding, [they're] regulated to people who have the time, the convenience, and who can afford it,” Shea said. “Commuting? You can commute in a t-shirt and shorts, regardless of what your situation in life is.”
Justin Eichenlaub, Yale administrator and bike commuter, said a multi-modal transit system should be focused more on practical use rather than on recreation.
“If I ride to downtown Hartford from my house for a meeting at City Hall, and if I get out of that meeting, and it’s raining, I can jump on a bus with my bike to take it home. That kind of basic, mundane multi-modalism is the key,” Eichenlaub said.
Kelly Kennedy, director of the non-profit Bike Walk Connecticut, said investing in making streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians shouldn’t be viewed as just a recreational add-on.
“It’s not just ‘oh, let’s go for a bike ride after dinner,’” Kennedy said. “You will move a lot more people, a lot more cheaply through bike lanes and sidewalks than you will on one mile of road."
New projects in the state like the CTfastrak busway and its corresponding multi-use trail allow for more suburban middle-class commuters to embrace multi-modalism, but Eichenlaub said a large population of people who already bike regularly are people who simply don’t have cars.
“We often hear that there aren’t any cyclists in Hartford… The underlying implicit thing is that there are not enough white people biking yet, or there’s not enough middle class people taking the bus, so the people who are using it, if they are black or brown or poor, they’re less visible,” Eichenlaub said.
Amanda Roy, a West Hartford resident who uses her bike and public buses to get around, said that while some streets in the Hartford area have bike lanes, she’ll usually still ride on the sidewalk because she feels safer there.
Roy said she didn’t learn the rules of the road until she got in a minor accident with a car when on her bike. She said that even though she now knows that riding on the sidewalk is against regulations in some local ordinances, she feels safer there than in the road.
“I know now, but it doesn’t matter,” Roy said. “I’m not going to ride in the road on certain streets because it’s just not safe.”
Educating pre-existing bike commuters is one of the goals of Craig Frederick’s cycling exhibit at the New Britain Downtown District Visitors Center.
"You would think that the bikes would go away in the winter. Those of us who live here see bikes right in the middle of snowstorms."<br><i>Craig Frederick</i>
Frederick is an artist and a professor at Central Connecticut State University. One of the reasons he organized the exhibit, visible to passing pedestrians through a large window display, was to spread bicycle safety education to people who might not have regular access to the Internet or newspapers.
“When it comes to educating a community that is embracing biking, sometimes it’s hard to get the word out that you bike on the right side of the street with traffic instead of on the sidewalk,” Frederick said. “This is an initiative that makes it possible getting that information out.”
And Frederick said New Britain is a city that embraces biking year-round.
“You would think that the bikes would go away in the winter. Those of us who live here see bikes right in the middle of snowstorms,” Frederick said.
New Britain is one of several towns in the state embracing a “complete streets” initiative, directing state and federal grants toward widening sidewalks and adding bike lanes to their streets downtown.
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s five-year transportation initiative proposes $101 million in funding for statewide bike system improvements, part of a 30-year, $100 billion proposed state transportation overhaul.
Kelly Kennedy said that funding will help build a stronger biking system in Connecticut, as will recent state legislation updating bike safety and bikeway rules. But she said the most challenging and crucial part of encouraging commuter cycling is changing the culture locally.
“A lot of these things don’t require laws, maybe don’t require money at all. It's just adopting a different mindset and saying ‘hey, active transportation is a really cheap, healthy way of getting around, so let’s do it,’” Kennedy said.
The newly passed bike legislation will reform old, automobile-centric laws that restricted the creation of two-way bikeways and limited bikers from shifting into traffic lanes when the conditions were safer there than by the curb. It now awaits Malloy's signature.
This article is part of a series on commuting in Connecticut.