Bikes: DOT Still Doesn’t Get It

The governor promises a new Department of Transportation, one that's worried about more than cars and obstacles to cars.

Published November 20, 2007 by Courant.com
By Rick Green

The governor promises a new Department of Transportation, one that's worried about more than cars and obstacles to cars.

If so, a decision to leave the Putnam Bridge as a cars-only thoroughfare over the Connecticut River seems pretty odd.

Bicyclists east of the river, looking for an easier way to cross the Connecticut, had been pushing DOT Commissioner Ralph J. Carpenter to add a bike lane when a major renovation project begins next year. A department spokesman told me the other day that engineers feel adding bikes to the bridge is not a "feasible option."

Which means cars remain the only option.

I know most people drive, most of the time alone. I know Gov. Rell has promised to spend billions of dollars on mass transit. And OK, we're not Seattle or San Francisco, but when are we going to start to actually do things differently?

Right now, bureaucrats — and all but a few municipalities — are pretty much ignoring the bicycle, like it's a vegan diet or hemp clothing.

"They are just not grasping what people want," state Rep. Thomas J. Kehoe told a meeting of cyclists organized by the Capitol Region Council of Governments one recent evening in Hartford.

Aside from some impressive achievements, like the canal trail in the Farmington Valley, many roads remain unfriendly to bicycles. Hartford has been adding bike lanes, but we're still waiting for long-promised racks throughout the city. At West Hartford's trendy Blue Back Square praised by smart growth advocates it's nearly impossible to find a place to lock a bicycle.

Kehoe and others told me cyclists and walkers are trying to build a movement that will promote bike riding and walking in the Hartford area.

"It means getting around on your own action — walking, biking or combining walking and biking," said Sandy Fry, principal transportation planner with the council. "This could really transform our community."

That's the story in Portland, Ore., where the city has added bike paths, retrofitted bridges and seen a huge jump in the number of bicycle commuters.

"The message is that we are trying to include everybody. We are trying to give everybody legitimate choices about how to get around town," said Roger Geller, a bicycle coordinator with the city of Portland and a West Hartford native. "If you are not doing it on a bridge, you are telling people that bikes are not welcome."

More than 5 percent of the Portland population now uses a bike as primary transportation. Around here, it's less than 0.02 percent.

"It's one of those things [that] if you build it, they will come. A decade ago there were about 4,000 people a day crossing four bridges over the Willamette River. We are up to 15,000 now," said Karl Rohde of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland. "There are exponential growth patterns when you put bike lanes on bridges."

That's only if you are open to this sort of thinking, of course. DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick emphasized to me that among the 1.6 million commuters in the Hartford area, about 80 percent are driving in cars, alone.

"We do everything we can to accommodate the bicycling community with the infrastructure we have," he said.

"We can't ignore the realities of today."

The reality of today is also oil approaching $100 a barrel and roads jammed with people driving alone in cars.

"We have now gotten to the point where more [auto] lanes aren't the answer. The car isn't the answer," Kehoe said, when I called him back. "It really is just political will. Why would you ever want to redo a major bridge and not accommodate pedestrians and cyclists?"

Why? Because the people in charge still don't get it.

Rick Green's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at rgreen@courant.com.