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Op-Ed: A Plea for Safer Streets in West Hartford

Jim Head and his children, Maggie (8) and Jamie (5) excited for another e-bike trip. Courtesy photo

A West Hartford resident shares his thoughts on traveling via e-bike and road safety.

By Jim Head

All people deserve safety, even if we’re in the minority.

I have lived in West Hartford since 2005. I don’t have generational wealth or family name recognizable to anyone on the street. I spend a lot of time on the streets here, going to school drop-offs and pick-ups, parks and shops, and I need to travel through town to get to work. I do this now primarily on an electric cargo bike.

How did I make this incredibly selfish decision to risk mine and my kids’ lives day in and day out on a public allegedly shared space?

In 2020, there was a pandemic. People stopped driving places. Roads were empty. My employer was early to urge people to return to the office and my children needed a way to return to school/pre-K. I was looking for solutions to assist my family, as previously I took the bus and all weekday kid-related transportation fell on my wife. I met Kate Rozen on Twitter – a Mom pushing for e-bike rebates, infrastructure bills, road safety, environmental justice, and had to ask: What’s an e-bike? Is it safe? Should I get one? The answers changed my life.

So in 2020 I got a RadWagon electric cargo bike, caboose, two child seats, and rearview handlebar mirror – everything to make commuting as safe as possible for me and the kids.

They loved it, either chanting “DOUBLE DROP-OFF” on the mornings I did the full circuit from Wolcott to Whiting Lane and then to work, spotting flowers and yelling “I say DAFFO you say DILL,” pointing out “mystery cars” (cars with car covers parked in driveways), or going on various weekend adventures visiting the parks, shops, and places West Hartford and Hartford had to offer.

Since 2020, a lot has changed. Cars have come back. Pedestrian (and cyclist – are cyclists pedestrians? This is an existential thought I frequently re-visit) injuries and fatalities are on the rise. Driving has worsened. Congestion has increased.

After some close calls in 2021 and experiencing the failures of current infrastructure design, I started attending West Hartford Pedestrian and Bicycle Commission (WHPBC) meetings. From my experiences and interactions, I get the impression the Town of West Hartford wants to be seen as a cycling-friendly community. I don’t know who or what is driving this but it makes for a feel-good story and really sells on the town website.

What I hear from real people in town is different …

“Yeah, I bicycle, but not on the roads.”

“Drivers around here are CRAZY.”

“The streets aren’t safe for my kids to bike on.”

“I would bike-commute to the school I teach at but the Trout Brook trail ends too early.”

“Why do I have to drive to the reservoir or Trout Brook trail to then walk and bike? Why can’t I get to these places safely without my car?”

So many people I’ve encountered had the same brilliant idea – how about a multi-use protected path from the Boulevard intersection to the reservoir on the north side of the road? Farmington Avenue is “State Route 4” once you get beyond the Stop & Shop and Valvoline on the west side of town. This means the Town doesn’t have control(?) over decisions to improve this section. There’s a “wide shoulder” on the north side of the road heading toward the reservoir, which is reportedly “much better than it used to be.” There’s also a secret path through a gate hidden in the Sunset Farms development for those lucky enough to know about it and those daring enough to trespass.

These conversations go in circles. Change is painfully slow … until … last year, several people died from simply pedestrian’ing. How did the Town of West Hartford respond? Reaching out to the existing WHPBC and working to improve how the existing commission and town work together?  No – by forming a brand new task force to focus specifically on Vision Zero, the idea that we could get to a place where there are zero serious road injuries or fatalities per year in town by the year 2033. It got a jump start brainstorming completely from scratch and talking in circles when it came to what exactly they could do with a non-existent budget or appetite for upsetting the apple cart.

And I get it – there are a lot of angry people in West Hartford. Angry people who own cars and are resistant to change. They grew up with unsafe streets so why would anyone expect anything better? The vehicles are already purchased. No one bikes in town so why cater to a population of less than 1% of daily usage?

I’ll give my reasons in no particular order:

  1. A lot of people won’t walk or bike or even cross the street to catch the bus until the streets are safer. They need some level of commitment (I don’t know how much, sorry) before even attempting non-car transportation. This means more people in cars. This means more congestion, more parking issues, more potentially deadly or life-changing crashes, more emissions and worse air quality, more health issues for people not regularly exercising, the list goes on and on. Keep everyone in cars and West Hartford roads continue to become less and less safe for those who either choose not to drive or cannot drive – the fatality last summer involving the pedestrian on the median sidewalk on South Main was caused by someone with a medical condition who should not have been driving at all.
  2. Cars are expensive and even more dangerous if not properly maintained. The best financial decision I ever made was selling my car.  The years I’ve relied on the bus, walking, and cycling, I’ve saved thousands of dollars in not having car and car insurance payments, gas expenses, car property taxes, and car storage prices. To anyone with a car experiencing a financial hardship, I’d suggest taking a look at car-reliance – there’s money to be saved if one can feasibly get rid of their car.
  3. Walking and biking does wonders for physical health and mental well-being. How many drivers can you count smiling on their way in to work in morning rush hour? Being outside of a vehicle and moving in a safe space is FUN. It changed so much for me and I would hope other people could experience this joy.
  4. More bikes and more walkers make the streets safer for everyone. I advocate for safer streets because I want drivers seeing cyclists and walkers as a normal and frequent occurrence that they would expect and not be surprised by.
  5. The world is burning … literally. We had three days of smoke from Canada wildfires just last week.  Car emissions are not good for the planet. Not everyone can afford a Tesla and even if that were the case, from a resource perspective, two-ton electric cars aren’t the answer.
  6. Electric bikes have reshaped how people utilize bicycling. I can commute by e-bike without requiring a shower. Studies have shown using an e-bike can replace on average 20% of vehicle miles driven. With the CT e-bike rebate program going live on June 28, more people will be looking to e-bikes as a viable means of errand-running and commuting. I’m part of this demographic – I put less than 100 miles total on my bicycle between 2010 and 2020 and sold it to get an e-bike. Knowing this, I worry for any of these new vulnerable road-users. There’s a lot to learn about what the rules of cycling are and how to best be safe for any novice road user. Crashes will increase without infrastructure improvements.

Regardless of what West Hartford leadership ultimately decides, I do hope they have time to read and fully consider these points.

Jim Head is a West Hartford resident and and Board member of Bike West Hartford.

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  • If you like riding your bike, move to a less populated town. Did you know the Democrats are putting up a high rise where the children’s museum was and 500 high end dwelling condos on the old uconn property? Where are those over 500 vehicles going to go?

  • Jim and We-Ha.com: thank you for writing and publishing this piece. It seems really disappointing to me that the only other comment so far is from someone who clearly fixated on their hatred and wholesale ignores the safety, health, and economic issues that effect everyone that lives here. Our world never had to nor must continue to revolve around cars.

    • Thanks D for the supportive comment. Recently someone called me part of a small but vocal group – at Celebrate! this year a number of people came up to me at the Bike West Hartford booth to say they wish they and their kids could bike in town. It gave me hope – I think the vocal people part of a much larger community than the naysayers give credit to.

  • I find it concerning that a board member of Bike West Hartford does not know that bicycles are supposed to follow the rules of the road.

    That means observing lights and signs, traveling on the right side of the road, staying off the sidewalks and signaling. Bikes that are nuisances because their riders lack this knowledge serve to further divide drivers and riders.

    I have been blinded by bikes on sidewalks using poorly aimed lights. These people do not belong there but they clearly feel entitled to do so.

    Courtesy goes a long way for both drivers and riders. I cycled thousands of miles in CT in the 80’s but cars and people were different then. While having more cycling benefits society, cyclists must hold up their end of the bargain.

    • I’m concerned your response to this is for cyclists to behave better. Many recent crashes involve pedestrians and cyclists who were following all rules of the road and drivers who failed to yield or operate their vehicle correctly.

      Per Connecticut law, bicycles are allowed to operate on sidewalks when they yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian. I understand the higher risk of riding on the sidewalk (less visibility, higher accident risk on driveways and side streets) and primarily do so at a reasonable speed while approaching large intersections without a designated place in the road for cyclists.

      As a vulnerable road user, I understand my place and do what I can to keep myself and others safe. This includes observing lights and signs, riding on the correct side of the road, and signaling. I’d urge any cyclist to do the same.

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