Government Opinion

Op-Ed: Let’s Make West Hartford’s Town Center Safer and More Productive Without Spending a Ton of Money

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Resident Jay Stange, an advocate for non-motorized transportation, has some suggestions for making West Hartford Center even safer as the town considers an infrastructure master plan.

By Jay Stange

We moved to West Hartford two years ago to be closer to my wife’s family after many years in Alaska and New York City. We were excited for the new adventure. We met by phone with principals of local elementary schools, known nationwide for being fantastic, and we ended up buying a house on Auburn Road in the Morley Elementary area. Things are close together in this streetcar suburb. 

My kids walk to school and I ride a dorky looking, but fun, cargo bike to shop for groceries. We drive a car (we have two!) to visit family, go to soccer practice and enjoy the hiking trails in the great state parks around here. My wife drives to her job in downtown Hartford several times a week. But when she contemplated riding her bike the three miles to work on nice days, she hesitated. People drive fast here. There’s not a lot of bicycle amenities. 

My first year here, I helped support a road diet on North Main Street and I’m really proud of the work done by local champions including Mayor Shari Cantor, MaryEllenThibodeau and Bike West Hartford, whose energy and persistence made it happen against steady headwinds. Sadly, MaryEllen passed before the end of a seven-year campaign to make North Main safer. 

But along the way more than 1,000 people answered a survey about the North Main Road Diet – two-thirds of our town supported it. And we want safer streets everywhere. A man died this summer at the corner of North Main and Farmington when he was hit by a car while standing on a pedestrian island. That part of North Main was not included in the road diet safety changes. 

So I’m glad to say our town staff has begun a process that could make the Town Center of West Hartford more friendly to retail business and safer for non-motorized travelers. There are a lot of possibilities to consider that don’t cost a lot of money. 

I support a car-free LaSalle marketplace (emergency vehicles and deliveries only) from Arapahoe to Farmington. I also support bringing better non-motorized connectivity between Blue Black Square and our traditional Town Center. Right now there is a canyon of arterial traffic separating the two most productive and walkable retail places in our town. We should reduce car travel lanes and modify intersection design to accommodate cars on North/South Main and Farmington in Town Center, but give preference to non-motorized users. 

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Why do we allow South/North Main Street to run 30-45 mph automobile traffic directly through our most walkable and productive commercial corridor? It’s a leftover concept from a brief moment 60 years ago when we thought everyone would wear a car like a pair of underwear – everywhere they went. I don’t think that’s what we really wanted. 

We can enhance access to businesses on South/North Main Street and prevent more senseless carnage there with a few key modifications to lane design and intersection user priorities. We can make our Town Center an even more productive (and certainly safer) place with these affordable changes. 

While we’re at it, let’s improve Farmington Avenue for transit and non-motorized users between Trout Brook and LaSalle. Many people arriving by bus from Hartford or Bishops Corner have few safe travel options. It needs to be safer and easier for people to walk or bike from the Trout Brook Trail and new Farmington Avenue developments into Town Center. It should be much safer and easier for bikers and walkers to travel from the North Main bike lanes over to Trout Brook Trail, which will soon be a great bicycle connection to New Park and New Britain area development. The north sidewalk of Farmington Avenue between North Main and Trout Brook should be expanded by taking one car travel lane from Farmington and making protected, buffered non-motorized access available. What a shame not to partner with the developer building 50 units on the Trout Brook Trail on Farmington to improve non-motorized access for their future residents to travel one block to Town Center without driving. 

If you talk to some old school business owners, they will immediately try to scare you away from these concepts by saying we need more parking. We DON’T need more parking. The Town Center garages are vastly underutilized. As you can see from this flyer I passed around last year, there is a lot of parking available within 100 yards of LaSalle, and generally in our Town Center. Parking is the least productive use of space in this valuable area. 

Thank you to Ronni Newton of We-Ha.com for her article talking about the upcoming workshops and planning process. I hope you will reach out to your friends and neighbors and help us move this from the planning process into a better reality. We live in a great place, but it can also be improved if we can use transit, walk, bike and roll safely between the places we live and the places we shop, worship, play, get medical care and, potentially, work. 

Jay Stange and  is a writer/editor, volunteer soccer coach and musician who lives in West Hartford – @corvidity

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