Walkable, Bikeable Westport

Tracy Yost’s new business is taking Westport by storm. Her Westport Bike Rentals offers pre-planned routes around town. She’s carefully selected safe roads: wide shoulders, bikeway signage, slower speed limits.

But too often she hears: “I’d never ride my bike around here.” She thinks that’s wrong. If we want to ride bikes safely in Westport, Tracy says, we all need to get involved. “It takes a village to make our community livable, walkable and bikeable.” 

Here, Tracy explains what that means:

Livable, walkable, bikeable communities have a designed plan to improve the way everyone — young, old, handicapped, etc. — connects to our town amenities. These are our main streets, our train and transit system, our schools and beaches.

Taking the new bike for a test run at the beach. Watch out for all the people! (Photo/Chip Stephens)

Compo Beach is a great place for walking and biking. Tracy Yost would like to see more people able to walk and bike TO the beach. (Photo/Chip Stephens)

When some people hear the word “bikeable,” they think of groups of cyclists out for a 50-mile ride on weekends. I’m all for more cyclists on the road. But I’d like to connect the average person — elderly, school-aged, handicapped, without a license — by walking, biking or transit. Anything except a personal car.

There are many reasons to embrace the idea of a livable, walkable, bikeable community. It’s environmentally friendly. It builds stronger local economies. It creates stronger bonds among residents. It’s safer. It’s healthier for minds and bodies. It’s also more appealing in the real estate market.

Earlier this month I attended the Connecticut Bike Walk Summit in New Britain. Keynote speaker Mark Fenton — a public health, planning and transportation consultant — challenged us to stretch the idea of what’s possible, by presenting real-life scenarios from around the country.

I imagined: What if there was absolutely no parking or driving downtown? What if it were much more appealing to walk or ride a bike?

Imagine a downtown where it's okay to walk in the middle of Main Street.

Imagine a downtown where it’s okay to walk in the middle of Main Street.

Picture downtown like a campus: walker- and bike-friendly, with few or no cars.

Picture parking on the outskirts, in lots behind Town Hall, on Imperial Avenue, the garage across from Bartaco. Picture a riverwalk from Main Street to the train station.

Picture an attractive, useful transit system. Picture a bikeway (protected or off-road) from the schools to Main Street and the beach.

Picture an event like the Dog Festival with a transit system drop-off, and the Playhouse parking lot filled with strollers, bikes and wagons.

I know this is an extreme scenario, one that requires a drastic shift in thinking. But the Bike Lady can dream.

Tracy Yost, with some of her 20 bikes.

Tracy Yost, with some of her 20 bikes.

The picture I see is of a bustling downtown, where people and places are connected safely and enjoyably. It’s a place to shop and dine and be outdoors. It’s a place that cares about the health of the earth, and its people. It’s a place accessible to everyone, modeling healthy living for its children.

Here’s another real-life scenario, shared by Mark. Consider how many parents drop their children off at school with their cars, rather than having them take the bus. What if we made walking and biking to school the safer, healthier and preferred mode of transportation?

What if walkers and bikers were released first from school? Volunteer parents could lead both groups.

In 2012 -- once -- Saugatuck Elementary School youngsters walked to school. (Photo/Gina Beranek)

In 2012 — once — Saugatuck Elementary School youngsters walked to school. (Photo/Gina Beranek)

Bus riders would be dismissed next, and children being picked up by parents last. Parent pick-up would be at a church or public place (like the VFW) with adequate parking, a walkable (and parent-led) distance from school.

We’d have children who are more active, cars that are not idling, buses that are more filled, and a policy that promotes walking and biking.

I know Westport has a downtown plan. As a recent addition to the Downtown Planning Committee’s biking subcommittee, I’m catching up on where we are in the process of moving from surveys and plans, to the execution of those plans.

We will need buy-in and commitment from our town officials, leaders, boards, agencies, departments, businesses,schools, Chamber of Commerce, churches and synagogues, library — and every voter.

Mark believes in a pyramid system to elicit change. At the bottom is policy. We must change rules, ordinances, practices and procedures to get outcomes that stick.

The next step up in the pyramid is projects. We need an infrastructure that improves our willingness to walk, bike and use transit. It must be safe, appealing and rewarded.

This is what a jogging and biking path might look like.

This is what a jogging and biking path might look like.

At the top, we must create and support programs that educate people and businesses in Westport about the importance of being walkable and bikeable. We must build awareness, and get buy-in.

Take a look at some the resources available to inspire towns with low-cost, effective ways of implementing safer streets: SmartGrowthAmerica, Better Block, National Association of City Transportation Officials.

I was amazed by these. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes you need to see what is possible and already happening in order to be inspired.

Try to imagine Westport as livable, walkable, bikeable. What does it look and feel like to you?

bikers

For me, those words evoke a vibrant, active downtown, with everything accessible to everyone.

It’s a safe, visually appealing place — one where people feel connected to their community.

It’s a place where I can choose to be without my car for an entire day, whether I’m going downtown, to the train or the beach.

It’s a place that’s wonderful.

19 responses to “Walkable, Bikeable Westport

  1. Unfortunately, biking in this area means you are playing with fairly unfavorable odds of an accident: ride enough times and your number comes up. I stopped exercise riding on the roads years ago when I came to the realization that just about every ride had a car-not-paying-attention situation that I had to avoid. I still ride to the beach, but that still requires more vigilance than it ought to.

    It was a very sad day when my kids’ elementary school (GFS) formally forbade students riding to school (8 years ago?) because a kid was hit riding his bike on the sidewalk by a truck driven by a landscaper. But then it was obvious that the GFS Principal was correct: Bike riding in Westport is an elementary math problem: if you do a lot of it, you aren’t doing the math.

    Do any schools in Westport allow students to ride their bikes to school? I would think a “bikeable” town would start with the kids riding to school.

    Probably the place to start is enforcing stop signs and distracted driving laws. I’d guess they give out 100x the parking tickets relative to those transgressions (06880’s parking-between-the-lines posts not withstanding 😉 while the danger is 100x less. Until the driving around here gets better, you should minimized your exposure to the risk. – Chris Woods

    • Morley Boyd

      Totally agree. I spent years racing in Europe and the U.S. and am used to the hazards that come with the sport. But the nature of the traffic in our area now just seems out of hand – especially in the downtown area where I reside. The level of distracted driving, in particular, is of real concern. I don’t know what a realistic remedy looks like but I feel it almost borders on malpractice to encourage more residents to venture into certain areas of town on their bicycles.

  2. Julie Van Norden

    I would absolutely love to see more safe bike paths around town. I would love to ride my bike to town, to the beach, everywhere. My utopian ideal is Nantucket, where everyone is out on a bike, everyday. But the drivers around here aren’t safe for other vehicles, no less bikes. I’ve had too many friends in near fatal accidents with cars. I don’t want to become a statistic.

    • Jerry MacDaid

      Sorry to disrupt your Utopia but bike paths in Nantucket are largely for the tourists and less than all of them are biking based on the bike to car ratio at beach parking lots as well as the few occupied bike racks downtown. For the most part, locals drive or take the bus.

  3. Susan Iseman

    Love the concepts here. I live off North Compo, where you see brave cyclists now and then. I am always amazed when drivers attempting to pass them enter the opposite lane – even around the curves – into on coming traffic! Many near misses there and everywhere. I was a regular cyclist when I lived in NYC but am terrified to cycle around here. I happily rack my bike and drive to the beach, where I feel a bit safer…just call me a chicken.

  4. Sounds great! And it will alleviate some of the congestions on our roads.

  5. Just yesterday, I had my 5 year old on a bike, my 3 year old jogging, my 2 year old in a jogging stroller, and our puppy out for a bike/walk on what I consider a quieter road off North Ave. I am constantly looking for cars approaching behind us as we are on the street (no sidewalks, of course). A large Suburban came around the corner so everyone moved to the side as they’ve been taught. The woman driver then shouted some angry language at me that I couldn’t hear as the windows were shut. But I caught the sentiment. This is from someone driving a family car. During a school break. I want my kids to learn to embrace an active lifestyle but I think there first needs to be a shift in thinking about how we share the road for this to work.

  6. Susan Schmidt

    As far as I know, biking to Bedford and Staples is not allowed. It’s not hard to see that this is exactly the wrong position to take for a community that prides itself on forward, green thinking (plastic-bag ban, single-stream recycling, energy-saving tax credits and free home inspections, electric car charging stations, the list goes on).
    And that’s not even addressing the fact that discouraging physical exercise at a young age establishes poor habits for a lifetime.

    • I have never seen anyone riding a bike to Staples. However, there is a lonely bike rack near the cafeteria that occasionally has one or two bikes chained to it.

  7. Joan Zimmerman

    I LOVE the idea of a safer running, biking and walking town with paths out of the path of traffic. One of my dreams is to carve out a running/biking path through the crown jewel of our town, Longshore Park. There is a lot of woodland on the sides of the course. Too often as I’ve watched/cheered on the runners in the Saturday morning running series, there have been grumblings from the golfers. I think we can all share these precious resources. I also loved the idea of a walking/biking path along the Merritt across several towns…where is that proposal presently?

    • Joan, here’s the link to the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance’s website: http://www.merrittparkwaytrail.org/home
      I also like the idea of a 37.5-mile multi-use trail along the Parkway’s right-of-way, for all the reasons the Alliance points out. But based on the meetings I’ve attended, there will be strong resistance from local preservationists, the NIMBY crowd and taxpayers who balk at the price tag — I’ve read as high as $250 million, given the logistical hurdles involved in constructing such a route through wetlands and over rivers and crossing roads. A steeply uphill battle to get it built…

  8. Don L. Bergmann

    Our kids, now in their forties, rode bicycles to Staples. Bicycling is a simple part of an active life and, as with most aspects of an active life, can involve accidents. TraciyYost, who I have met and think highly of, is leading us in the right direction, just as are those on the Downtown Implementation Plan Committee, Melissa Kane and Dewey Loelle being the co-chairs, and many others working to make cycling in Westport even more fun. Let’s not focus on the negatives. Rather, focus on what can be done and then leave it to the bikers, the drivers and the walkers as to how to proceed. Yes, we need to get drivers to be more careful, just as we need cyclists to stop at stop signs. Those are details, the vision, Tracy Yost’s and mine, is more paramount.
    Don Bergmann

    • Don, your thoughts and concerns are well expressed and I always appreciate learning of them. I would only suggest that the details, in this case likely DO matter.

      Remember, if you will, one of the other, former goals of the Downtown Plan was to encourage more residential housing. This went unchallenged until a question was raised about whether or not the town should, as a matter of policy, be encouraging more residents to live in flood zones. Perhaps the same holds true with cycling (a sport which I truly love): we might be on kind of squishy ground, policy-wise, luring people onto some of our roads with bikes when the situation has clearly descended into what can be easily observed today.

      The simple fact is that we are a car-centric community by choice and necessity and, unless I’ve missed something, none of the decision makers you mention in your comments presently ride their bicycles to town hall for meetings. This is not meant as a criticism at all. But it is part of a collection of details that, I think, warrant discussion before committing blood and treasure to an endeavor which might not end well.

      Don’t forget, just a little while ago we all thought fancy granite curbing sounded good too. Details are stubborn things.

  9. Tyler Smith

    Does anyone know if there are actual bike racks at the beach now or if not if it’s in the plan for upgrades?

  10. Sylvia Robinson Corrigan

    This is a splendid idea: real bike paths in Westport. I have this same dream, and offered it a couple of summers ago when Westport residents were invited to several “revisioning” meetings. I suggest studying bike paths that work well in other communities. “The Shining Sea Bike Way” that runs from Falmouth to Wood’s Hole in Cape Cod is my template. Trumbull has a good walk/bike trail. There has to be a swath of trees or bushes between the roadway and bike way. I imagine something that can trail the Saugatuck in places, go through Winslow Park and somehow wind toward the beach and Longshore. If a group of people got together and researched other bike ways in the U.S., I will wager that we could create something wonderful for this special town with its river, parks and beaches. What are we waiting for?

  11. Jennifer Johnson

    Westport Bike Rentals is a wonderful additon to our community. We should all work to make this new buisness a success. One clear path forward is to join Norwalk and other towns in southwest CT in implementing the recommendations of SWRPA’s 2013 Bike and Pedestrian Study >> https://westcog.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/2-Bike-PedSWRPA_bike-ped_plan_20131.pdf. A walkable and bike-able Westport is a better Westport for everyone.

  12. Thank you, Dan, for providing a venue for the start of many conversations about a livable, walkable, bikeable Westport.
    I am so happy to hear from others who share some of my vision, and I want to thank you for your tremendous support!
    Please find a way to get involved, even a little bit, that makes sense to you.There’s bikewalkct, the merritt parkway trail, the Downtown Planning committee meetings…or many other places, please chime in if you have an idea.
    Distracted drivers were mentioned, but I’d like to point out the SPEED of the drivers in Westport. I would love to see a huge push on enforcing the speed limit, especially on routes along the coast or any roads designated as bike ways or walking routes- like school routes ( room for policy?) I constantly notice drivers going 15-20 mph over the speed limit. Even a slight reduction in speed can make a difference if there is a accident of any kind- for one thing, there may be time to react!
    Not all the fault is with the drivers, however. Bikers & walkers have room for improvement too. I see walkers walking with traffic, bikers riding on sidewalks & against traffic, and bikers who do not stop at stop signs or traffic lights.
    We all have to make good decisions whether we are drivers, walkers, or riders…and we need to make BIG decisions as a community: do we want safe routes for walking & biking? I hope, really hope, the answer is YES!

  13. Glenn Payne

    Nothing not to love about this idea/business: good luck.

    It would only take a few cyclists to slow drivers down, effectively other than the long-distance folks there are so few they feel/look extinct so the only non-car on the road is the occasional runner.

    While not immediate the probable arrival of driver-less cars will also have a positive effect on bike safety – the car will be programmed to obey rules and the 25/30 mph speed limit will be the fastest and it will only take a few and everyone else will be driving that speed (except those crazies that will overtake). See how many Tesla’s are in Westport and you don’t think we’ll be at the pointy end of adoption. Of course the Town will need to fix the many potholes and standing water issues (humans swerve, cars won’t – see the NTY article) and that too will help the bikes.

  14. Mark Mathias

    My son recently started riding his bicycle to and from Saugatuck Elementary School, about 2 miles each way. There’s a bike rack right out front and it was never full. Better yet, the other students on the bus who saw him parking his bike thought it was way cool that he was riding his bike to school. Our main parental concern was the traffic on Riverside Ave, but there are sidewalks all the way from the Post Road to Saugatuck Elementary on which he could ride. And riding his bike is faster than taking the bus! Our son is ready to ride his bike to Bedford Middle School next year!