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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.