With my new business, Westport Bike Rentals, I’ve chosen drop off locations that have available parking and a safer starting point than most people’s houses around here. By safer, I mean that there is a wider shoulder, sometimes with signage declaring the road as part of a bikeway, a slower speed limit, and less turns and hills.

 

Recently I ran into an acquaintance who asked me how the bike business was going. She then said, “I love the idea, but personally I would never ride my bike around here.” She’s not the first person to say that to me. My response, “I agree that it’s hard to start from your home. Try a different starting point. And, I’d love to see to a change in the dialog in Westport. I don’t think the answer is to stop riding. If we want to ride our bikes safely in Westport, we all need to get involved and insist on safe bike lanes.” After all, it will take a village to make our community liveable, bikeable, walkable.

 

What does livable, bikeable, walkable mean? Sometimes people know it as the “walk score”, that is, how easily a person can walk from their home to local shops, but it’s more than that. Livable, bikeable, walkable communities are places with a designed plan to improve the way everyone in the community- young, old, handicapped, etc- is connected to our town amenities which are our main streets, our train & transit system, our schools, and maybe in Westport, our beaches.

 

We are very attached to our cars. But I’d like to paint for you a picture that will challenge you to stretch what might be possible in Westport without using a car all the time.

 

Let me back up a bit…I think when some people hear the word “bikeable”, they immediately think of the groups of cyclists out for a 50 mile joy ride on weekend mornings. I’m all for more cyclists on the road, but the picture I am about to paint is not a plan for those avid, competitive, fast-paced riders. I would like to connect the average person, the elderly person, the school-aged person, the handicapped person, the person without a license to our main streets, schools and beaches from the train or bus stops by walking, biking, or transit…anything but a personal car.

 

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

 

Earlier this month I attended the Connecticut Bike Walk Summit in New Britain. The keynote speaker, Mark Fenton who is a national public health, planning, and transportation consultant challenged the attendees to stretch the idea of what is possible by presenting various real-life scenarios that are happening in our country.

 

So here goes my first (imagined) scenario:

 

What if there was absolutely NO PARKING OR DRIVING downtown? What if it were much more appealing to walk or ride a bike? Picture our downtown much like a campus- walker and biker friendly, with little to no cars. Picture parking on the outskirts of town, with lots behind Westport Town Hall, Westport Famer’s Market Lot, the garage across from the old Save The Children, Westport Train Station, and maybe even behind Fresh Market. Picture an attractive useful transit system. Picture a Riverwalk from Main to the train. Picture a bikeway (protected or off-road) from the schools to both main and the beach. Picture an event like Westport’s Dog Festival this past weekend with offsite parking with a transit system drop off and the Playhouse parking lot filled with strollers, bikes, and wagons. (If you saw the state of affairs in the Playhouse parking lot this past weekend, you’d know this is a good idea.)AlewifeBikeParking.agr.2001

 

I know this is an extreme scenario…but The Bike Lady can dream. To me, this picture is one of a bustling downtown where people and places are connected safely and enjoyably. It’s a place to shop and dine and spend the day outdoors. It’s a place that cares about the health of the earth and the health of its people. It’s a place that is accessible to everyone. It’s a community that is modeling healthy living for its children. I understand that this scenario requires a shift in thinking.

 

Let me share with you another scenario. This time it’s a real-life example shared by Mark Fenton. Let’s consider how many parents drop their children off at school with their cars, rather than having their children take the school bus. What if we made walking and biking to school the safer, healthier and preferred mode of transportation?

What if school pick-up went something like this: walkers & bikers are released first from school. Walkers walk together with a volunteer parent forming a “human bus train” and bikers ride together with a volunteer parent on a lead bike. Bus riders are released after pedestrian dismissal and board a bus in front of the school. Children being picked up by their parents are released last. In addition, parent pick-up is held at a local church or public hall (such as VFW) with adequate parking, a walkable distance from the school. Again, a volunteer leads the parent-pick-up group to the pick-up location. Now we have: school-age children who are more active, cars that are not idling, and probably busses that are more filled (because kids will ask to NOT be picked up), and a policy that promotes walking & biking.

Clearly, Westport is not set up for either of these scenarios…but hopefully I painted pictures that challenge the way you think about your car.

So what would it take to make Westport more liveable, walkable, bikeable? I know there is a Downtown Plan. I am a recent addition to the biking subcommittee of the Downtown Planning Committee so I am catching up on where we are in the process of going from surveys and plans to execution of those plans.

Lucky for us, we have towns on either side, Norwalk and Fairfield, who are a bit further ahead in their pedestrian plans. I am hoping that their pedestrian committees can mentor our committees.

This, however, is what is will take to go from “the plan” to the end game: a livable, walkable, bikeable town. BUY-IN and commitment from our elected town officials, our local town leaders, our town agencies and departments, our town businesses, all the various boards, our schools, our Chamber of Commerce, our churches, our library and every voter in Westport.

 

Mark Fenton believes in a pyramid system to elicit change. At the bottom-the base-the thing that will create lasting change is POLICY. We have to change rules and ordinances, practices & procedures to get outcomes that will stick. Next step in pyramid: PROJECTS. We need an infrastructure that improves our willingness to walk, bike and use transit. It needs to be safe, it needs to be appealing, it needs to be rewarded. Lastly, we need PROGRAMS. We need to create and support programs that educate the people and businesses in our community about the importance of being walkable & bikeable. We need to build awareness and get buy-in.

 

There are many ways to start the process without spending millions of dollars. There are resources and examples readily available to inspire towns with low cost effective ways to implement safer streets. Check out:

 

 

Take a look at some of the examples of what it looks like to be livable, walkable, bikeable. I know, for me, some of the examples on the websites were absolutely astonishing to me. You don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes you need to see a picture to see what is possible and what is happening already in order to be inspired. Try to imagine Westport as liveable, walkable, bikeable. What does it look like to you? What does it feel like to you? For me those words conjure up a vibrant, active Downtown where everything is accessible to everyone. It’s a safe place that is visually appealing. It’s a place where people feel connected to the community. It’s a place where I can choose to be without my car for an entire day, whether I am going downtown, the train, or the beach – wonderful!