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Car-Free In Hartford

There are alternatives to hitting the highway

By Adam Bulger

May 29, 2008

From above, my morning commute on Route 84 looks like a broken zipper trying to close. I start most workdays on I-84 East at the Sisson Avenue ramp in Hartford. The cars in the left-hand lanes try to merge right to get to downtown Hartford exits, and the ones in the right try to get onto the I-91 ramp. The traffic crawls, except for swooping, sudden lane changes.

I take the relatively clear I-91 South for two exits, and then I'm more or less at my office. That's right: I live and work in Hartford, but I commute on two interstate highways. I became highway-dependent without thinking of it: There are other ways to get from my home to my office, but now the freeway is my routine.

I was forced out of my highway habit by a crash. I drove my Saturn sedan into a curb on a snowy day. The light impact was enough to throw the car seriously out of alignment, and my mechanic told me I had two choices: spend $2,000 to repair the car (which I bought for $2,000), or buy a new one.

I wondered if there was a third way. Would it be possible for me to live and work in Hartford without a car? It would be a shock to the system, but I thought maybe the system needed a shock. The frightening price of gas was certainly a factor.

I spent about a month without a car before finally buying a new (used) one. I adopted a variety of strategies for getting around, including the frequent borrowing of my work-from-home girlfriend's car. Her anger at being stranded has burned slowly and steadily.

I had to try something new. On a chilly Monday morning, I rode my bike to work for the first time. To put my first pedal commute into perspective, you need to understand that I'm a walking collection of His Girl Friday-era reporter cliches, minus the "press badge" and snappy hat. I'm a chain-smoking, hard-drinking louse with a penchant for red meat and an aversion to exercise. A simple four-mile pedal to work was a frightening prospect.

Worried about overheating, I wore light clothes, which the wind tore through like razor wire. I stuck to lightly trafficked streets as much as possible. By about my 15th minute of pedaling, I was starting to hurt. Near the Sisson Avenue I-84 on-ramp, I saw my first fellow cyclist. He wore a dress shirt and rode with both hands off the handles, smoking a cigarette. His image of cool collectedness was a slap in my overheated face.

The ride was physically taxing, but bearable, until I got to Capitol Avenue. The street lining the Capitol and legislative building is a long slope, something that had escaped my attention the thousands of times I had driven on it. Also, it was the most heavily trafficked road I encountered. From the looks of it, honking at a clearly exhausted cyclist is a fun, group activity that brings drivers closer together.

By the time I got to work, my face was the color of a grape. On the bright side, I found $3 lying in the sidewalk on Wethersfield Avenue in the south of Hartford. On the dark side, my ride home entailed going up a lot more hills. Also, I did something so epic in its stupidity that it boggles my mind even now I rode the bike to buy cigarettes at a gas station. When I got back, sweaty and panting, the last thing in the world I wanted was a cigarette. Not that I didn't smoke it eventually.

The people I spoke with about bikes in the Hartford area assured me that riding would get easier (it did, actually by my third ride I was able to make it to my apartment without collapsing in a heap). For most bike riders, though, the most challenging parts of replacing their cars with the bikes isn't the physical exhaustion: it's dealing with the people who still drive their cars.

"Generally, I'd say that people are pretty courteous," said Central Connecticut Bicycle Alliance spokesman Ben Bare. "I think people are pretty aware of bikes and the rights that people have on the road. And obviously there are people that feel that you shouldn't be on the road and people that feel that bicycles are a pain or whatever else."

Bare and other cyclists I spoke with lamented the relationship drivers have with cyclists. Most drivers, it seems, view cyclists as jazzed-up pedestrians instead of passengers on a vehicle.

"A lot of drivers honestly believe bikes should be on the sidewalk," Bare said. "People don't understand that it's generally not legal. In the state vehicle code, a bike is treated just like any other vehicle. You're entitled to a full lane, you're entitled to all the protections any other motorist has."

Bare said that increased education could immeasurably assist in the relationship between drivers and cyclists. "When the DMV does driver's education, I think it needs to add in bikes as part of the traffic people encounter," Bare said. He adds that motorists misunderstand the role of bikes. "People have these wrong ideas about bicycles," he said. "And that's not because they're bad people or don't like bicycles. They don't have the training or the exposure to what the rules actually are."

There is rising attendance at monthly cycling events like Bike To Work days in Hartford and several surrounding suburbs, and interest in bicycle commuting is increasing. Tensions between drivers and bikers remain, though. At a recent Central Connecticut Bicycle Alliance dinner at Lena's First and Last Pizzeria in Hartford celebrating the region's bike week (May 12-19), complaints of harassment by people in cars and passers-by abounded. Some bikers related tales of being targeted by pellet guns and eggs.

"I did get shot at once by a slingshot on my way home from work," says Brendan Mahoney, a Hartford city council aide and contributor to Hartford-area cycling Web site beatbikeblog.blogspot.com. "That wasn't cool. They didn't hit me. There were a bunch of kids in a car, and they yelled something, and then I heard 'thwomp.'"

The consensus seemed to be that cyclists with the best attitudes toward safety were the ones most often targeted. Bikers accounted for this as misguided attacks on people who are, fairly or not, viewed as nerds.

"The bike commuting population that is the most law-abiding, they are the ones that seem to really ruffle people's feathers," Mahoney said. "The people trying their hardest to do things the right way piss people off more than weird people riding the wrong way down the middle of the road at four miles an hour."

Mahoney took the slingshot incident in stride. For him and others, riding bikes is simply fun. Other habitual bike riders cite a sense of environmental obligation. "I kind of feel like I shouldn't [drive]," said CPTV producer Amy Zeilinski. "I'd feel like a jerk. If I'm this close to work, why shouldn't I ride my bike?"

While regional attitudes toward cyclists clearly need work, some state and local officials are getting increasingly bike friendly. The city's bike situation isn't perfect, but there are more bike paths in Hartford than ever before. On May 13, the West Hartford Town Council passed a resolution pledging to make the town more bike friendly through adding bike lanes and other measures. As Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green noted in an April column, the Capitol Region Council of Governments is working to enact a regional bike commuting plan aiming to persuade up to 10,000 people to start bicycling to work in coming years, up from the approximately 1,500 riders on the road in the Hartford area today.

Joel Johnson, one of Mahoney's co-bloggers on the Beat Bike Blog, said that in order for cyclists to get more respect, they have to be willing to follow the rules themselves.

"Guys on bikes can't be blowing through red lights and then demand special treatment," Johnson said.

Another non-car choice, and one of the most commonly used mass-transit options, is taking the bus, a prospect that left me with major trepidation. Riding a bike is physically taxing and time consuming, but I have control. In my few, uneventful bus rides I was engulfed by my own impatience. Compared to biking, walking and, yes, driving, taking the bus is completely passive.

And, of course, you have to figure out the bus system. Buses arrive at stations irregularly, and the stations rarely have route and schedule information posted.

Anton Rick-Ossen wasn't surprised by my confusion. A Pratt and Whitney engineer and part-time Trinity College graduate student, Rick-Ossen has for the last two years been the Hartford area's most vocal proponent and critic of the bus system. Beside writing several opinion articles for the Courant, he also wrote an academic study of the Hartford bus system entitled "Get on the Bus."

"You have to be a professional, a seasoned veteran, to use the bus in Hartford," Rick-Ossen said. "If you're a tourist, or you're new in town, you stand no chance of getting anywhere on time."

He attributes much of the confusion to lack of planning and clear directions. There are timetables at only a handful of stops, so you don't know when it's coming. Also, many stops don't identify which route stops there," Rick-Ossen said. "And there's no map, so you don't know where it's going."

Some longtime bike riders are vexed by the city's bus service. "I've never been on a bus in Hartford," Zeilinski said. "Even when my car was stolen, I looked at a bus schedule and it didn't make sense."

Rick-Ossen said that despite the initial learning curve and the ongoing hassles, bus riding is a net gain. "There are still a lot of problems with it," he said. "But once you get over certain things and certain expectations, it's a pleasure. You can read, you can relax. By the time I get home, work is well behind me. I haven't been dealing with traffic."

Rick-Ossen has noticed the bus getting more crowded, with a more diverse ridership. Officials at CT Transit, which manages the region's 30 local routes, 12 commuter express routes and downtown Hartford Star Shuttle service, say they've measured a dramatic increase in riders, which they attribute to rising energy costs.

"People are much more aware of the cost of using their cars than they used to be," CT Transit General Manager David Lee said. "The big spike in ridership, especially commuter ridership took place a year and a half ago. These are the people who park their car in a park-and-ride lot out in the suburbs and then take an express bus downtown."

In 2006, use of CT Transit's 12 commuter express bus routes carrying passengers from outlying suburbs into downtown Hartford increased by double digits. But since then, even with gas prices steadily increasing, the number of bus riders hasn't risen. Ridership has mostly held steady, with about 3,500 weekday commuters.

"I don't know that a couple of cents a day changes behavior," Lee said. "It's only when people realize they could have a bus pass for $45 when they're spending $200 in a month to take their cars to work, plus whatever they pay to park. We're now at the point where the cost of a bus pass for local service is about the same as a tank of gas. And if you're filling up twice a week, it's a no-brainer."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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