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Slowly, Hartford Area Commuters Leaving Cars Behind

By Rick Green

May 13, 2012

Alyssa Norwood has a pretty good excuse to drive her car to work.

His name is Eliot, and he's talking a mile-a-minute about his handsome frog rain hat and show-and-tell plans as we walk from Norwood's home near the Hartford line in West Hartford to his preschool a few blocks away.

Even with the morning rush of getting Eliot to preschool, Norwood makes time to ride her bike to work, rain or shine.

Norwood is part of an unexpected and very, very small development: she's among the relative handful of folks who have figured out another way to get to work besides jumping in the car. For a working mom with a three-year-old in preschool and a toddler at home, she's proof that it doesn't always have to be like it's always been.

Overwhelmingly, however, Hartford area residents remain gridlocked in their cars.

The numbers have nudged only slightly since 2000, when 82.5 percent of area commuters drove alone to work, to 2010, when the average figure was about 81.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. No wonder I-84 and I-91 seem worse than ever.

But since this is "CT Rides Week" -- when the state Department of Transportation wants you to try, if only for a day, a different way of getting to work and Friday is national Bike-to-Work-Day, (Google bikewalkct or CT Rides for more information) let's take a moment to salute the commuting pioneers like the Alyssa Norwoods out there.

Because ever so slowly some of us really are looking beyond the cars that clog the roads, pollute the air and raise our blood pressure.

Once Eliot is safely deposited at school, we get on our bicycles and begin the three-and-a-half mile commute down Boulevard to Capitol Avenue to Norwood's office in Hartford. It's a little damp, so she's got a rain jacket and nylon pants on along with her helmet.

"I feel like I've accomplished something before I even get to my desk,'' Norwood tells me when we arrive at her job on Main Street where she works three days a week for the Connecticut Association of Directors of Health. She keeps her work clothes and a folding screen to change behind in her office. "You see all sorts of things on a bicycle that you don't see in a car.''

Norwood remains an exotic exception to the commuting patterns of greater Hartford. The number of commuting cyclists in the Hartford area has doubled since 2000, to about 1,200 people. There's also been a more significant increase in the number of folks who work at home, to about 21,000 people, up a percentage point since 2000. But it's the 8-in-10 people still driving alone to work who are the focus of the state Department of Transportation's CT Rides program.

At CT Rides, they will help match you with potential driving partners or figure out other commuting options, such as the best bus route. You can enroll in a program to earn rewards if you take the bus. A number of downtown corporations also offer incentives to convince employees to change old habits, such as subsidized bus passes.

"Take a minute and think about it,'' the DOT's Kay Carson said when I called to ask her about CT Rides this week. "Try something new one day."

"We think people will like the options it gives them, and the freedom to do other things when they are not driving,'' Carson said. "It also helps reduce congestion. That makes the air we breath better."

Looking at the numbers, it's still hard to be optimistic about the future of Connecticut commuting. But transportation planner Sandy Fry, who works at the Capitol Region Council of Governments, promised me that "we are on the cusp of great things."

"If someone like me, 55-years-old and not terribly fit, can start to bike to work I think it says that anybody can do it,'' Fry said.

Out on the road three mornings a week, Norwood makes another good argument for the bike. It's her daily exercise, so she saves time and doesn't have to go to the gym.

"There is a misperception that driving is more convenient," Norwood says. "In many instances it takes less time than driving. It makes you more productive. A successful week for us is one where the car sits in the driveway all week.''

So pull out the bike, figure out the neighborhood bus stop or share the commute with a friend, even if it's only for a day now and then. You might just start a trend.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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