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Open Streets Hartford

Wednesday, November 23, 2016 6:06
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(Before It's News)

Hartford, the city proper, has an unreasonable amount of potential.  Situated in the middle of a very wealthy ring of suburbs and corporate titans, the city has beautiful buildings and wide streets.  The riverfront paths offer spectacular views and a sheltered piece of nature right next to the bustle of downtown.  The cultural amenities and restaurants are varied and world class.  Our neighborhoods are diverse and rich in restaurants, retail, and housing.

What's holding Hartford back, is the lack of feet and bikes on the street.  The transit system isn't up to snuff – yet.  The current street system is set up as a sluice and sewer system for cars.  A flood of suburban employees drive in each morning and flood back out each evening.  If this flowed smoothly like water, we would never have a chance to move to a different solution.  Fortunately cars flow like chaotic gravel being shaken through a funnel.  When the number of cars gets too high, the funnel clogs up and the cars stop.  Stop and go.  Stop and fume.  It's frustrating, and these suburban commuters are waiting for a better solution.  The continuing growth of downtown living options and healthy occupancy rates are evidence of the pent up demand for options to the suburban norm.

In order to reach the economic bustle needed to support the city's overall budget, we need to radically change the script.  How can a city expose suburban dwellers to the wonders of urban living?  Can we demonstrate to the transportation planners a radically different streetscape with humans at the center instead of cars?  With the slow moving changes to infrastructure, it is difficult to imagine levels of improvement that leapfrog out of the car-centric paradigm.  How can Hartford make that jump?  How can the city share the vision widely, before the infrastructure has actually changed?

With vision, and buy in, very significant changes have happened before.  In 1973 the Netherlands banned cars on Sundays.  The ban was due to the oil embargo and only lasted a couple of months, but they never looked back.  The alternative mode share in the Netherlands that exceeds 50% leads to a much more pleasant and human scale built environment.  Everyone that visits the Netherlands comes back changed, and asking questions.  Why can't the US (the really sad bar on the far right) move away from single occupancy vehicle travel?  In Hartford we can't change the entire country, but we can effect local change.  The urban centers are leading the way because we have the most to gain economically from moving to a greater share of transit, biking, and walking.

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Source: Todd Litman, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, IETT Professional Development Workshop, Istanbul, June 14th, 2015

After cycling through Philadelphia during the recent Pope visit and the resulting unplanned Open Streets day, I can see the leap.  It was a magical experience.  The streets were chock full of pedestrians and cyclists enjoying all that the city had to offer – and spending their money locally.  Transportation advocates are rightly calling on additional Open Streets (AKA Ciclovia) days in Philadelphia.  Cities across the country are incorporating Open Streets events, and inviting humans back into the roadway.  Here is a short list.  The list is not inclusive.  There are over 80 Open Streets events in the US.  There is an Open Streets guide and there was a national training and summit for cities looking to hold events based on this model.

Here's the vision.  I-Quilt and Envisionfest have coordinated an action packed weekend to promote the dense activities on a Saturday in Hartford.  Let's combine Envisionfest, the CT Cycling Festival, and an Open Streets event to take that vision one step further, a leap really.  Close down a significant number of Hartford streets to through traffic on the day of these events and invite our neighbors to experience the city on a human scale.  Coordinate with the businesses and cultural institutions along and near the route to remain open on the weekend day (or days).  Bring all our city's amenities and connections to bear and lets have Open Streets.  It will take some planning and a boatload of publicity.  Target Envisionfest 2017.  Bring in state and regional funding, because we know that many of the attendees would be coming in from the burbs.  NYC Summer Streets is partially funded by the DOT! 
Once Hartford and the region has “flipped the script” by exposing diverse folks to the beauty of a walkable, bike-able, and car-light urban environment, it will be a much easier discussion when we talk about reduced parking requirements for apartment buildings.  Deleting a parking lane and implementing road diets will be championed as progress.  Reducing the cost of development (less parking cost) along with raising the tax rate on surface parking lots will fill in Hartford's vast parking deserts.  Let's do this!
Thursday, Nov 12th - There is a CT Rides Business Forum.  Send this link to your suburban coworkers and corporate human resources directors.  Breakfast is included and you'll learn about the multiple, enjoyable transportation options available for Hartford employees.  The forum was organized by CT Rides.  By spreading the word, you're doing your part to make change in Hartford's mode share.

SAVE THE DATE, Slow Roll, Dec 6th - The last Slow Roll of 2015 is planned for Sunday, December 6th.  Yes.  You can ride a bike in December.  Put gloves on and have a great time!  We'll be rolling to a local establishment after the ride to warm up and socialize.  Put it on your calendar now, and keep an eye on the BiCi Co Facebook page for additional details.

Important side note – As Hartford moves forward with developments, we need to be aware of the negative effects of gentrification.  There are ways that Hartford developments can serve our entire population, not just the new, well-heeled arrivals.  Here's a good article on countering the negative effects of gentrification - 9 Ways Privileged People Can Reduce the Negative Impact of Gentrification.  The article makes some good points, but it doesn't include the requirement (or set asides) for “affordable housing” in new developments.  As we approach gentrification in Hartford, it can happen quickly, new projects should be looked at critically as a system if they create a core downtown where service workers can't live.  If you look at downtown rents, we are already there.  When that exclusive rent level reaches the neighborhoods, it will push thousands into the suburbs where their access to jobs and services will be degraded.  Transit sucks in the suburbs.  Jobs are further apart.  Cars are expensive and not affordable on a minimum wage full time salary.

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