This past Tuesday evening found me in the grand environs of The Bushnell for the Bicycle Friendly Communities Symposium. The CCBA email I had gotten about the event didn't go into a whole lot of detail, but it was close to home and seemed worthy of attention. It was time well spent.
The last symposium I attended at The Bushnell was an iQuilt presentation sometime last year. As the only one who had biked to that event, I was compelled to point out that The Bushnell had no bike rack. I sidestepped the bike locking issue by walking there last night, but was wondering if they had gotten around to adding a proper rack. While that was not the case, I was impressed and surprised to see that they were allowing bikes to park indoors. Well done!
Inside I saw faces familiar from (Ice) Bike to Work and other CCBA events on my way to my seat. Kerri was in the house taking notes for Real Hartford. Sandy Fry welcomed everyone and introduced Tom Maziarz, Director of Transportation for the Capitol Region Council of Governments (or DOT4CRCOG for short) said a few words about their work on "Bike and ped" issues. Having walked to the event, I wasn't sure I like being known as a "Ped," but I certainly do have issues, so I let it go. His main point was a need for better awareness on the part of both the public and especially the decision makers in local government. Up next, CCBA President Anne Hayes said a few words about their recent efforts and achievements like Complete Streets and the (sadly, oft ignored) Three Foot Passing Law before introducing their featured guest Andy Clarke, president of The League of American Bicyclists.
Clarke began with a brief overview of the League's history (founded by our man Albert Pope, thank you very much) and their mission of bike advocacy and education. He launched into his rather comprehensive PowerPoint presentation by speaking at length about L.A.B's Bicycle Friendly America program and how communities were rated and ranked. He explained how cities apply for the "Bike Friendly" status and how the League helps them achieve and raise their respective rankings. Clarke cited some familiar positive examples from the US and abroad, but was quick to point out how sick to death everyone must be of hearing about Copenhagen and Portland. That said, he pointed out two important things: Firstly, these cities have reaped tremendous benefits from gearing thoughtful infrastructural planning to the everyday use of bicycles. Secondly, they were not always like that. He showed photos of traffic-choked European city streets from a decade or so ago to help illustrate what a dramatic transformation can take place with the right actions.
The presentation moved from what has been done to what needs to be done to increase bicycle use and awareness. One matter that was touched upon was that many people feel intimidated by bicycling in different ways, all of which I could identify with. Risk of injury from motor vehicles is always on people's minds with good reason. The image of cycling as a hardcore competitive sport can serve to alienate the would-be everyday bike rider as well. Clarke spoke of surveys that showed that many customers rate visiting their local bike shops as an unpleasant experience. I've had all of these experiences myself, and I'm decidedly more of a bike nut than the average U.S. citizen. Clarke showed examples of humorous ad campaigns geared toward getting people out of their cars and onto bikes. The main (and obvious) point is that we need to get more people riding bicycles. Let it be fun, let it be social. Let it be something that isn't a huge commitment or a daunting undertaking. Identify the obstacles to getting more people on bikes and work to overcome them.
Make cycling the most convenient option and people will ride.
Go back and reread that last sentence out loud. It's important.
There were a few handouts, the most informative being the League's "Bicycle Friendly America Yearbook." I have not yet read it from cover to cover, but skimming it showed profiles of 95 Bicycle Friendly Communities and 13 Bicycle Friendly Businesses, and a hell of a lot of ideas and standards to aspire to. All of this information and more can be found on their website.
There were no bombshells or revelations here. There were a lot of useful ideas and examples as to how we could try to make bicycling in the Hartford area a better experience. Hartford's specific issues were not really discussed per se, but there was nothing so unique or revolutionary about the ideas that bike friendly communities had implemented that would prevent us from adapting them here. There is strength, safety and overall benefit in numbers. I'll be happier when I don't have to improvise a bike rack at many destinations or venture outside of city lines to pick up a few bike parts or accessories on short notice. Hartford's bike scene is small. There's a certain allure to being part of a small group, but bicycling as a whole should not be that small group. I'd love to see bicycling become ordinary and ubiquitous enough to support multiple thriving fringe elements. The fanatics and purists have been there all along and they are important, but it's detrimental to cycling if most people are not comfortable making a bike part of their everyday routine. We can all do something better to spread the word, and would all do well to think about how.