Monday, November 15, 2010

Car Free in Connecticut

Car free in Connecticut – What am I thinking?It has been two months since I moved back to central Connecticut from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and the transportation norms of Connecticut are radically different from what I’d become accustomed. In CU I had shed the personal automobile and relished the biking, walking, and public transit options for getting around the compact and culturally dense community. Addicted to the low costs and enjoyable non-vehicular commutes I decided to continue my car free adventure in central Connecticut. As the car free lifestyle is decidedly rare in this area I thought it might be a good idea to capture my thoughts and experiences in a series of short articles. Folks considering the car free or car light lifestyles could read these accounts and be inspired to take the next step. Existing converts would have the opportunity to share their tips and tricks (and shortcuts) to make the car free life more palatable.

First I’ll share where I’m coming from. For the last three years I was living in an idyllic university community. The cities of Champaign and Urbana sandwich the University of Illinois. Wide, flat streets connected in a convenient grid pattern contain three vibrant business districts and the university within a three mile circumscribed circle. The city of Urbana boasts an 8% mode share for bicycling trips. Although bike lanes aren’t universal, a trip across town is comfortably completed on low traffic, neighborhood streets. CU had the most cycling friendly motorists I have encountered, as they were familiar with sharing the road and many were themselves at least occasional bicycle commuters. A constant supply of vehicle free university students, most entirely clueless of safe cycling practices, augmented the permanent resident bicycle commuters. The town council of Urbana was marjority pro-bicycle and was moving swiftly to implement a comprehensive bicycle plan. Neighboring Champaign was also adding bicycle lanes to major downtown thoroughfares and had included Complete Streets wording in its transportation policy. In 2010 Urbana was recognized as a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists and was quickly progressing towards the next level of Silver.

I lived in central Connecticut from 2001 to 2007, but after frolicing for years in a bikable and walkable mecca the differences are stark. The mode share for bicycle trips in the Hartford area is less than 1%, which is near the national average. The City of Hartford has adopted a policy of incorporating bike lanes where possible, but the surrounding suburban communities have scant bicycle friendly infrastructure. The dominant suburban and exurban makeup of the area results in a less compact metropolitan core and longer distances between home, work, shopping, and cultural events. The geographically constrained arterial roads results in higher traffic volume on critical links that sometimes can’t be planned around by a cyclist looking for a more lightly traveled alternative. On top of the physical challenges of minimal infrastructure and longer distances, the drivers in central CT are not familiar with operating around bicycles that share the roadway. It’s stressful riding out there, but you already know that.

Now why would I choose to attempt to ditch my car in this type of environment? Good question. My primary reason is that I’d rather put away an extra $6,000 a year towards an early retirement. Secondarily, I find that bike commuting reduces my stress level and keeps me fit with a minimal level of time and effort. The trip to and from work each day becomes time to think and get my blood moving. The gym memberships are avoided while at the same time I daily experience the outdoors and counteract the soul destroying effects of an engineering desk job. There are numerous additional benefits of the car free lifestyle that I will explore in future articles, but that’s enough for now.

How does one get started on this car free stuff? When I moved back to Connecticut I realized that in order to make car free work, it would take a little planning. My job in East Hartford at Pratt & Whitney would account for most of my transportation needs, so I decided to live a couple of miles from the office. A bucolic estate out in Hebron was out of the question. Groceries, shopping, restaurants, and outdoor pursuits are within easy cycling distance. Cultural events in downtown Hartford are still an easy ride. The framework is there for a successful car free experiment. Now it’s up to me to see if I can make it work. Future articles will look at how I’m doing and occasionally take up larger urban planning and sustainability themes. Hopefully you’ll find these periodic articles entertaining, educational, and in some ways inspiring. Wish me luck!


Miriam said...

Good posting, provocative issues.
It seems that you are not fairly comparing regional areas, however. A large university town/ region like Champaign-Urbana is going to be more bicycle-friendly by dint of its homogeneous population: students without cars. The population of the area, including students, is 210,000 spread over 1,900 square miles. A lot fewer people means a lot fewer cars, so naturally a safer ride and more space for “sharing the road.” So – is the comparison to be made between C-U and E. Hartford -- the area where you commute to work? Or between C-U and the greater Hartford’s metro area? Furthermore, topography plays into the issue as well; a flatter landscape with greater visibility is much more conducive to a cycling community versus our hilly, twisty rides and narrow roads inherited from our colonial origins.

Looking forward to hearing more about your commuting adventures.

Tony C said...

Miriam - The comparison will be between CU and wherever I need to ride while living in East Hartford. Central Connecticut will never be Chambana, but I'm going to see if car free is still achievable regardless of the adverse environment.

I won't always be harping on how bad CT is for cycling. My experiences and background in CU were included to show how different it can be (and some of the reasons why). I hope to highlight good parts about bike commuting in CT, as well as the struggles. For example, the graffiti the Hartford area kicks ass. Didn't really get that in Chambana.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Great to hear a new voice on the blog. Looking forward to reading future posts on the car-free front.

"The graffiti... kicks ass" is ambiguous. Is that a good part or a struggle? I ask this because a lot of the good graffiti is next to train tracks, and riding on train tracks kicks ass. I mean, it's a struggle. But the graffiti kicks ass. Which is good.

Anyhow, definitely would love to hear more of the gritty details comparing the quality of roads, the climate, the people, the drivers, etc.
Egregious maniac driver stories are fun. I think I remember you raising your arms and shouting at an idiot SUV driver who disrespected your left turn signal into the gas station in Glastonbury during the Eel. Your righteousness was admirable in that instance and I can't help but think there must be more such incidents occurring almost daily in East Hartford. In my experience at least, I've found drivers in Hartford proper to be consistently aware of, even expectant of, bikes on the streets, whereas in surrounding towns drivers barely know how to behave around a bike... if they notice you at all. It's adverse in the 'burbs!

Keep up the interesting posts, good luck, and ride on.


Laura said...

This is timely! I would like to go car free but have a lot of concerns with logistics, especially considering the weather. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures. Maybe in the spring, I will feel confident enough to join you.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I make the west Hartford to PW bike commute 3 days a week in the summer and weather permitting in the winter. Aside from the crazy Hartford drivers (got yelled at today for riding in the dark) I dont think it's too terrible here. I spent 5 years in Columbus oh and found it much worse for riding once you left the immediate OSU area.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tony, for the interesting post. More cyclists commuting will mean a stronger voice in improving conditions. Suggesting safer routes, with cut-throughs and such and strategies for keeping out of harms way would be much appreciated by readers of the blog who frequent the blog but maybe don't leave comments.

C'mon Damien, you love the train tracks and now that the graffiti is apparently better ... :)

-- dario

Tony C said...

I found the best Graffiti art I've ever seen. Came across it last weekend taking the long way home from the Bike Walk Conference. In East Hartford just across Hillside Street (east side) on the Hockanum River Trail, turn left under the bridge instead of heading along down the trail. F-ing amazing!

I have quite a store of righteous indignation. I try to keep it under control. Sometimes it slips out. I keep waiting for a car driver to actually stop and get out of the car...

Columbus, OH is making big strides right now. My friend is a bike / ped coordinator for the city and they've got lots of urban multi-use trails. I saw lots of bike commuters and walkers on my way out of town when I passed through there a couple of months ago.

chillwill said...

ha! I am in Columbus right now, and spend a week or so here every year with some good friends who own a pedicab biz. There are lots of bikes here, which is awesome. Also lots of bike shops IN the city, which is very different than Hartford.

i have certainly had more driver and harrassment issues in hartford, but that's not fair as i am comparing 19years to about a month!

ride on!

Brendan said...

That is good graffiti there.

Chris said...

I look forward to your posts. I recently went from a 35 mile commute to a ~6 mile commute to PW in East Hartford. I am now up to biking 2 days a week. My coworkers think I am nuts riding through Hartford but the worst part of my ride is Main St in East Hartford, as the cars travel way to fast and there is no shoulder so you are forced to take the right lane. You find out impatient people are as they yell and beeb at you.

kanishka said...


feel free to email me anytime (nish2575 at some big internet company that starts with a g...). i love bs'ing about car-free in ct. i did some crazy car free time from march to august about 2 years ago in this area. and whenever home on break, i try to stay true to it. i refused ot reduce my radius of travel though, so if i felt like going to willimantic, i biked it out there. exhausting and exhilirating


Anonymous said...

Awesome post, and it's so true about the relative unfriendliness our drivers (especially in the suburbs).

Now why would I choose to attempt to ditch my car in this type of environment? Good question. My primary reason is that I’d rather put away an extra $6,000 a year towards an early retirement.

AAA estimates that it's $10,000/year for the average American, but regardless, I would recommend investing it in your particular skills and interests as Emerson might say- those things that increase your wealth (in the true sense of the word). Dollars will be worthless by the time you retire, no point in saving them.

jeff said...

Wow !! really nice blog. It will be very useful for me. So, thanks for sharing this post.


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