More than development. Norwalk redevelopment.

Bicycling

There are many reasons why more bicycling in downtown could be positive for Norwalk.  Just as pedestrian counts are conducted and looked to as indicators or harbingers of economic activity, merchants in some cities increasingly see bicyclists as revenue targets and pitch to themStudies show that the same key demographics Norwalk needs to accommodate prefer “active transportation,” especially walking, biking, and transit.  America’s best companies get that and prioritize bicycling for their workers.  Finally, as health costs continue to climb, and Norwalk — along with the rest of the country — takes notice of and endeavors to deal with its waistline, communities with more bicycling are correlating with lower rates of obesity and better health.  “Fine,” you say, “but putting cyclists on Norwalk’s roads would a) be dangerous, and b) cause congestion and delays.”  While such concerns are very sensible and intuitive, research demonstrates that when properly executed, better accommodating more bicyclists not only makes traffic safer for everyone, but also more efficient.

A compelling bicycle environment begins with a transportation network that acknowledges bicycles’ existence. Presently, the only sign of this is a smattering of bicycle racks around the downtown, and a bus system that allows riders to attach their bicycles to the front of the bus for longer, intermodal trips. Both are helpful, but neither acknowledges the bicycle in the roadway.  (Norwalk is fortunate to have the the off-road Norwalk River Valley Trail, and the Harbor Loop initiative, and plans are advancing for bike trails along the Merritt.  But these are primarily recreational — not transportational — facilities.)  Design toolboxes to address this for planners and engineers are increasingly available, with NACTO recently producing this manual.

Toward that end, the Connectivity Initiative has recommended a network of bicycle “sharrows” throughout the downtown which acknowledge to bikers and drivers alike that it is in fact legal for bicyclists to be in the road, and that they and drivers must “share the road” with one another.  Sharrows have on-street markings as well as roadside signage.  They are already in-use in Simsbury, CT, as well as on Chapel Street in New Haven (pictured).

Beyond mere acknowledgement, however, Norwalk may want to encourage bicycling in the downtown by actually dedicating some amount of right-of-way to bicycles, establishing bike lanes.  In a city very unfamiliar with bicycle transportation (only one-tenth of 1% of Norwalkers bike to work) but with a sizable portion of the population that both lives and works locally (about 20,000, or half of the workforce), it’s easy to argue that there’s significant potential for a higher bicycle mode-share if people felt safe with the option (a feeling which dedicated bike lanes usually provides).  That would be great for all the reasons alluded to above, but also because it would mean less vehicular traffic for the rest of us to contend with.  To give you a sense of just how significant a phenomenon biking can become for a city, check out this video of Utrecht, Holland’s 4th largest city, at rush hour, where 33% of the population commutes to work on bicycle.

Certainly this is a long-way off in Norwalk, but, given the scope and scale of the development coming to Norwalk’s downtown, and the modest expense entailed in providing sharrows and bike lanes (essentially the cost of paint), this Plan proposes some modest bicycle improvements as one core strategy of the corridor’s overall connectivity.  If people think that the references in this post to Portland, OR and Utrecht in the Netherlands underscore the “foreign-ness” of the concept to Norwalk and would like a better comparable, Hoboken, NJ may be a little closer to the mark, although it’s impossible to ever find a perfect parallel.

Separately from this initiative (and its specific geography), the City of Norwalk is producing a citywide bicycle and pedestrian plan, linked here.