After walking and biking gained momentum during pandemic, CT towns become more pedestrian friendly

Photo of Katrina Koerting

Walkers and cyclists have become a frequent sight this past year, especially as the pandemic forced many offices and schools to go remote.

Communities, such as Fairfield and Westport, had already started to shift to be more pedestrian friendly and officials said the pandemic has reaffirmed those efforts, further showing the need for more bike paths and sidewalks.

“With the lockdown, the options for travel, activities, and socializing became severely limited,” said Sarah Roy, a member of Fairfield’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. “This had a negative impact on both residents’ physical and mental health. Getting out of the house, breathing fresh air and getting exercise has been a vital lifeline for most people.”

Fairfield officials estimate there has been a 25 to 50 percent increase in people riding bikes in the past year. The number of pedestrians have ballooned, doubling or even tripling compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Westport Police Lt. David Wolf said they saw more families biking during the weekdays when the pandemic first started, but biking was substantially down on the weekend because there weren’t organized events.

“We have however, seen a noticeable uptick in walkers,” he said.

Westport has already launched efforts to meet the growing interest, including adding two miles of sidewalks around Staples High School and Long Lots school and will start another two miles this year.

“Most recently, we have been looking into installing bike repair stations with bike racks to encourage more bike riding in popular locations, such as the Westport library/Levitt Pavilion, Compo Beach and downtown,” Westport Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich said.

He expects even more people will now understand the need for these improvements.

“As a result of the increased walking activity during the pandemic, we speculate that more people realize how important sidewalks are as a quality-of-life issue,” he said.

Fairfield and Westport aren’t alone.

Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said the state is also focusing more on cycling and pedestrians, both in its own plans and in supporting communities’ efforts with grants.

“The pandemic accentuated an already shifting public sentiment to further incorporate non-motorized transportation into daily activities including for work and recreation,” Nursick said. “This has confirmed and reaffirmed our continued support for transportation amenities suited and geared toward walking and biking.”

Work in progress

Though relatively recent, the approach isn’t new.

“Shortly after the turn of the millennium, with gas prices soaring, the town started to receive requests to improve conditions for cyclists and pedestrians,” said Bill Hurley, Fairfield’s engineering director. “In fact, a petition signed by over a 1,000 residents kickstarted some of the Fairfield programs you see today.”

The list includes Safe Routes to School, Operation Living Streets and the creation of the Fairfield Bike and Pedestrian Group with the Fairfield Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee.

“Their first bike route was created on Mill Plain Road and they have created over a half dozen more,” Hurley said.

Fairfield also adopted a complete streets policy in 2018.

Hurley said he’s seeing federal, state and local governments consider more alternate transportation programs, grants and projects.

“The town has been involved in at least a dozen grants and programs to improve pedestrian and bicycle opportunities,” he said.

Nursick said the state started shifting from a car-centric approach to be more inclusive about 15 years ago, gradually expanding its programs and funding for these initiatives over time. He credits the move to residents expressing more of a desire for it.

“We have incorporated and embraced the ‘Complete Streets’ movement and support the importance — now more than ever — of our obligation to consider the needs of all users of the transportation network,” he said.

At one time, the state didn’t allow standalone sidewalk projects and now many of the DOT municipality-based programs support installing sidewalks and cycling trails. It also closed gaps in existing trail systems with a big funding push during the LetsGoCT initiative a few years ago, Nursick said.

As part of the shifting approach, the state also launched the Community Connectivity Program about five years ago, which helps with planning and funding for non-motorized transportation. It’s awarded 90 grants so far, totaling more than $30 million in the past three years. The state has also partnered with municipalities to complete more than 80 road safety audits through the program, Nursick said.

Two of those safety audits were done in Fairfield’s Southport and Grasmere neighborhoods, which allowed the town to get grant money for sidewalk and safety projects there, Hurley said.

Westport completed a road safety audit in 2016 and a corridor study in 2019. The latter made specific recommendations for bicycle friendly improvements along Riverside Avenue between the downtown area and Saugatuck, Ratkiewich said.

“We are still looking at implementing these solutions,” he said.

Planning for the future

Nursick said the DOT is really starting to examine pedestrian safety in future projects, which are outlined in the state’s Comprehensive Pedestrian Safety Strategy.

The department already expands shoulder widths where possible during repaving projects to help improve pedestrian and cycling access and safety.

“As an agency, we are also focusing efforts on pedestrian safety initiatives, which includes improving crosswalks at unsignalized intersections with enhanced pavement markings and warning signs on all state roadways and many municipally owned roads,” he said.

There’s also more money available for the Local Transportation Capital Improvement Program and the Community Connectivity Grant Program, with hopes of switching the latter from bonding to the budget itself, making the funding more consistent, Nursick said.

He said the success of these programs has helped contribute to the consistent executive and legislative support for funding them.

Hurley has also seen more federal and state money for bike, pedestrian and public transportation, adding there may be additional stimulus funding available in the future with the pandemic.

“The town continues to work with neighborhoods, public requests and government organizations to increase funding opportunities to maintain and provide new infrastructure for alternate transportation,” Hurley said.