Bicyclists ask for safer streets

If you can’t walk, bike; if you can walk, bike anyway.

This was the message at Thursday evening’s community meeting at the New Haven Hall of Records. The meeting sought to use input from New Haven residents on how to improve access for bikers and pedestrians to downtown New Haven. The Connecticut South Central Regional Council of Governments has already given New Haven $150,000 to implement changes, but city officials wanted to hold an interactive meeting before deciding what those changes would be.

If even some of the changes go through, New Haven’s traffic systems could change significantly.

In the Hall of Records hearing room, the designers of the traffic plan addressed an audience of more than 50. New Haven and the Regional Council hired Nelson Nygaard Consulting Associates to examine New Haven’s downtown traffic and develop recommendations for improvement.

The crowd was virtually all bikers — many arrived with bike helmets in hand. (Even a reporter covering the meeting for the New Haven Independent arrived on a bicycle.) And the bikers showed no love for their ubiquitous traffic nemeses, cars, during the presentation.

When a presenter asked how much horse power a car has, the response from the audience was immediate: “Too many!” one biker shouted.

New Haven Traffic, Transportation and Parking Director Michael Piscitelli set the evening agenda. “Our goal tonight is to determine a way of approach for a comprehensive look at the traffic situation and come up with a series of actionable steps,” he said.

He then handed the floor over to Michael King and Amy Pfeiffer, two consultants from Nelson Nygaard.

King pointed out what he said were the many flaws in the current downtown traffic system. He took particular issue with red lights that allow right-hand turns and the pedestrian crosswalk system. “When I walk in New Haven, I don’t know what to expect from the lights,” he said. “There are so many inconsistencies.”

Using a lengthy slide show that drew on examples from traffic systems across the globe, from Portland to Copenhagen to Moscow, King recommended the elimination of right turns on red lights (RTORs in traffic lingo).

King also said more biking lanes were needed to make bikers more visible and accidents less likely. He said the goal is to create more bikers.

“Studies are conclusive that traffic gets safer with more people cycling,” he argued.

The suggested improvements found support from residents like Meg Howard, who works for Atelier Ten, a London-based environment-friendly infrastructure consulting firm with an office in New Haven. “I have no car, so I walk or bike everywhere,” she said. “I need safe streets.”

But there was a note of discord. New Haven resident Kevin Ewing argued that the meeting inappropriately focused only on downtown.

“I think the whole city should be under consideration,” he said. “They keep talking about starting with downtown and then expanding. But they never start with downtown, and then they never expand.”

But King offered a counterargument. “We have to acknowledge that this is a baby step,” he said. “We need something in the ground; stuff that we can do.”

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