There are a lot of people spinning their wheels in New Haven these days. Literally, as more people than ever are riding bikes not just for recreation but as their primary means of transportation. To be sure, recreational riding is as popular as ever, but it’s the workaday people who strap on a helmet, roll up their right pant leg and straddle a cycle who are changing the look and feel of New Haven’s streets. That’s just the way they roll.
This wasn’t always the case. Twenty-three years ago, people felt sorry for Barbara Endres, an architect with Pelli Clarke Pelli recently relocated from Munich, when they saw her astride her English Raleigh for the three-mile trip from her Hamden home to her Chapel Street office. Similarly, Matthew Feiner was teased when he rode his bike to work (to a bike shop, no less) in the rain. “That has changed incredibly,” says Feiner, who now owns The Devil’s Gear Bike Shop. Endres agrees: “Now when I stop I get the feeling that people think, ‘Aren’t you lucky that you can ride your bicycle to work.’”
That’s because rain or shine, cycling to work, to the grocery store or to drop the kids off at school is not just a whimsical notion or ethos among a group of twenty-something hipsters or college kids. It’s an intentional choice for an increasing number of people around the country and the world in every economic, social and ethnic group who are choosing two wheels over four. The bicycle movement underscores that it’s not just a mode of transportation but a way of life, and for cities to remain relevant and attractive they must improve the services for the helmeted crowd.
New Haven is doing just that, and has made tremendous progress in the last decade toward becoming a much more bike-friendly city. The signs are everywhere, from sharrows—shared-lane marking signs painted on roads reminding drivers that they share the road—to the increasingly common sight of bikers peddling to their destination to dedicated bike racks installed at strategic places around town. There are even several group rides included in the schedule of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas every year. The bespoked set has spoken.
And the city is listening. Why? Because bolstering the bike culture of New Haven makes economic sense. “The city is taking a very proactive stance toward making New Haven as multimodal as possible,” says Jim Travers, director of transportation, traffic and parking for the city of New Haven. “Fifty years ago, the jobs in New Haven required muscle. The jobs that are here today and will be here in the future require brains. If we want to be a city that supports young, vibrant, creative thinkers we have to respond to and create the environment they are seeking. Many of these people are riding bikes.”
Sara Armstrong and her family are among them. Six years ago, she, her husband and three children moved to the East Rock neighborhood of New Haven and were committed to remaining a one-car family, which was a challenge at the time. They eventually determined a cargo bike—an increasingly popular symbol of urban chic—would suit their needs for shuttling their twin sons the two miles to and from preschool. “At first we were total freaks. But now there’s a whole community of family bicyclists. Moreover, five years later I realize that I never want to live anywhere that I can’t use a bike for transportation for basic things,” she says.
That connection to community is yet another driver for Armstrong and others like her. “There is certainly a financial advantage to biking,” she says, “but the biggest advantage is the deeper connection to our community. You can’t go stealth on a cargo bike, so you end up talking to, meeting people and noticing things you never would if you were in a car.”
The push for better peddling came from a grassroots effort that was largely spearheaded by Elm City Cycling, a volunteer-run and member supported nonprofit organization that most people, including Mayor John DeStefano, credit with getting the city’s biking momentum rolling. He spoke at a recent ECCorganized Bike to Work Breakfast and thanked ECC for making New Haven “a better urban area.”
Thanks to the ECC’s advocacy efforts and the city’s commitment, “the city has gotten really good at biking,” says Feiner, who was one of the group’s original members. Some of the collaboration’s most significant accomplishments are:
• Several miles of marked biking lanes.
• Complete Streets Legislation: Enacted in 2010, it rethinks the physical design of streets to make New Haven more livable and appealing to all residents.
• Bike boxes: Recently installed, they are a colored area at a signalized intersection that allows bicyclists to pull in front of waiting traffic. Designed to be used only at red lights, the box is intended to reduce car-bike accidents, increase cyclist visibility and provide bicyclists with a head start when the light turns green.
• Cycle Tracks: The first will open this month. A buffered, two-way road for bikes, the first in Connecticut, that will create a safe bike connection between downtown New Haven and the other side of the Tomlinson Bridge.
ECC also organizes many events held throughout the year, such as Bike to Work Day, a Girls’ Bike Club and monthly Bike to Work break fasts. Bike racks on city buses and the Elm City Cycle Map— which not only shows which streets have bike lanes or paths but also delineates several recreational rides at varying lengths—are also a result of the organization’s efforts.
Cyclists in the city also have many organized rides from which to choose. Critical Mass rides, which are held the last Friday of the month, routinely attract between 150 and 175 people. The movement started about 20 years ago, as a way for cyclists to flex their collective muscles. In many cities these demonstrations turned contentious between the riders and law enforcement, but thanks to a concerted effort among the organizers here, New Haven’s rides “are kinder and less critical,” says Feiner. “Our rides are about demonstrating peacefully and educating people about what they need to know about cyclists on the road.” Riders start convening around 5:30 p.m. on the New Haven Green and set off promptly at 6 p.m. on a variety of city routes. The rides are generally about an hour long and always end with a potluck dinner. Info on the particulars is dispersed on Critical Mass New Haven’s Facebook page.
Rock to Rock, is another example of the increasing exuberance among people of all ages. Held in April to celebrate Earth Day, riders travel from West Rock to East Rock with celebrations on both sides and in the middle. Three hundred participated in the first ride, held five years ago. This past April there were more than 1,000.
Considering the modern day bicycle was invented in Ansonia, it’s no wonder that New Haven is so “cycle-phantic.” Pierre Lallement received the first and only American patent for the pedal-driven two wheeled velocipede in 1866.
“The bike is a big part of New Haven’s history,” says Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, who is the director of photo archives at the New Haven Museum and is responsible for organizing its current exhibit, “Cycle New Haven.”
The exhibit was slated to close in March, but was so popular it will stay up twice as long as intended, through the end of the month. In addition to the bike itself, the exhibit also celebrates other important biking milestones that began in New Haven such as the formation of bicycle advocacy groups, cycling clubs and laws for safe riding.
There’s still a lot of unfinished road ahead for the city and its cyclists. High on the list is a bike-sharing program like Citi Bike, the program New York City recently wheeled out. “I really look forward to the day I get to stand by one of those racks and announce it’s here in New Haven,” says Travers. “And we are working toward creating an infrastructure that supports it.”
But there’s a lot to be proud of as well. Though New Haven has neither cracked Bicycling’s list of the top 50 cities nor received even a bronze medal from Bicycle Friendly America—a national ranking and award by the League of American Bicyclists—word on the street among those in the know is that New Haven is definitely on riders’ radar. “New Haven is becoming known as a bicycling city,” says Feiner with a smile. “They are talking about us in Seattle and Portland, which are two of the best biking cities in the world. That’s pretty cool.”