NORWALK, Conn. – A plan to put bike lanes on Belden Avenue is being sent to the state for review over the protests of Norwalk’s Department of Public Works.
DPW Director Hal Alvord on Thursday told members of the Norwalk Traffic Authority that his department is opposed to a plan drawn up by Bike/Walk Task Force Co-Chairman Mike Mushak because, after a thorough review, the people Alvord called the bike-friendly and knowledgeable engineers on staff do not feel it is safe and opens the city up to potential liability.
“The minutes of this meeting will reflect that we were not in support of the program, so if anybody tries to come back after our licenses or after us financially, we have some protection,” Alvord said. “That doesn’t protect the city, of course. It puts us in a very uncomfortable position of potentially being called to testify against our employer, which we don’t cherish.”
Two members of the three-member authority were present – Mayor Harry Rilling and Commissioner Charlie Yost – allowing for a quorum. Yost, a Republican, voted with Rilling to send the plan to the Connecticut Department of Transportation and the Office of State Traffic Administration (OSTA) for review. Yost did ask Mushak questions, so it wasn’t quite the rubber stamp that the authority appeared to some observers be in its infancy, shortly after the election.
Rilling said he had learned at the U.S. Conference of Mayors that bike lanes are trending not only nationally but globally, that they reduce obesity and result in traffic calming. He began the discussion by lauding the progress the task force has made in a short period of time, and Mushak showed that he is intent on making a big change in as short a time as possible.
Mushak said the American Bicycle Association has rated Norwalk 141 out of the 169 Connecticut cities in terms of bicycle friendliness. “We want to be up to the top five within a year and we can do that with a comprehensive effort,” Mushak said.
Mushak recently applied chalk to Belden Avenue to see if bicycle lanes would fit. His plan meets all the federal and state standards, he said. It includes 10-foot wide lanes and, according to Mushak, meets the standards of the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) for low-speed urban arterials, and follows the latest safety research from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP).
Yost questioned the hurried nature of the proposal; Mushak said an opportunity had been revealed by the recent repaving and “raw asphalt” on Belden Avenue. “We kind of threw a wrench into the program because it was an opportunity,” Mushak said.
The task force will come up with a comprehensive plan for Norwalk, Mushak said. Yost, before voting to send the project to the state for review, repeated that he wanted to see the plan soon.
“We’ll make it a priority,” Mushak said.
A meeting between DPW and the task force is planned for Friday morning. That will include going over the road paving plans to coordinate with the many pedestrian and transportation studies done for Norwalk, Alvord said.
In opposition to the Belden Avenue proposal, Alvord cited “the nature of the traffic, the heavy truck traffic, the heavy bus traffic, the size of the buses and, given what is going on in the litigation arena now and the fact that some municipalities have now been held liable for bicycle deaths on roadways, and by the way, the majority of bicycle deaths occur on roadways like Belden Avenue.”
Rilling asked him for documentation on that. Alvord said he would provide it.
The mayor said he thought there was a greater liability if the city did not put in bike lanes because bicyclists are forbidden on sidewalks. Alvord said he thought that in Connecticut bicyclists are allowed on sidewalks, but Rilling, the former police chief, said that he didn’t think that was true. He said he thought there were city ordinances that disallow bicycles on sidewalks and asked Dep. Chief David Wrinn to look into it.
“It is my feeling that there is a greater sense of liability if we don’t have some safe navigation lanes for those bicyclist. I think that by putting them in we are making things safer and lessening to some degree our liability,” Rilling said.
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), a task force member, spoke in favor of the plan. He said DPW Engineer Dick Linnartz had visited Belden Avenue with him to see Mushak’s markings in the road and confirmed that the measurements were correct.
“It was very clear that all of the measurements conform to the national standards,” Kimmel said. “That’s the key thing here: They conform to the national standards.”
Linnartz kept warning Kimmel not to step into the street, Kimmel said. “They recognize that it is a dangerous situation,” Kimmel said. “Let’s not argue about leaving it a dangerous situation. Let’s deal with it in a way that cities everywhere try to address this.”
While the proposed bike lanes are near the Pulse Point Norwalk bus station, Kimmel said the buses in New York City are the same size as the ones in Norwalk and there are bicycles everywhere.
Mushak said there had been a meeting with Norwalk Transit District Administrator Louis Schulman.
“What Mr. Schulman said was that his buses could operate in 10-foot lanes at low speeds,” Mushak said. “At high speeds he would be concerned. The whole point of this, and he was basically supporting the bike lanes because he knew they would be traffic calming as well, and in most speed environments drivers adjust accordingly.”
Mushak provided a letter from Schulman. An excerpt:
“From research I have done since the meeting I understand that a 10-foot width for an urban roadway can be acceptable under certain circumstances and that it may have a ‘calming effect’ on traffic. However, a bike lane that runs for only two blocks or so may, I feel, just be confusing and may not offer the desired benefit. I understand that there is a view toward having bike lanes on all of West Avenue. If that is not going to happen in the near future then striping Belden Avenue as a narrower roadway, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense and may become a hazard.
“During the busiest parts of the day we can have up to six buses … all turning right from Burnell Boulevard onto Belden Avenue one after another; in some cases two abreast. Since a full-size coach is 102 inches wide with mirrors adding approximately 12 inches on each side, we have a vehicle projecting approximately 10½ feet. If traffic is moving slowly this can probably be accommodated. However, with faster moving traffic it can be a problem.
“Again, we support the installation of bike lanes in the City of Norwalk, even along Belden Avenue, but as part of a longer lane that serves the entire West Avenue corridor. I believe that one small section will be confusing, and possibly hazardous to both drivers and cyclists.”
Mushak also provided letters of support for the plan from state Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) and Paxton Kinol of Belpointe Real Estate, the developer of the Waypointe project on West Avenue. Tilly Hatcher of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners attended the meeting, in support of the plan.
“A lot of people are convinced that this will work,” Mushak said. “We will look back and be amazed and say ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’”
Mushak said he respects DPW’s professionalism and care but there is a nationwide debate going on. He cited Jim Speck, an author and urban planner who came to Norwalk last year to share information, and offered a quote from Speck’s book: “The biggest mistake any city can make is having its DPW design it’s streets.”
“Now I hate to say that but engineers are all about following the prescribed, sort of established, patterns of what they are used to seeing,” Mushak said. “This is new. This apprehension DPW has I totally understand, but this is happening everywhere. New Haven had a similar situation to this. New Haven is the number three city in Connecticut in terms of its bikability. … New Haven, their DPW decided it was too dangerous and there was too much liability with bike lanes. The city leaders basically said ‘We’re going to take that responsibility away from DPW, we’re going to give that to our urban planning department and we’ll let them decide,’ because, and now New Haven has bike lanes all over the place. Speeds are reduced. Pedestrian fatalities are down. The safety has been improved. They have been a huge hit.”
Alvord said his staff has unanimously concluded that the plan is not advisable. It will be necessary to go back to the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) to enact the plan because DPW got federal funding for Belden Avenue.
“They have told us that they want to see any changes in the striping plan because the signal plan for that signal was approved with the striping plan,” Alvord said. “We don’t know what their plan is going to be, it could be a range from an administrative OK to ‘we don’t think you should do that given the volume and nature of the traffic.’”