Norwalk Traffic Authority ignores DPW, goes to higher authority in Belden Avenue bike lane plan

Mayor Harry Rilling leads
Mayor Harry Rilling leads Thursday’s meeting of the Norwalk Traffic Authority.

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.

Bike/Walk Task Force Co-Chairman Mike Mushak
A car recently passes over marks on Belden Avenue made by Bike/Walk Task Force Co-Chairman Mike Mushak.

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)
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) briefly uses Tilly Hatcher of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners as a prop Thursday as he advocates for bike lanes on Belden Avenue.

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?’”

Norwalk Traffic Authority
Norwalk Bike/Walk Task Force Co-Chairman Mike Mushak presents his plan to the Norwalk Traffic Authority on Thursday.

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.’”

Mushak Belden Ave. plan

Belden Ave bike lane letters015


33 responses to “Norwalk Traffic Authority ignores DPW, goes to higher authority in Belden Avenue bike lane plan”

  1. Mike Mushak

    I look forward to working with DPW into the future on adding properly designed bike lanes all over Norwalk following recommendations in all of our various plans and studies. I am struck by the comment from DPW that the engineers are unanimous in their disapproval of this proposal, which actually follows all national safety standards.
    We all have to wonder if they were equally unanimous in their approval of the widely criticized bike lanes on Strawberry Hill Ave, which they planned and installed last year, which do NOT follow safety standards, by preserving an empty parking lane that is little used, and end abruptly in travel lanes and mysteriously disappear and reappear on either side of intersections, adding confusion and jeopardizing safety for both cyclists and car drivers, especially children since the plan there was to make it safer for kids to get to the 3 schools on that road. Interesting!
    Funny, several years ago Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene was asked why we had 3 separate studies by 3 different departments recommending bike lanes, and why they weren’t properly coordinated since it seemed taxpayers were paying for duplicate efforts. His answer, in front of a crowded room that had met to discuss one of those plans done by his department, was that it was the Common Council’s job to sift through all the studies and determine which plan was best, and that all the department heads had to do was provide as much information to the Council as possible. That struck many of us as odd, coming from the P and Z Director whose job it is to plan the city. Now it is up to the Task Force to come up with the same “comprehensive plan” we requested from P and Z three years ago, as requested at the meeting yesterday. Also, at some point you just have to stop studying an issue after so many years, and just start implementing them , using common sense based on simple observations of where cyclists want to go around town. That is what we are doing now.
    That said, we are happy to now work on a “comprehensive plan” which was a smart request from the Traffic Authority, since Task Force members, unlike many if the city staff with all due respect, actually live here and use our bikes around town and know what routes make sense. It’s just funny how these things work out in Norwalk after years of taxpayer funded studies have already been done by 3 different departments. Well, no point in fretting now, let’s just roll up our sleeves and start getting this done!

  2. John Hamlin

    This is so overdue. It’s great to see Norwalk moving toward being a bike friendly, bikable city. It will make it safer for those who bike and a much more attractive place for young professionals and families to settle down. And it has the potential to calm traffic — without interfering in any way with automobile traffic. Mr Mushak is to be commended for his dedication to an exceptionally worhy cause. The city should support this effort — time to embrace a better future !!

  3. John Hamlin

    Also — it seems like the DPW is intent on making itself entirely superfluous. That’s a shame.

  4. M. Murray’s

    Has anyone actually done a study on the percentage of bikers in this area? The distance they travel within the city? Isn’t there already a bike path that goes all along that route from S. Norwalk through Oyster Park, behind the YMCA and all the way to behind the library? Has anyone checked to see if this will increase or decrease traffic congestion?

  5. Joke Force

    Who needs licensed professional civil engineers when a gardener can adequately design city streets? Most of the successful cities in the country are run by knee jerk amateurs. Just sit back and watch the magic unfold.

  6. Anna Duleep, City Sheriff

    Great initiative, Mike & other task force members! I know I slow down when sharing the road with bike riders. I get nervous and in the moment curse my luck to be behind a bike; ultimately, however, I recognize that having to mindfully share the road can be a great traffic calming measure. Contrast that with the dilemma faced by people who finally get their potholes fixed; first you cheer the smooth roadway, then you wonder when your neighbors became such speed demons (e.g. Comstock Hill in Silvermine). Add in the health benefits of encouraging outdoor exercise and you’ve got a program well worth exploring.

  7. Bruce Kimmel

    What needs to be stressed, in my opinion, is that bike lanes slow down traffic and actually make our streets much safer. And this has been established in city after city. To some, this may seem counter intuitive, but consider this: Currently, Belden Avenue is not safe for folks on bicycles, or even cars and pedestrians, because of speeding. Adding the bike lanes and making sure that all the vehicle lanes conform to federal guidelines provide everyone with visuals that direct all the traffic, as well as pedestrians. For years, we’ve wrestled with speeding in Norwalk, but to no avail. Perhaps this will truly slow folks down.
    Another point: We often hear about how people on bicycles do not follow the rules of the road, how they run stop signs, etc. That may be true, but I believe that situation is improving. The real issue, especially in terms of safety, is that people in cars generally do not follow the rules of the road — and to a much greater extent than bicycles. Speeding, virtually everyone does it around here; rolling through stop signs, most drivers do it; not signaling before turning… I could go on. The point is, we need to all slow down and drive safely, whether on a bike or in a car.

  8. EveT

    Why were the bike lanes on Strawberry Hill designed contrary to safety standards? I agree that they are confusing for vehicle drivers and cyclists. When will they be fixed to conform to safety standards?

  9. rburnett

    It is time to move Norwalk into the future – Thank you John Hamlin for your spot-on comments.

    Thank you to those on the Bike Lane Task Force for giving of their time to ensure the safety of our bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists and to make our streets safer as well.

    Amazing how bike lanes can spring up all over the country but for some reason due to the mindset of the old schoolers, the streets in Norwalk are different and can’t support them.

  10. M. Murray’s

    Will bike lanes reduce parking spaces on Belsen av?

  11. Dorothy Mobilia

    The bike/walk concept is timely and terrific. The lanes will increase awareness, and return city traffic to the diversity we knew in an earlier generation, before speeding and road hogging took over. It’s time to pay attention to the generation now demanding the right to cycle on the roads. It’s true that many do not know the rules of the road, but I’m confident the task force will seek ways to address that as the lanes are put in place. Communities and cities all over the country have bike lanes and biking events. They eliminate some need for cars, enhance fitness and are great fun besides. Go, Mike and Peter!

  12. Spanner

    Kimmel left a mess on Meadow st why not do this on Beldon ave why not continue ruining a rundown city with our professional puppets.this is urban nonsense at the highest level.In defense of gardener s not all of us are idiots.

  13. Bruce Kimmel

    In answer to two questions that were raised in this thread:
    First of all, our DPW engineers designed and implemented the bike lane fiasco on Strawberry Hill. They have finally admitted that it is dangerous and have developed a plan, working with the task force, to improve the lanes, especially at intersections. Lower Strawberry Hill and Fitch will soon be striped with bike lanes — and it will be done correctly.
    There is to be no reduction in parking on Belden. Plus, there will be buffer zones between the curbside parking and the bike lanes to ensure safety.

  14. Mike Mushak

    Great comments everyone! Dorothy, thank you for your wonderful letter of support, which I may have forgot to thank you for on Monday when you sent it. Crazy day that was. I displayed it on a presentation board and mentioned it in the video above. Your support is much appreciated, as former chair if the Zoning Commission. What a contrast to the current chair, who hates bike lanes and thinks bikes don’t belong on roads at all. Amazing.
    M Murray’s, to answer your question, NO parking spaces are removed on Belden.

    EveT, Strawberry Hill was a learning experience and will get fixed, perhaps not to the degree the Task Force would like to see, but it’s clear we have to do something. In fairness to the DPW, the State of CT bike standards are poorly written and
    have no details about transitioning through intersections or dealing with issues we have on Strawberry Hill. But they are also listed as guidelines only, and since every road is different, it takes common sense and a good understanding of how folks including children use bike lanes to get a system that is easy to understand and safe, with special consideration to how bike lanes continue through dangerous spaces like travel lanes and intersections. Those factors were all missing on Strawberry Hill, with all due respect to our dedicated and hard working staff, who now realize we could have done better there. We encourage staff to learn from their mistakes, which we all make and try to learn from.
    The irony here is that many folks look at Strawberry Hill now and think it is representative of all bike lanes, especially as Norwalk’s first major corridor designed for bikes. We feared that would happen, and a lot of public feedback on Belden is referring to Strawberry Hill for comparison’s sake, naturally.
    . Trying to balance all of this is a challenge right now, but no one said this process of turning Norwalk into a bike-friendly city would be easy. Most folks would have given up by now, but I am reminded constantly in my travels to bike friendly cities (a couple dozen a year at least since the 90’s), of how much potential Norwalk has to be a safer and more inviting city to those of us who choose riding bikes or walking, whether to commute, to shop, or for recreation and exercise. And I think, why can’t we be a leader in this area instead of years behind? Do we always have to celebrate mediocrity in Norwalk? Why not celebrate excellence and demand it in our street and urban design, and in all areas of our city life? We pay enough in taxes in Norwalk to deserve the very best, and that’s what I am trying to deliver.

  15. LWitherspoon

    Thank you task force. Let’s hope the proposed 1000 feet of bike lane on Belden Ave is quickly followed by a much longer bike lane on West Ave, and others elsewhere in Norwalk.
    Riding bikes on sidewalks is illegal.
    I hope the Mayor will obtain corporation counsel’s opinion regarding the liability question raised by Mr. Alvord. Such questions are better addressed by experienced attorneys than by engineers or former police chiefs. Does the City have liability insurance?

  16. Joke Force

    Tweaking Strawberry Hill layout has nothing to do with having too narrow a road with too many high volume businesses in such close proximity. The only thing slowing down traffic there are the traffic lights every 50 feet.
    The city is self insured meaning taxpayers would be on the hook for any liability here. Maybe the state will say something different. But I highly doubt that. Engineering has standards not political opinions.
    I support bicycling, but only where it makes sense. If Harry wants more headlines and photo-ops he should be promoting use of the Harbor Loop Trail for cyclists. Does he even know it exists?

  17. Bruce Kimmel

    Spanner: Meadow Street? I was not on the Council when that happened. Please get your facts straight, whoever you are.

  18. jlightfield

    A 10 foot driving lane marked by paint is a wonderful experiment to run and see if speeding is reduced on Belden avenue. I hope we don’t stop there. Let’s also temporarily close the right turn off Wall Street and create a temporary parklet. And most importantly highlight the crosswalks!
    There are plans of course to redo the Belden/Wall/Mott/West intersection and $5 million of funding for it but we are waiting for development to happen. So why not try some improvements that have spurred economic development in other cities?

  19. Gypsy

    Bike lanes are the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of in a town where the majority of residents regularly whine on a daily basis about how heavy and dangerous the traffic is. You idiots are living in a dream world. It’s long past time to wake up, the hippie years ended in 1970.

  20. Non partisan

    Suggest anyone who thinks bike lanes are a problem please go to NYC.

    Also can try going to rye ny. Sharrows ( shared roadways) were put on us 1 after the road was put on a diet and lanes were deleted. After a couple of years of getting used it it is a great success.

  21. M. Murray’s

    Let’s see how many hundreds of bikes use these daily

  22. Dennis DiManis

    Somebody say New York City? Try any of the stuff in NYC that Norwalk drivers do on a daily basis, and you’ll find yourself HAVING to rely on a bicycle because you’ll lose your driver’s license.

  23. EDR

    The concept of bike lanes is tremendous. Makes sense to the extent you can safely use them. Vancouver BC did a fabulous job incorporating bike and walking paths into its cityscape but ironically they are completely separated from vehicular traffic. Their waterfront is a cornucopia of non car pathways. There is no question about safety.

  24. Norewalk Lifer

    Great idea, and yes, there is a trend leaning towards this. In Europe, there are many places where bikes are major mode of transportation. The Netherlands for example, it is so sophisticated, that the transportation laws thoroughly recognize the bicyclists, and it’s eased congestion in cities which grew from hamlets to major industrial hubs.
    In the US, travel to any island community, and bikes are the mode of transportation, I find it laughable that those who decry this in Norwalk, will smile in a satisfied manner, on a bike in Martha’s Vineyard, the Cape, the Keys, the outer banks and the Caribbean islands.
    If it offends you, think of it, as bring a bit of your vacation home with you.

    Norwalk Lifer

  25. Norewalk Lifer

    One other observation; I noticed a lot of people referring to Mike Mushak as a “gardener”, makes me wonder, what group do the people who criticize him belong to?
    Are they members of the 182nd Fighting Keyboardist? “smile”

    Norwalk Lifer

  26. Suzanne

    OK, Norwalk Lifer, not that he needs it, but a “gardener” Mike Mushak is not. He is a REGISTERED LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT. Anyone can go to the ASLA.org WEB site and check out the rigor of the education and training for this profession. In addition, Mike has studied Urban Planning at various conferences and continually adds to his knowledge bank about the most current trends and techniques.
    All of you “gardener” people? Politics or no, you should be thankful that someone with his qualifications continues to volunteer his time to make Norwalk a better place using his expertise.
    I rode the Rye “sharrows” in a long distance ride from Boston a few years back and the above comment is correct: it is pleasant, safe and calmer and, actually, made Route 1 a joy to ride. That is not a moniker I would give to the 1 raceway of Norwalk.

  27. peter parker

    Alvord doesn’t like it cause he can skim anything off the top of this deal. They did the right thing paying no attention to Alvord who knows nothing. He should be paying closer attention to the dangerous traffic light poles that are falling down.

  28. Norewalk Lifer

    Hi Suzanne,

    I meant no offense, I just couldn’t resist tweaking those that constantly refer to him as a gardener, in fact, I too, applaud his efforts and passion in trying to make Norwalk a better place.

    Norwalk Lifer

  29. Suzanne

    None taken, Norwalk Lifer. I appreciate your comments.

  30. Joke Force

    I know a lot of hydrological engineer’s who call themselves plumbers. Lighten up already. Mike should stick to promoting the harbor loop trail for biking, where it is safe for both motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. This pipe dream of bike lanes in this city is borderline delusional.
    The poster who brought up Vancouver left out the little important fact that there is a tremendous population of folks who take ferries to work and cycling makes sense. They also left out the significant number of casualties. It just brings up the question about the inevitable. How many casualties are we prepared to withstand as a city so that some can mix their leisure with our traffic? One, two, ten? How many are you willing to endure? Because it isn’t a matter of if, but just when.

  31. Suzanne

    Joke Force, raising consciousness is hard work. For every bicyclist endangered by too fast, careless driving, there is a pedestrian in the way. Bicycling is not purely recreational. People actually use bicycles to shop, go to the library, the post office and, surprise, surprise, work.
    Vancouver has more fatalities with pedestrians and traumatic brain injuries from car accidents than with bicyclists. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/pedestrian-deaths-dominate-vancouver-traffic-fatalities-1.1137060 This particular article is supported by data from a July 13, 2013 article from the Vancouver Sun.
    Your idea of bike lanes as “borderline delusional” is refuted by every major American city incorporating them as part of transportation plans that consider roads not just vehicular venues but shared space.
    It is commendable that Norwalk is joining these cities and countries that have found bicycling not only useful but healthy. Even walking down the street, however, has risks. Apparently in Vancouver that is a greater risk on their city streets than riding a bike.

  32. Joke Force

    We are not a major American city. We have colonial roots and some of the smallest oldest infrastructure in the country. We simply do not have the billions of dollars it would take to properly lay out a city grid for the 21st century. Move to a modern American Major city if you want bike lanes. Leave the rest of us alone please.

  33. Suzanne

    Nope. It is kind of funny, really, that something so humble as a bicycle, long in existence before the automobile, creates such resentment. Colonial roads used to accommodate wagons and horses, too. This is just a different time – those roads just require not bike lanes but conscious politeness on everyone’s part to accommodate each other, whatever the conveyance. It is not necessary for courtesy nor politeness to leave town just because we are not a major American city. Rather, one would expect with a smaller town there would be fewer opportunities to be selfish and a more welcoming attitude for all types, all kind of transportation. Can’t wait to get my goat cart.

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