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The I-95 crash shows us how fragile our driving-first transportation system is

Opinion

Last week, our transportation system experienced an existential shock. A gasoline tanker crashed on I-95, bursting into flames and setting off a chain reaction. The massive fire burnt the Fairfield Ave bridge to a crisp, closing the freeway and backing up traffic in both directions for miles. This drove traffic from I-95 – the main artery of the Eastern Seaboard – onto local Norwalk streets, bringing local traffic to a standstill in the urban core of Norwalk. This gridlock upended plans for many Norwalkers – schools were canceled, community events were postponed, and those who were able were asked to work from home. Those who weren’t able to change their plans ended up stuck in traffic. In sum: one wrong move by a driver brought our entire local transportation system to a grinding halt – a sad but stark lesson in how fragile that system really is.

There was, however, a silver lining. People who could get around on foot, on a bike, or on the train were virtually unaffected. I ventured out on my bike Thursday morning and saw the gridlock firsthand. Several people saw me and remarked that a bicycle was the best possible thing to have that day – and it was true! Because I’m comfortable riding in the street, I was able to get around faster than anyone else – even faster than the police or fire departments. But the reality was – and is – that our city’s streets are not designed for most Norwalkers to get around on a bike or on foot safely and comfortably. As a result, during the gridlock, most of us chose to either sit in traffic or sit at home.

This fragility of our system brings to mind another term that has been thrown around a lot recently: resilience. Last year, the city created an ad-hoc Sustainability and Resilience committee, and just two months ago, the Mayor released a draft of the City’s first Sustainability and Resilience Plan. Most of the conversation around resilience has centered on flood resilience. But have we reckoned with the fragility of our transportation system in the wake of a major flood? When Hurricane Sandy hit, around 250,000 cars were destroyed by seawater, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without their main form of transportation. How will we respond when the next Hurricane Sandy hits and all the cars in the low-lying parts of Norwalk are flooded out? Our transportation system needs to be more resilient if we want to be prepared for future crises – and that resilience can only come by diversifying the transportation options around us.

To be serious about resilience, we need to consider other types of crises. This week showed how hard it is for our driving-first transportation system to recover from a single crash. Even with heroic efforts by first responders and state & federal resources, it took three days to reclaim our local streets from freeway traffic. Full recovery – a new bridge – will take a year and $20 million. Other crises may be financial: just a couple years ago we saw the economic impact of gas prices increasing by $1-2/gallon. How well will our driving-first system serve us – especially the poorest among us – if gas doubles or triples in price?

Fortunately, there’s a better path forward: a diverse transportation system developed through system-wide investments in walking, bicycling, and public transit infrastructure. I’m not proposing a world in which no one drives – driving is a critical transportation mode that brings lots of value to our society. I’m proposing a world in which getting across town without a car is just as easy as driving across town. In such a world, crises that cause traffic nightmares are a much smaller deal – people who would otherwise drive can easily switch to walking, biking, taking the train, or hopping on a bus. And even on a normal day, this world would be better for those both inside and outside a car – every person who chooses to walk, bike, or take the bus is one less car gumming up the road that you’re on.

It may feel like an unattainable dream—after all, virtually everyone in Norwalk has grown up in an era where driving is the norm, and alternative transportation is seldom considered. However, the tide is turning, and we’re seeing inspiring examples in cities across America. Take Hoboken, NJ, for instance: with bold leadership from their Mayor and proactive measures by their Transportation department, Hoboken has rapidly reimagined their walking & biking infrastructure – and as a result, has seen zero traffic fatalities in seven years. Norwalk transportation advocates recently visited Hoboken and learned a ton about how they accomplished this.

I believe such a future exists for Norwalk. However, it will take more than lip service and token investments from our elected leaders. For example, it will require building more than eight miles of sidewalk per year. It will require initiatives like Complete Streets to be adopted, well-funded and thoughtfully implemented. Our city officials must either learn from forward-thinking cities like Hoboken—where proven best practices in urban planning have led to remarkable achievements in resilience, sustainability, and livability—or make way for those who will. We need leaders with the courage to prioritize these changes and drive Norwalk forward. The benefits will be profound, enhancing our community’s quality of life in countless ways. Don’t wait for change to happen—be part of it!

If you’re interested in getting involved with the City, the Norwalk Bike/Walk Commission needs you! Join our next meeting on Monday, June 3 at 6pm on Zoom. We have a couple vacancies, so we’re on the lookout for engaged Norwalkers who want to contribute. If you’re interested in the grassroots side, you can get involved with Sustainable Streets Norwalk, an independent group that advocates for walking, bicycling, public transit, housing, and urban greenspace.

Tanner Thompson is the Chair of the Norwalk Bike/Walk Commission and an organizer of Sustainable Streets Norwalk.

Comments

12 responses to “The I-95 crash shows us how fragile our driving-first transportation system is”

  1. Emily Burnaman

    Tanner, your article has brilliantly captured the fragility of our current transportation system. The recent I-95 incident is a stark reminder that we must reconsider how we move around our city. Prioritizing walking and cycling over driving can reduce traffic congestion and create safer, healthier, and more sustainable communities.

    As someone who cares deeply about the vitality of Norwalk, I believe this should be a wake-up call to our residents to embrace alternative transportation modes at every opportunity. Let’s continue to advocate for better infrastructure that supports active transportation, making it a viable choice for more people. Together, I believe we can build a city where walking or cycling becomes the norm rather than the exception.

    I also encourage all interested members of our community to get more involved with the Bike/Walk Commission by visiting walknorwalk.org

  2. Tanner Thompson

    You can read about the trip to Hoboken in this excellent blog post from Emily Burnaman, Vice-Chair of the Bike/Walk Commission: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/activity-7191836243335290880-BflA

    If you want links to all the sources I used, you can find them in this Google doc: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CGd6ixNyBIwUO5EWmZ12tbgn7uTt9ChAVXgiodn-YF0/view

  3. Kenneth Werner

    In general, we would certainly benefit from a more diverse transportation system, but there are some logical fallacies in Tanner’s analysis. First, surface mass transit via bus or van was no help at all during the I-95 closing. These vehicles were just as grid-locked as personal automobiles. A continuing problem with Norwalk’s busses is that they are, in most cases, very slow. Those people who need to use them can sacrifice hours a day in commuting or doing errands — hours they can not afford. A solution to both issues, although not an inexpensive or an easy one, is building dedicated bus lanes. But if we’re thinking along those lines, a better solution is a light rail system, like those in San Jose and other cities.

    As for additional bike and walking infrastructure, that’s very nice but it doesn’t make a major contribution to solving the transportation problem. (I walk and cycle, and I don’t find myself saying that I need more infrastructure to help me do it. Will power, yes. Infrastructure, no.)

  4. Tanner Thompson

    Kenneth’s point about surface transit is a good one – the buses absolutely got stuck in the gridlock and were no more useful than driving. However, for regional transit, Metro-North was invaluable – I believe the MTA even ran extra trains during the freeway closure to handle the extra need. With a little investment, local transit could also become more independent from traffic congestion, either by creating dedicated bus lanes or by leveraging the Danbury Branch for more local service. (I hope to write another piece on the latter topic soon.)

    Outside of congestion catastrophes, the buses are still slower than they should be. I attribute a fair amount of this to the layout of the route network – many routes are circuitous and thus less efficient. Thankfully, the Norwalk Transit District is currently undertaking a comprehensive route design overhaul – a project branded as NTD Ahead (www.ntdahead.com). I serve on the steering committee for this project, and have made route efficiency and user experience my top issues. Based on the early concepts I’ve seen, I think the new route network will be a substantial improvement over the existing one.

    Regarding biking – I’m in the same boat as Kenneth; I get around Norwalk pretty successfully on my bike, even with the current infrastructure. But very few people fall in this category – just about everyone I talk to is afraid to bike across town because they feel it’s unsafe. In order for the general population – or even just a sizable minority of us – to treat bicycling as a real form of transportation, we need more safe infrastructure – things like separated, physically protected bike lanes or dedicated paths like the NRVT. As far as will power goes: all I can say is that e-bikes completely change the calculus – they’re really fun and surprisingly practical. (And they make Norwalk’s many hills virtually disappear!)

    Regarding walking – on its own, it doesn’t solve the cross-town transportation issue. But in order for public transit to thrive, people need to feel comfortable walking to & from transit stops. It would also help to have more neighborhood-scale amenities (corner stores, cafes, daycares, etc) so that fewer cross-town trips need to be made in the first place – but that’s a topic for another op-ed.

  5. Becca Stoll

    Another compelling case for a shuttle train between South and East Norwalk on the existing rail lines. My commute to NYC from ENo would often be made easier by catching a train in SoNo, but often the busses aren’t at times that would get me there, or I am carrying too much gear to want to make the 30- minute walk.

    Also a good opportunity for Wheels2U to fill some gaps. Even though they too are cars on the road, adding bus/microtransit lanes and getting people to rideshare instead of driving themselves helps.

    Has Norwalk considered adding bike share? That would also be a huge potential benefit if the cost of bike ownership is an obstacle or inconvenience. I only recently started using Citibike and it is such a great way to get around and not worry about where to lock up. All I have to do is remember a helmet! Also because we are building a cycling culture and infrastructure somewhat more “from scratch” we have a chance to avoid the pitfalls that cities like NYC have, where the culture clash between cyclists and drivers led to a shoddy system where rules are flouted and ignored.

  6. John C. Miller Jr.

    Although I admire Tanner’s commitment to biking and walking, using Hoboken, NJ as a model for increasing biking and walking is a little bit “pie in the sky” and not realistic. According to the United States Census Bureau, Hoboken has a total land area of less than 2 square miles. According to the United States Census Bureau, Norwalk has a total land area of 22.89 square miles. Hopefully, the City didn’t spend any money conducting the Hoboken study. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Another thing to consider is the fact that Norwalk is located in New England, not in the warmer climate of the Southeast. The average daily temperature during our cold season, which runs from the end of November to April is below 46 degrees and let’s not forget that during the cold season, any precipitation might include snow or a wintery mix which makes biking and walking a bit risky. If you live downtown, you’re probably good to go at least on foot. If you don’t, and you are a bit long in the tooth or not on a bus route, the car is the only option. Sorry folks, just trying to be real.

    1. David Muccigrosso

      >>Norwalk is located in New England, not in the warmer climate of the Southeast

      Dude, Hoboken is barely 40 miles away as the crow flies, and that’s on a diagonal. HARTFORD is further north relative to us than we are relative to Hoboken.

      If you’re going to “be real”, maybe come with real facts.

      1. John C. Miller Jr.

        @David: Obviously you have a problem with reading comprehension.

        “According to the United States Census Bureau, Hoboken has a total land area of less than 2 square miles. According to the United States Census Bureau, Norwalk has a total land area of 22.89 square miles. Hopefully, the City didn’t spend any money conducting the Hoboken study. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. ”

        Scale matters. Anyone who thinks that it’s easier to get around in an area that measures 22.89 square miles than it is to get around in an area that measures less than 2 square miles either failed geography is delusional, or both.

        1. David Muccigrosso

          There was no need to get personal, but since you went there…

          Why are you bringing up “scale” when I didn’t mention “scale” at all? Why did you not directly address my criticism of your obviously-flawed characterization of Hoboken as “Southeast”?

          Seems like I’m not the one who struggles with comprehension. You’re only embarrassing yourself here.

  7. Bryan Meek

    There are 9 highways cross crossing Hartford County. We can’t have state workers sitting in traffic after all. When it comes to the New Haven to Greenwich corridor that produces over 1/2 the states revenue, well just pray no one is driving in the wrong direction as you.

  8. Vincent Scicchitano

    Tanner, Your plan is an important part of the transportation master plan however it does absolutely nothing to address the hundreds of tractor trailers that barrel down I95 at 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning at excessive speed to beat being stuck during rush hour traffic . The major problem which every governor since the 70`s has given lip service to is that I95 can not handle the amount of traffic. Guard rails and ramps will not solve the problem. This type of disaster will happen again unless all the politicians that stand at a podium and pat themselves on the back after the clean up actually do something about the problem.

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