Though the construction may seem endless, CTFastrak bus rapid transit and the upgraded Springfield-Hartford-New Haven commuter rail service will begin in 2015 and 2016, respectively. We need to be ready for it.
The 16 bus rapid transit and train stations in the capital region cannot become islands in the middle of a sea of cars. So as we add more rail and rapid transit service, it is important to bolster the pedestrian connections and bicycle access to the stations. Doing this, creating "transit zones," will boost ridership up to two miles around the stations, lay the groundwork for transit-oriented development and generally bolster the healthy activities of walking and bicycling.
There are promising ingredients already in play: More students, downtown employees and residents are coming to Hartford and New Britain, and both cities plan downtown street and sidewalk improvements to welcome them and make transit use flow more smoothly. This should further ramp up as the bus and train services get underway.
So what are some of the other things we can do to leverage these transportation opportunities?
First, we need to develop a regional bike share program similar to what is available in more than 500 cities around the world. The key is to create a regional template so the systems at each station are compatible. In addition, it makes sense to target the 16 station areas for priority investment in "complete streets," streets that allow good and safe pedestrian and bicycle connections.
Regional bike-share programs are popping up across the country and vary in size, from small in Chattanooga (and Simsbury!) to large in New York City. Bike-share programs usually attract a different group than active recreational cyclists: people with a focus on short trips that are more convenient via bike than by walking or driving.
For transit operators, offering a bike drop off and pick up at stations can avoid the hassle of trying to accommodate large numbers of bicycles on buses or trains. A bike sharer doesn't even have to own a bike. In the transit world, there's often what is called the "last mile" problem, getting people to home or office from the station. Bike share — perhaps keeping bikes at home overnight, which is done in some places — is a way to traverse the last mile. Bike share programs can extend the transit zone from a quarter- or half-mile up to two miles.
Building complete streets with sidewalk improvements and bike lane striping and lanes connecting neighborhoods to transit is another demonstrated way to boost transit use. As we encourage investments in commercial and residential development near transit — known as transit-oriented development, or TOD — being able to get around on foot or bicycle is essential. The ability to walk and bike to stations increases transit use and increases the market for TOD.
An study by the Capitol Region Council of Governments to be released in September describes the potential for TOD at each bus and train station and points to target areas for further investment in complete streets. Setting up a priority for investment in sidewalks, bike lanes and related measures should be a goal in the coming years.
Complete streets and bike-share programs are an integral part of making transit and commuter rail work well. Although it will take time to fully build out sidewalks and bike amenities, there are some things we can do sooner rather than later. We can investigate some of the bike-share programs around the country and look for the best fit with our region for cost and flexibility. We can look for promising bike-share partners such as Central Connecticut State University, where the student center is a mile from the CTfastrak station. We can start trial programs in downtown Hartford and New Britain.
The new transit systems can be a big win for the region in many ways, from reducing pollution and congestion to smarter land use. Programs such as bike share and complete streets will help the transit systems achieve these goals.
Lyle Wray is the executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments. Sandy Fry is a program coordinator for the Greater Hartford Transit District.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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