Can Newtown Become A Bike Friendly Community?

It happened in his hometown of Simsbury, and Steven Mitchell thinks it can happen in Newtown too: establishing the town as a bike friendly community. The status is a designation approved through the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) based in Washington.

“It’s the best thing Newtown can pursue right now,” he recalls saying to Parks and Recreation Director Amy Mangold recently. “As neighbors we want to help,” he said.

He has spoken with several people in town about his idea.

“They are very positive about it. I am here to help you,” he said. Based on his experience in Simsbury in recent years, he said, “It’s 80 percent private citizens who are doing the heavy lifting, putting in the bike racks, etc,” but the project there also involved “the whole town, public works, educators, private citizens, and it benefits everybody.”

Ms Mangold said recently, “We are extremely interested in what he has to say, and we recognize that Newtown is not a bike friendly town. We are willing to learn of anything we can do to try to make these healthy lifestyle changes.”

Mr Mitchell and Bob Burke had an informational meeting with the Newtown Trails Committee Monday, April 29.

Crowded around a small meeting room table with Mr Burke, Mr Mitchell, Ms Mangold, and Trails Committee Chairman Scott Coleman were Simsbury resident Patti Jacovis, Newtown Sustainable Energy Commission member Barbara Toomey, Trails Committee member Paula Burton, Newtown Conservation Commission member Joe Hovious, Parks and Recreation Commission member Rich Boritz, Trails Committee member Mark Lurie, Trails Committee member Dee Davis, and bicycling enthusiast Terrence Ford.

To the group, Mr Mitchell had said, “I am here to help. If Newtown wanted to do this I believe you would have support.” The support could come from the governor and certain congressman’s offices, for one, he said.

Whether or not a potential bike route, either through the woods or on pavement is horse friendly, for example, or any other specification, how or where trails or road routes are designated, is entirely up to the town. “Each municipality has its issues,” Mr Mitchell warned.

A small group to spearhead the initiative to become a bike friendly community is key, he believes. “What I would advocate is looking at this; we are here to help. I don’t know who your spark plugs are, but we are here to say this is a positive way for the community to come together.”

Ms Jacovis stressed, “It doesn’t matter where the interest comes from as long as someone is leading the charge.” Town department members, volunteers etc need to “collectively set priorities.” She suggested visiting the LeagueOfAmericanBicyclists.com and reading through the application to become bike friendly. Look at the five Es, she said: engineering, education, enforcement, encouragement, and evaluation. The application “really lays out,” what a town needs to achieve its status.

Wondering about the assembled group, Mr Ford asked, “What are our goals?”

“You have to define what you want,” said Mr Mitchell.

“You’re here to prove it can work.” Mr Ford said.

Concerned that trail proposals specifically would not work, Mr Coleman said, “We couldn’t get any momentum [as a trails committee] to [past projects]. We got shot down on everything.”

Mr Lurie said, “We spent a year trying to get something done at Point O’ Rocks Road and could not get past the Conservation Commission.”

“I don’t accept No for an answer,” Mr Mitchell said.

Mr Ford believes that Newtown could be the “epicenter of bicycling.” The town has “great terrain,” and the roads are heavily ridden already by cyclists passing through Newtown. “Riding is already happening,” he said.

He noted an existing off-road loop of Al’s Trail. “You can do a 12-mile ride, come back and have dinner, a beer, it’s already happening.”

Bringing the conversation back to the application, Ms Jacovis said, “Once you apply, the league looks at it and will send you feedback — that’s your road map going forward.”

Confident that this can happen in Newtown as it did in Simsbury, she said, “Once people realize the positive impact, they will want to be involved.”

Mr Coleman asked, “What is the benefit of being a bike friendly community?

Mr Mitchell had already mentioned the increased tourism and economic boost. Mr Ford quickly added, “It’s the mentality — healthy people doing healthy things.”

Reiterating one phrase several times Monday, Mr Mitchell advised, signs, paint, and attitude were three key factors to success.

“Get signs out,” he said, and paint arrows, or shared road bicycle markings.

“I would love to ride my bike to work,” Ms Mangold said, but she was worried about her safety in traffic.

“Part of that is education,” Mr Ford said. But the awareness must go both ways: both cyclists and drivers must watch out for one another.


A Bicycle Advocate

“A long story short, I am a car dealer trying to spearhead Newtown as a bike friendly community,” Mr Mitchell explained. “What I feel would be hugely beneficial to Newtown — it’s really engaging the entire community in something positive.”

Once riding a bike from Connecticut to Oregon, Mr Mitchell, 20 at the time, rode 3,500 miles in 35 days, he said. “Statistically speaking, I did good; nobody hit me.” Years later his luck changed. At 32 years old, he was rear-ended while on his bicycle and went backwards through a car windshield. “The statistics caught up,” he said.

Fast-forwarding his story again, he was out with his family when he made a discovery.

“I encountered a rails-to-trails [former railroad lines converted into recreational trails] and rode for about an hour without worrying about cars or trucks. I was with my kids, it was a great experience — that’s not feasible everywhere,” Mr Mitchell said.

By 2008-09 in Simsbury, residents were working to become a bike friendly community, By 2009 Simsbury was the first town in southern New England to receive bike friendly community status.

Mr Mitchell is also a board of trustees member of the East Coast Greenway, a multiuse — cyclists, pedestrians, skaters, equestrians, wheelchair users — trail that will go from Key West Florida to Canada, and is currently 28 percent done, he said. Visit GreenWay.org to learn more about the project.

“I call it the coolest project in America that nobody has heard of.” A nearly complete portion exists as close by as New Haven, connecting Yale to Simsbury. He said, “If you want to see an example of the greenway and ride it today,” start at Yale. The ride is roughly 45 miles long. “It’s a great ride,” Mr Mitchell said.

Learn more about the League of American Bicyclists at BikeLeague.org

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