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Building livable streets in New Haven: State, city, and university

Posted by on January 12th, 2009 at 10:41 am

[This is a dispatch from Elly Blue's East Coast Tour. Read more here.]

Parker and Sturgis-Pascale catch up with their former intern, Reed College student (and New Haven native) Rose Vickery. (Photos by Elly Blue)

New Haven, Connecticut is the birthplace of pizza, hamburgers, and the lollipop. It has the highest rate of public housing per capita in the United States. But it has always been better known for being home to the wealthy, prestigious Yale University. Yale is a major player in New Haven — the university is the city’s largest employer, owns a huge percentage of downtown property (including several streets), and is incredibly influential in the social and economic life of the city.

“In five years you won’t recognize New Haven.”
— Holly Parker

And Yale has begun to embrace sustainability in a big way, particularly sustainable transportation.

One afternoon in New Haven I headed over to Yale University’s new Transportation Options office. There I met with the program’s Director, Holly Parker, and her assistant, Erin Sturgis-Pascale. (Sturgis-Pascale is also on New Haven’s Board of Alders, and was instrumental in passing their recent Complete Streets bill which I wrote about yesterday.)

Parker was hired away from a similar job at Harvard by Yale’s new director of sustainability after she gave a presentation here about her work in Cambridge. She has a key role in some of the major changes that office is bringing to the city.

“I keep telling people, in five years you won’t recognize New Haven,” Parker told me at the beginning of our interview.

We start out by talking about the bigger picture in which she is operating.

Signs of hope are beginning to show for sustainable transportation in Connecticut. Former Governor John Rowland, who left office in disgrace in 2004 during a corruption investigation for which he pled guilty, had been actively hostile to any kind of non-highway transportation.

His replacement, M. Jodi Rell, is an improvement. Her transportation decisions have not always been on the mark, but she did recently hire a Department of Transportation commissioner who is “not a highway person” — in fact, he worked on building light rail in Arizona. Connecticut’s DOT apparently has trouble hiring young, progressive engineers, but has been working with contractors on new projects, including a north-south commuter rail line.

In terms of bicycling, Connecticut has had a three foot passing law since October. This was primarily the work of a citizen activist whose day job is in traffic engineering.

On a city level, New Haven is also moving forward with a new Director of Transportation, Traffic, and Parking. Mike Piscitelli is extraordinarily supportive of non-car projects and has been writing grants and working closely with advocacy group Elm City Cycling. “He works really, really hard” to improve cycling and walking conditions, Parker said.

The city also has a new police chief, who has been working hard on taming traffic of all kinds. Until he was hired, New Haven had only has 6 traffic enforcement officers, in part because ticket money goes to the state rather than the city. None had radar guns. Connecticut law does not allow red light cameras (New Haven has installed some already, against the day they’ll be able to use them), contributing to enforcement woes. The new police chief has said publicly that New Haven has the worst traffic he’s ever seen — and he moved here from LA.

Parker and Sturgis-Pascale are strongly connected personally and professionally with the bicycle scene in town. The Elm City Cycling group draws in a lot of community members — their meetings are packed and you can’t always find a seat. There are a ton of rides happening, whether to community events, or weekly ice cream rides in the summer, or Sunday road rides. There’s also Critical Mass, which Parker attends to regularly. The police usually show up to cork, she said, though they skipped the big Halloween ride this year for some reason.

A designated bike route
on the downtown section of Prospect St.

They agree: cycling is really booming here.

Sturgis-Pascale chimes in excitedly. She has printouts of 2006 census data which she just discovered.
New Haven’s pedestrian share in 2006 census (which counts the primary mode of work commute trips) is 14%. That’s 4th highest in nation for cities with over 100,000 people. I flipped the page and found Portland at #36 with 5.4% walking to work, which made Parker and Sturgis-Pascale smile proudly. “If we can do better than Portland on anything…” Parker said.

By the same count, for transit commute trips, New Haven is #38 at 10%. Parker and Sturgis-Pascale wondered how many of those trips might be made by members of the Yale community, particularly undergraduates, the majority of whom live on campus, and are able to live without a car.

As a partial answer to that question, Yale just finished its own internal survey; in last year, 9% of Yale community biked to campus (dramatically up from 5% the previous year). They are still crunching the numbers on other modes.

The Transportation Options office at Yale is primarily focused on outreach and transportation demand management. Their main target is commute trips for staff, faculty, and graduate students.

Their main outreach tool is the excellent Getting Around Yale website. The site lists options including the Yale Shuttle, Zipcar, bicycling, walking, and “Car Free in New Haven.” Information and encouragement are provided for all these modes, as is a “proximity map” showing areas from which you should be able to walk and bike downtown.

“The real coup,” Parker told me, is that nowhere on the site are private cars mentioned as an option.

Other outreach activities include the annual BABY (Bicyclist Appreciation Breakfast: Yale) event, an outdoor coffee and doughnuts affair for bike commuters. The office also has a Y-Bike program which provides a fleet of bikes, one for each department. The bikes come equipped with panniers, rack, generator lights, helmets, and cyclometers — the department that racked up the highest mileage on their bike by the end of the first year will get a prize.

They also promote bicycles at events, and are working on having a stop by Transportation Options become a fixture in new employee orientation (“Right now, they just hand you a parking permit application, and that’s basically how it’s been for the past 300 years”).

—-

Snow creates an ad hoc bike lane
on the usually bike-unfriendly Prospect St
in Downtown New Haven.

The conversation up to this point was entirely positive. Parker and Sturgis-Pascale are excited, rightly, about the energy and progress with sustainable transportation in general and bikes in particular. Then I asked if there is any opposition to it all.

Oh yes. “Bikes are persona non grata around here,” Sturgis-Pascale said. Parker added, “New Haven was designed to move cars. Through it.” Everything about the infrastructure tells people who are driving that the road is theirs, and there’s a lot of anger at anyone who encroaches on that, they explained. And road rage is only fed by infrastructure that doesn’t work well. Lights aren’t timed well for walking, biking, or driving. Intersections are bad and waits are long. People get angry, break the rules, and make each other even angrier. It can be a scary place to get around no matter how you go about it.

But the biggest problem, Sturgis-Pascale told me, is that the downtown grid is made up almost entirely of one-way streets. “We can’t move forward until we convert back to two way streets” she said emphatically. It’s a frustrating situation for driving, especially with frequent construction projects.

It’s even worse for biking, though. Sturgis-Pascale, who doesn’t strike me as a scofflaw, says she regularly goes the wrong way down one particular street on her commute. She knows it’s illegal and dangerous but her alternative is to go three blocks out of her way through two major intersections that terrify her.

I pointed out that converting one-way streets back to a regular grid is a huge endeavor — so what is the low hanging fruit? They looked at each other and laughed. “There is no low-hanging fruit,” they agreed. There are a lot of problems in New Haven and the way to tackle them is head-on, at the source.

For the same reasons, they are frustrated by people who say that transportation isn’t as big an issue as, say, youth violence. What if, for instance, the city was a better environment for businesses which could create jobs for those same youth? And if there were a good way to get to those jobs? Wouldn’t that be better than creating dozens of social service programs to patch up a broken system? I don’t know the answer.

“We can’t move forward until we save our grid. We have to convert back to two-way streets.”

I told them that going first for the low hanging fruit is a big doctrine in Portland sustainable transportation, and they shake their heads in disbelief. They want to go for the biggest things first. “It’s the one way streets,” Erin says. “We can’t move forward until we save our grid. We have to convert back to two-way streets.”

The logistics of actually bringing solutions are not immediately obvious. I ask whose job it is — Yale’s? The city’s? Both? “This is always a sensitive area,” Parker said. You have a university that has so much money, and a town that has so little, and Yale is naturally very wary of expensive collaborations. She firmly believes that building infrastructure should be the government’s job. Sturgis-Pascale nods agreement. Still, town and gown are on the same page on sustainable transportation goals.

I asked about Yale Transit. CT Transit, the state’s transportation agency which provides bus service in all several Connecticut cities including New Haven, has long had funding issues and threatens every few years to cut back service. Yale has long had a shuttle for students, faculty, and staff. Parker volunteers that Yale Transit in the last few years has started running fixed route shuttles into some commuter neighborhoods, such as East Rock where many, many grad students live — and that this has driven up housing prices in that neighborhood. The shuttle runs along routes already served by CT Transit. “It’s a full duplication of service.”

One big project Yale has taken on in collaboration with the city involves burying all the power lines in parts of downtown. When they tear up and rebuild the roads for this, they plan to do streetscape redesigns in some areas to make them more walking and biking friendly. This is a few years out, and may, like all of this, be affected by economy.

So there is a better prospect for collaboration on building walking and biking facilities. There isn’t a way for Yale to create its own separate walking and biking infrastructure, right? I asked. Not usually, though often in the past, “Yale’s just bought the street.” There is a pedestrian-only block of High Street, and a section of Wall Street, both in the heart of Yale’s campus, which they have bought and designed for very low car traffic, and on which most users walk and bike.

Yale is clearly hoping to be a nationwide model for university-level transportation demand management, and it looks like they’re well on the way. “There’s a lot of work to do,” Parker said. But they’re excited, they’re onto something, and it does seem to be working. She is inspired by Portland, and there was some eager talk about catching up with, and exceeding our accomplishments. I hope they do, and wish them the best.

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Comments
  • Peter January 12, 2009 at 11:23 am

    i keep hearing that two-way streets are the end-all be-all, but two-way streets don’t seem to me to be particularly accommodating of bikers and pedestrians — if anything, less so, because there is less room for everyone. So, you get traffic to slow down a little bit, but I think one-way streets are safer for pedestrians, at least.

    Why not just lop-off one lane for exclusive bicycle access? Isn’t that low-hanging fruit we can try?

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  • Elly Blue January 12, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Hi Peter, thanks for the comment. My feeling is that any street, one- or two-way could be designed with more room for walking and biking and transit — the fact that they aren’t is a whole other issue.

    I would rather take the lane in a slower-traffic two-way street than have my own lane on a fast one-way street — the latter sounds like a recipe for right hooks.

    Also, when you can go two ways it’s just easier to get around. New Haven’s downtown is literally nearly all one way streets and it’s a frustrating situation for people driving as well as biking.

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  • Peter January 12, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I see what you’re saying about ‘easier to get around’, Elly, but regardless of what we would prefer, the question is, is giving a whole lane to bicycles on a one-way street more politically-feasible than changing a one-way to a two-way? And how much more politically feasible is it?

    It’s not that I’m against challenging the status quo – I wish more of us advocates were willing to do it – but I am genuinely curious and interested in seeing what an entire lane of bicycle-only traffic would look like — even and especially on a one-way.

    As far as the dreaded right-hook, I don’t think anyone has sorted that out — one-way, two-way, three-way, or otherwise. At a minimum, we could buffer the bikes-only lane with what used to be curb-side parking, so we have a protected full lane – even if it runs against the curb – and most motorists have to worry about pedestrians crossing anyway. We remove lane-ending parking to improve visibility for all — the ‘peek-a-boo’ — and try it out.

    Basically, this design is being used on 9th Ave in Manhattan, right? They still have to worry about left hooks on alternating streets, but people seem to dig it so far. We’ll see what happens when they expand the bike lane.

    And, I’m interested in bikers being able to haul ass down the city streets just like cars do. Of course, we haulers will do so at our own risk, but at least we can have the option. Then we re-time the lights for a bicycle green wave. Bikers could be reasonably happy with this setup — just one step on the way to eliminating cars.

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  • DingDong January 12, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Jodi Rell with an ‘i’.

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  • tvhwy January 13, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    The Frisbee were invented in New Haven, too.

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  • DNH January 15, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Great post, Elly!

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  • Richard Stowe January 16, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Great post, Elly. I’m on the same page with Holly Parker & Erin Sturgis-Pascale. Convert one-ways to two-way streets. One-ways demonstrate that the volume of cars in in New Haven are out of proportion with the scale of the city. I believe advocating for a series of roundabouts in tandem with one-way to 2-way conversions would create safer streets and intersections.
    Minor correction – “CT Transit, the state’s transportation agency which provides bus service in all Connecticut cities including New Haven, has long had funding issues and threatens every few years to cut back service.”
    Conn DOT is the state’s transportation agency. It contracts out service operation to private operators.
    CT Transit service operates in only three cities: Hartford, New Haven & Stamford. Other cities, Bridgeport, Norwalk, for example, have their own transit districts.

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  • Elly Blue January 17, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Richard, thanks for interpreting the state of Connecticut’s transit bureaucracy — I’ve made the correction.

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  • [...] For a good overview of how much progress New Haven has made (and how far it has to go), check out this interview of New Haven Alderwoman and traffic calming champion Erin Sturgis-Pascale by BikePortland’s [...]

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