Milford group seeks ‘gold standard’ of bike paths

MILFORD — Riding a bicycle is good exercise, good for the environment and good for reducing vehicle traffic. That’s why a group of residents are hoping to convince the city to make biking safer and more convenient in Milford by adding protected bike lanes.

D’Arcy Jeffery, who lives and works in Milford, is a supporter of the protected bike lane idea. She said she sometimes rides her bike to work.

“I’m a school nurse, and I work at several different schools in Milford, so I have experience biking in different parts of Milford,” said Jeffery.

Jeffery said it’s not only adults who bike to work, but there are plenty of students who bike to school. The problem, she said, is that she doesn’t feel like cycling is safe enough. and at the moment, she doesn’t feel like it is safe.

“I had to get over my fear to start riding my bike,” said Jeffery. “Milford would greatly benefit in getting protected bike lanes because it would let more people on their bikes.”

A protected bike lane, which typically a paved path adjacent to a road, reserved exclusively for bicycles and with a barrier of some sort between riders and traffic, is considered the gold standard to achieve when developing a bike path for people to use. A bike path such as this could be a source of increased traffic at local shops, could help people be healthier and positively impact the individuals’ carbon footprint, according to the local group known as the Environmental Concerns Coalition.

The coalition members, led by Patricia Houser, have taken it upon themselves to research the development of protected bike paths in Milford.

Houser, who has a Ph.D. in urban planning with a specialty in environmental planning and geography, said she wanted to use her education “in the real world” because she said she has spent her career in academia.

“The focus of this group from the start has always been educational,” said Houser.

During the pandemic, the group met to brainstorm ideas about what members could do during the pandemic since the library, where most of their programs took place was closed.

Houser, who writes a regular column on environmental issues, said she began researching how society was changing.

“I had done all this research on what was going on during the pandemic that would be a good trend for us to continue that will benefit us in dozens of ways after the pandemic,” she said. “One of them was the fact that people were getting out biking and walking.”

In her career, one of the courses she has taught was transportation planning. She said she was “blown away” by the difference in how much people will use a bike if there’s a protected bike lane.

“I have been a fan for about 10 years of the bona fide protected bike lane,” said Houser.

Patricia’s husband, Steven Houser, an avid bicyclist, said he’s found great places around Milford to ride. But riding in the area can be pretty dangerous compared to places he has previously lived, he said.

“We moved from New York where I had a very easy ride to a bike path, where I was doing almost all of my bike riding on a bike path,” he said. “When we looked at Milford, a city that we loved, I was wondering if I was going to be able to ride my bike there. I noticed there were no bike paths within 20 miles.”

His favorite local rides are from Gulf Beach toward New Haven along the water, from the downtown area toward the Connecticut Audubon Society Coastal Center on Milford Point, and pedaling the back roads of Orange, he said.

“Those (rides) are beautiful,” he said.

But just getting to those areas to ride is not completely safe, he said.

Steven Houser said he’s willing to take more chances than some other riders, but he’s still frequently counting on the good graces of drivers.

“I try to stay way over on the side, but cars are whizzing by,” he said. “I must say that 97 percent of the drivers are really courteous, and they’ll give you space. But that leaves the three percent, and that can be a lot of cars.”

While riding, he’s come across shared lane markings, or sharrows, that indicate a shared lane for vehicles and bicycles. And every time he sees them, he chuckles a little bit because there’s no difference between those roads and regular roads.

“They’re invariably on very busy roads, and they certainly don’t make the road any safer,” he said. “What they are really saying is there is no place elsewhere you could go with your bike.”

For the ECC safety is a concern. But another big concern is tied to the group’s name.

“I love my car, and I even named my car, but they are the biggest source of emissions in Connecticut,” said Patricia Houser. “But we can make a dent in that with protected bike lanes because people who normally wouldn’t ride bikes would do so because it is safer. So it’s a cool remedy, and it’s a fun way to pitch zero carbon (emissions) that will make a difference in public health.”

In fact, reducing her carbon footprint was one of the reasons Jeffery began riding to work.

“As nervous as I was getting on my bike, I was more nervous about climate change,” said Jeffery. “While I know that by taking an individual action, one person exchanging their car for a bike, isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference. I thought, it is the cumulative action of all of us that is going to make a difference.”

Steven Houser believes having a protected bike path would increase the number of people riding their bikes and increase foot traffic in areas near the path. An example of this is when he biked the trail located between New Haven and Naugatuck.

“Along the way, there were some eateries and a pub with a porch where people were sipping beer and looking at the bike path. So you know people are making that a destination on their bikes,” he said. “Milford has 14 miles of coastline. Imagine having a beautiful bike path going next to it. So I’ve got to believe it would be even more of a destination for people.”

Patricia Houser said the ECC is at a stage where they are having conversations and beginning to get ideas for a strategic plan. But there is still work to be done to even get to the preliminary stage.

She said the group isn’t looking at why their idea won’t work, but rather, how they could make it work.

“To figure out the steps to that, we’ve been talking to people who have been on other projects and worked out changes,” she said. “Infrastructure is tricky because you are literally saying the shape of the street in front of your store or home may change, and that gets very personal.”

The first step is to connect with all the stakeholders in the community that might be involved in the creation of bike paths.

“We have plans to talk to people at Public Works about snowplow issues. We have plans to consult state-level professional planners,” she said. “We are also going to talk to national experts on bike lane design to ask what to say if (someone) says it can’t be done.”

Another critical part of the plan is to look into potential funding sources. Houser said she has been encouraged by the amount of federal money available for bike infrastructure as a climate change initiative in some of the new transportation bills.

Once the group had met with all the local parties involved, they’ll write a proposal to local officials detailing their funding sources, the design of the bike path, and what the neighborhood stakeholders think.

“By that time, we will have assembled a coalition of interested organizations and individuals from around the city who will show up when we go to speak at the Board of Alderman,” said Houser. “I want at least 20 people there representing different parts of the community.”