A path to the future of Fairfield

Bike route paves way to healthy, connected neighborhoods

Meg Cappodano of the Fairfield Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee and her husband Rob test out the new bike route on Mill Plain Road. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Sarah Levy, educator for the Fairfield Department of Health and avid bicyclist, tries out the new Mill Plain Bike Route. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Fairfield First Selectman Mike Tetreau cuts the ribbon with the bike route. Those present included supporters Alyssa Israel, Betsey Gardner, Rep. Brenda Kupchick, Tetreau, Andrew Graceffa, Rep. Tony Hwang, Charles Case, Cristin McCarthy Vahey and Sarah Levy. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey and Sarah Levy of the Fairfield Public Health Department, watching the festivities as the Mill Plain Bike Trail is officially opened. (Shaw O'Sullivan Photo)

Mariella, Natalia, and Lucia Graceffa and Erin and Mack Capodanno are all geared up for the ride down the new Mill Plain Bike Route. (Shawn O’Sullivan Photo)

Signage on Unquowa Road, called sharrows, reminds drivers they share the road with bicyclists. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Andrew Graceffa, chairman of the the Fairfield Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan Advisory Committee, chats with First Selectman Michael Tetreau and Charles Case, president of the Mill Plain Improvement Society, during the ceremonies to open the Mill Plain Bit Route. (Shawn O’Sullivan Photo)

Fairfield Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey demonstrates to her family the proper use of hand signals while riding. (Shawn O’Sullivan Photo)

A cyclist rides the new Mill Plain Bike Route during rush hour Monday morning. (Shawn O’Sullivan Photo)

Many mothers kept their little cyclists on the sidewalk on their way to Riverfield School, not trusting of the Monday rush hour drivers along Mill Plain Road. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Saturday, June 15, was, in First Selectman Mike Tetreau’s words, “a perfect day for taking a bike ride or taking a walk.”

Which is just what people did.

Some walked; others biked, gathering from all parts of town to celebrate the ribbon-cutting for Fairfield’s first bike route, from Mill Plain Road and Brookside Drive to Unquowa Road.

Many town officials attended Saturday’s ribbon cutting, as well as state Reps. Tony Hwang and Brenda Kupchick, with Kupchick showing her show of support by cycling to the event.

“I rode my bike for the first time in a year to come here today,” she confessed. “So hopefully it’s going to promote more physical activity for me!”

Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey rode to the event with her family. Instrumental in helping prepare the plan, she said, “I look on this as part of a broader plan. It’s not just about bikers but walkers as well. This route will be safer for walkers because it narrows the lane and helps to slow traffic. It gives people who are walking more of a buffer.”

It all began with a vision. In 2010, Kirstin Etela and Alyssa Israel of the Fairfield Bike/Walk Coalition petitioned the town to create a bicycle and pedestrian plan, requesting a citizens’ survey, to which they received 700 responses. The town agreed, and created the Fairfield Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Town Engineer William Hurley surveyed suggested areas, conducting an inventory of what streets could be potential candidates, with the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council helping with implementation. Mill Plain Road was chosen; among the advantages was that the section from Brookside to Unquowa was wide enough.

“It was a low-cost measure,“ Hurley said.

After linking with Unquowa Road, the bike route continues past schools and into the center of town.

“Share the road” is the concept, reinforced with signs, called “sharrows,” stenciled into the road, reminding drivers of the presence of bicycles.

Charles Case, president of the Mill Plain Improvement Association, said the neighborhood is on board.

“It is a way for people to get from the park area to downtown or the school area,” Case said.

Hurley said an added benefit of the bike trail is slowing motor vehicles. The signs and “sharrows,” he said, act as “traffic-calming” devices.

“It really does slow down the traffic, which is beneficial for everybody,” Case said. “The complaint has been that the speed of traffic on Mill Plain Road had to be reduced. These lines narrow the visual road. Visually you have to drive slower.”

One key ingredient to the plan’s success was a Preventative Health Block Grant awarded to the town by the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

“We were approached by the Department of Engineering and the Department of Health saying that there was a grant available for cardiovascular fitness,” said Andrew Graceffa, chairman of the Fairfield Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Graceffa, who bikes three miles every day to and from the Fairfield Metro-North train station, is enthusiastic for the future of bicycling in Fairfield.

“Mill Plain is just one little piece of the plan,” he said. “The plan has multiple aspects. It has education, enforcement, institutional recommendation and infrastructure.”

Graceffa expects the Master Plan will be endorsed by the Board of Selectmen, and can move on to eventual integration into the town Plan for Conservation and Development. He notes that it has already been approved by the Board of Finance, Representative Town Meeting, and the Police Commission.

“We’d like to get funding for doing more bike routes in town, and doing some pedestrian enhancements, especially in the downtown area,” Graceffa said. “Getting some crosswalks worked on. I would like to see a bike route to the beach.”

Public health educator Sarah Levy of Fairfield, a member of the Advisory Committee, also biked to the ribbon-cutting. She said Fairfield has reached its “tipping point” in the goal of healthier lifestyle, and the bike route is a harbinger of things to come.

“I think it’s a positive thing,” Levy added. “Just from the perspective of anything we can do environmentally or in terms of policy, to encourage people to get the recommended 60 minutes a day of exercise. We are starting to get it in our consciousness.”

Levy stressed the importance of education for safety, noting that the Department of Health and Department of Parks and Recreation are starting a bicycle education program in conjunction with the summer parks program.

Levy encouraged people to follow safety rules when biking, and said there is an online course given by the state for biking, found at bikeed.org/courseintro.aspx. She also recommends the state DOT’s website, ct.gov/dot, which has tips for cyclists.

“As a physical educator, our inherent mission is to provide kids with opportunities to be physically active for a lifetime — to give them the skills,” said Dave Abraham, coordinator of physical education for Fairfield public schools.

Abraham said he hoped this was the beginning of an extensive network of bike routes for getting kids to school.

“Here is a perfect example of providing our children with an opportunity to be active, and an alternative way to get to school instead of a car or a bus,” he said.

Advisory Committee member Meg Capodanno lives near the new route.

“We are a family that rides into town all the time. We ride to the library. We ride into town for our ice cream. I can’t tell you what a peace of mind it is. I know it’s only a strip of paint, but I think drivers respect that boundary,” Capodanno said.

“I truly believe that if we raise a generation of kids that are use to getting around under their own power, whether it be walking or riding, that is also a generation of drivers that has respect for pedestrians and riders,” she said.

Tetreau, addressing the crowd, said he sees the bike route as a path to the future of a cleaner and healthier Fairfield, noting that it works on three levels:

“First, this bike route provides an alternative way for people to get through town,” he said. “Second, we are going to get people healthier, get people exercising, make it part of everybody’s daily life. Third, if we are going to make our environment healthier, we need to improve the quality of our air, we have to provide an alternative to internal combustion engines driving around and burning gas. This does that.

“On all three levels,” Tetreau continued, “This is important to our community; it’s important to our town; and really important to the future of our country.”

He thanked all the people who worked to put the plan together.

“It’s a great team effort,” Tetreau said. “It’s great to see our community come together and accomplish something that’s so good for all of us.”

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