The second annual Westchester Bicycle Summit focused on ways to bring bike/pedestrian advocacy to the community.
By Sean Roach | Email the author | May 8, 2010
While cycling uphill can be a challenge for any rider, bicycling advocates at yesterday’s second annual Westchester Bicycle Summit indicated there is a much larger, metaphorical mountain to climb – that of safe cycling in Westchester.
Yesterday’s convention at Greenburgh Town Hall gathered cyclists from across the county who were eager to identify the challenges — and some of the positive steps made — to make Westchester a region more hospitable to cyclists and pedestrians.
Ever present was the memory of avid cyclist and cycling advocate Merrill Cassell, who died last year after being side-swiped by a Bee-Line Bus just a few miles from Greenburgh Town Hall. A ghost bike currently memorializes the location of his death.
“This is all about how we make our streets safer for cyclists, so we don’t have to pass as many ghost bike memorials,” said Jackson Wandres, a planner with the RBA Group, who helped spearhead New York City’s Bicycle Master Plan and cycling map.
The summit included presentations on major regional projects such as the East Coast Greenway (A 3,000-mile pathway through 16 states, 90 counties over 400 municipalities from Florida to Maine), the installation of bike racks on buses in Connecticut, increased emphasis on incorporating mixed-use bike/pedestrian lanes in state road projects, and the proposed Merrill’s Law (requiring a safe three-foot passing buffer between motorists and cyclists) sponsored by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
However, as the conference proceeded, it became apparent that the toughest nut to crack, in terms of the advancement of cycling in the region, were local perceptions and the often reluctant municipalities in Westchester.
“When I moved up here I gave up cycling,” said Stephen Lopez, the former Greenburgh planning commissioner. “I just felt the roads were really dangerous, and that there is just so little tolerance by a lot of drivers on the road who have not been educated about showing some courtesy and respect.”
Lopez said there has been a lot of headway made to make Westchester safer for cyclists and pedestrians, but it is a constant struggle to keep the pressure up to get projects funded and change attitudes on road sharing.
Perhaps of most interest to local cyclists was a presentation made by Westchester County associate planner Lukas Herbert, who brought needed updates on the status of many of Westchester’s incomplete trail projects.
He said that final planning for the South County Trailway, which currently ends on Tuckahoe Rd. in Yonkers before starting again about two miles later in Redmond Park, is nearing completion and that the project could be finished in 2011. A portion to the north in Elmsford is also under planning. The Bronx River Trailway, which is missing portions in Scarsdale, Hartsdale and Bronxville, could begin construction in 2011. There is also a project funded that would create a path between the Harrison and Rye train stations along the New Haven Line Metro North Line.
Many of the projects Herbert cited have been in the works for years, which, some said, was hurting Westchester’s ability to make more progress on further bike/pedestrian initiatives.
Michael Oliva, a Croton resident and the Mid-Atlantic trail coordinator for the East Coast Greenway, said that stalled bike/pedestrian projects were making federal funds more elusive. He cited a $1.2 million grant that was handed down to Yonkers and the county in 2001 for completing the Bronx River Trailway from Bronxville to the New York City line.
“There is a ton of federal money out there for bike/pedestrian infrastructure. There are also federal appropriations and earmarks,” he said. “That $1.2 million that was awarded to Yonkers is hurting our efforts to get funding. They don’t want to see the money sitting there.”
Oliva recently spoke with Congresswoman Nita Lowey about a $4 million earmark for a large section of trail through downtown White Plains and along Westchester Ave. that would be an important piece of the East Coast Greenway. However Lowey, who has been a supporter of bike/pedestrian projects, was noncommittal in part due to outstanding projects. Oliva said that putting the pressure on local governments and elected officials was one of the biggest priorities in terms of getting projects done and securing funds.
“They (politicians) need to see a stronger advocacy base, they need to see a groundswell of support,” he said. “Vote for officials who make bike/pedestrian issues part of their agenda and vote against those who don’t.”
The call to create a critical mass of support for non-motorized infrastructure couldn’t be more apropos. The federal government has put added emphasis on funding transportation projects that are supplemented by pathways. The stance is being backed up with the recently announced $600 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant. The money goes in large part to non-motorized projects, and applications for TIGER funds are due in August.
While, many of the major projects in Westchester require large investments by the federal government, just as important are the efforts of local communities to support cycling initiatives with little or no money. Overall, cyclists emphasized focusing on the grassroots efforts to change local perceptions, that in turn would create the groundswell for larger regional change..
“We all know the benefits of bicycling; cutting down on carbon, improving air quality, creating a healthy population and economic stimulus,” said Larchmont Village Trustee Richard Ward. “We have to focus on what we can do to increase the number of riders.”
Ward’s approach is to offer as many amenities to riders as possible including preferential parking for bikes at the train station, hitching posts for cyclists and mopeds, and the creation of bike lanes. While he has had some success, he said there has been plenty of opposition in his community.
“We have a traffic commission to facilitate the flow of cars, there really isn’t a vision in Larchmont about how to create the sort of environment we’re hearing about for cyclists,” he said. “But hopefully that will come with time.”
Ward said that bicycle and pedestrian advocates need to be vigilante and make as many small steps as possible to make gradual changes in the region.
“Collect and use photos, take notes, be persistent, do what’s possible, create demand, and keep coming back to these arguments over time and whittling away at them,” he said.
The approach has worked in Eastchester. Cycling advocate Peter McCartt of the Eastchester Environmental Committee, said he proposed cycling initiatives such as sharrow-lanes as a way to combat traffic, and kept on the local administration to implement them.
“Traffic congestion is just at a standstill, so everyone is looking for ways to alleviate that,” McCartt said. “I told them there is no better way than walking and biking.”
He said that his proposal changed a lot of perceptions in local government, and now the sharrow lanes will be put in place this summer.
In Beford, Bicycle Advisory Committee Chairman Terry Burke, is focusing on ways to make an impact without the use of taxpayer money, which he said always ignites debate.
“Some people are not keen to spend on bicycles… so we gave them (the town) a zero budget plan,” he said. “What we are going to do is push encouragement and education.”
Burke said emphasis on the Safe Routes to School program and trying to create a grassroots effort in Bedford to get people out on their bikes, whether individually or on organized rides, would eventually increase support of future bicycling projects.
David Wilson, President of the Bike Walk Alliance, said that the innovative local initiatives to promote cycling were some of the most inspiring take aways from yesterday’s summit.
“It’s all happening on the local level,” he said. “People are forming groups in a number of municipalities and they push an initiative and we’ve had a lot of success with that.”
He said despite the stereotype that Westchester is ruled by cars and commuters, perceptions are slowly changing.
“There is definitely a bias in Westchester toward the car,” he said. “Westchester developed over all these years with cars and ever-lengthening commutes. But we belive now, cycling is becoming increasing popular here and more people are commuting by bicycle.
“We believe that Westchester is really a good place for cycling but we can make it better for bikes as well as cars.”
To get involved with cycling locally, check out the Bike Walk Alliance and the Westchester Cycle Club.