Stamford needs to look toward a more walkable, bikeable future

September 23, 2020

By: Dice Oh, Jerry Silber, John Track, and Will Wright

After decades of a transportation policy focusing only on cars, Stamford has finally begun to remake itself as a safer and more walkable city. The city has added and improved sidewalks, installed new bike lanes, and made crosswalks safer. But these improvements, which are critical to improving our city and protecting the safety of our most vulnerable road users, have increasingly come under fire from some members of the Board of Representatives who are more interested in preserving the status quo than protecting the safety of their constituents.

This obstruction has perhaps never been more apparent than with the Board’s recent failure to amend an ordinance in order to make crosswalks safer. This small but important change would have clarified that parking is banned not only next to crosswalks at an intersection but also at crosswalks in the middle of a block. Cars currently aren’t allowed to park next to crosswalks at an intersection because they make it difficult for approaching drivers to see people trying to cross. The need for this amendment is plain: there is no reason why people crossing at crosswalks at an intersection or mid-block should not benefit from the same basic safety measures.

The reason the amendment didn’t pass is because certain members of the Board of Reps said, in effect, that parking is more important than safety. At a committee meeting, Rep. Terry Adams said he was “totally against” the amendment because it takes away on-street parking. Rep. Ines Saftic said that the change “makes no sense at all” and also expressed frustration at the loss of parking. These comments are especially unfortunate because Adams (the South End) and Saftic (Waterside) represent neighborhoods that are particularly dense and walkable, which means they are where people would benefit the most from this safety measure.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, the discussion of the amendment has led the Board of Reps to now take it upon itself to review how crosswalks are placed in the city—a task best left to the engineers in the Transportation Department—apparently out of concern that mid-block crosswalks could take away parking. This shows a complete misplacement of priorities by the Board. It is also unfortunately emblematic of the Board’s inclination to micromanage and interfere on issues of road safety.

Recently, Rep. John Zelinsky sought to block a plan by the Transportation Department to reconfigure Bedford Street in front of the new police headquarters. At a committee meeting, he repeatedly referred to the planned curb extensions, which make it easier for people to cross the street, as “obstructions” and expressed the misguided opinion that a bike lane would actually make the road more dangerous for a person on a bike. Fortunately, Rep. Zelinsky failed in his efforts to block this important road safety project.

To be clear, not all members of the Board of Reps have been hostile to the changes needed to make sure our streets are safe for everyone. Reps. Ben Lee, David Watkins, Bob Lion, Monica DiCostanzo, and Matthew Quinones, among others, have been supportive, but a sea change is still necessary to reorient Stamford’s car-centric mentality. Stamford has had a taste of what a more “people friendly” future can look like with the massive expansion of outdoor dining this summer due to the pandemic. This project, in addition to being a lifeline to businesses, has been incredibly popular and successful precisely because it takes space away from cars and gives it back to people. Changes like this should be permanent and there should be many more of them.

In 2015, a very different Board of Reps passed the Complete Streets Ordinance, which mandates that all transportation projects “explore opportunities to meet the needs of all users,” including not just drivers but also “pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit vehicles.” This is what the Board should be doing: setting standards and letting the experts implement them. It should not be, as is too often the case with the current Board, micromanaging crosswalk or bike lane placement, or interfering with common sense measures to make sure things like crosswalks are safe for pedestrians. Stamford’s streets should be safe and accessible to everyone.

Dice Oh, John Track, Jerry Silber and Will Wright are members of People Friendly Stamford, a group working to make Stamford’s neighborhoods safe, accessible, and enjoyable for bicycling and walking (