Person of the Week
Pedestrian of the Week: Ellen Weiss
If you like walking or cycling on Madison roads, or are a driver who likes the idea of peacefully coexisting with the former, Ellen Weiss and the Ad-Hoc Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee want to hear from you. (Photo by Zoe Roos/The Source)
From her front porch, Ellen Weiss can watch pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars go by on her road near the beach. During the summer months, some might think of that as a rather charming image, but after watching one close call after another of people nearly being hit, Ellen decided it was time to do something about it.
“The whole reason I even became interested is because as you are sitting here, it’s like a parade in the summer on a beautiful day,” she says. “The cars and the people and it’s wonderful to watch, but we see a lot of unsafe practices. Either the walkers are covering the whole road or they are on the wrong side or the cars are impatient or the little kids on bikes learning how to ride are going all over the street.”
Her first mission was to meet with neighbors, gather signatures, and eventually convinced the town to lower the speed limit on Middle Beach Road to 20 mph rather than the previously posted 25 mph. It was a small start, but in her research into traffic calming methods, Ellen stumbled upon a concept known as Complete Streets.
“This was about four years ago and I had no idea what that was, so I started reading...It’s a national thing,” she says. “It has been around since 2004 and I thought, ‘Wow isn’t that great and wouldn’t it be awesome if we could get the town to adopt a policy so we could start thinking about people using the streets for a multitude of reasons.’”
The idea didn’t take off right away, but when the town recently formed the Ad-Hoc Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), Ellen was asked to join. Director of Planning and Economic Development Dave Anderson told her this could be the perfect opportunity to bring Complete Streets to Madison.
Complete Streets is a movement across the nation designed to support integrated transportation networks that support “all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, persons with disabilities, motorists, transit vehicles, emergency responders, users and operators of public transportation, seniors, children, youth, and families,” according to the policy put forward by the committee.
“This is about realizing the roads have to be shared, so this isn’t just telling the vehicles that we are going to make your lanes narrower and put more paths on the side,” she says. “This is telling people who bike or walk on the sides that you have to also share the road. It’s a whole balance of compromise, adjustment, and working together. I think it is extremely doable and the response we have gotten from the community is truly amazing.”
The charge of BPAC is to support a Complete Streets policy and develop a bicycle and pedestrian master plan for the town. To that end, Ellen and other committee members have been out at farmers markets and other events, talking to groups in town about the committee and complete streets. Ellen says people intrigued by the idea are then asked to take an online survey to help the committee distill what residents think are the greatest priority for making Madison more bike- and pedestrian friendly.
“We will take the survey and then we will figure out where the priority areas are based on the community input,” she says. “It is what you want and your opinion, so if you fill this out, we can really establish these priorities.”
The policy was approved by the Board of Selectmen, so now whenever the town looks to redo or improve a road or sidewalk, the policy has to be taken into consideration before a project starts. In other words, if you are looking to add a bike lane, it makes more sense to know that before lines are painted on the road.
“A lot of it’s continuing the sidewalk network from the center of town just to have it connect better,” she says. “These are more expensive things to do, but not all of it is that costly and frankly if you do it at a beginning of a project it is so much easier to factor it in and then we don’t have issues like we have with the median at the center of town.”
The survey already has 400 responses after only being live for two months. Ellen says the survey will provide good data to take to public works when presenting project ideas. Right now, standard practice is to consider widening a road or adding a stop sign if there is enough crash data to back it up. Ellen says data from the survey showing high levels of concern over particular areas might help change how needs are assessed.
“For Middle Beach Road, we had to get enough names to consider change the speed limit,” she says, noting that waiting for crash data to back up peoples’ perceptions is a mistake. “Do you wait until there is an accident or enough crashes and then you do something? I want to be more proactive than that.”
Ellen says studies have show that if a destination is less than a mile away, people are likely to walk, and if the destination is less than three miles away, people are likely to bike. Having safe access to the center of town by foot or bike can help bring people into down, cut down on the number of cars and emissions, and help people of all ages feel more mobile.
“People want to age in place and this is an important thing,” she says. “So let’s try to make it a little easier. It’s very often about the elderly and sometime in the next 10 years or so, there will be so many people that will be over 65 in this country and if people can stay active and do things that’s great…There is a little thing I found and it is a picture of an old woman with a walker and she is kind of walking away and then along the side it says ‘What is the first thing an infant wants to do and the last thing an elderly person wants to give up?’ It is so true.”
Presenting new ideas to a community can sometimes be difficult, Ellen says. She knows there can be a knee-jerk reaction when something different comes up, but she says this policy and committee present a unique opportunity for the community to come together and think about solutions.
“Walking groups could form as a result of this and that is another thing people might enjoy,” she says. “If there is a question about how we are going to address street X or area X, you can have walkthroughs and you can walk it and see and then we can go discuss what we saw.”
All and all, Ellen says for now the most important thing residents can do right now is take the BPAC survey.
“The best thing anyone can do after reading this article is participate in the survey because the voice of the community will really have an impact,” she says. “People are data-driven and they like surveys, so let’s give them the data. We can’t do that unless you voice your opinion.”
Find the survey at www.madisonct.org/Bike.