For Chris McCahill choosing a bicycle over a car for shorter trips offers much more than the obvious physical and environmental benefits.
The mode of transportation also offers a different vantage point, removes barriers and the gives him freedom to stop and talk to people on the way. He said a bicycle to him is what some bloggers have labeled the "instrument of experiential understanding."
“It’s a totally different relationship with your community,” McCahill said.
McCahill, 28, can often be found at places like in Collinsville and the Avon researching and studying issues such as planning and transportation, his focus for a recently completed doctorate from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Connecticut.
McCahill has a car but almost always takes his simple fixed-gear bicycle when going 10 miles or less. He saves money on gas, doesn't use oil, resists the urge to purchase things he doesn’t need, gets exercise and makes those connections.
“That also means I tend to stay local too,” the 2002 Canton High School graduate said.
McCahill said he knows it’s unrealistic to expect suburban residents to switch to bicycles for commuting to Hartford or taking the family on a large shopping trip.
In fact factors like suburban infrastructure and the distance to most business centers and even the distance between many stores have made people reliant on motor vehicles.
“That’s taken away the freedom of choice,” he said.
In addition, zoning laws created to separate uses has made it harder to create mixed-use communities that can help reduce vehicular use, he said. In fact villages like Collinsville, which he sees as a great way to build a community, would be nearly impossible to build today.
But such places often provide residents with some reasonable housing costs for the young and elderly, many services in one place and other advantages, McCahill said.
Many of the ideas are not strictly his own but McCahill is happy to see that in Connecticut and elsewhere attitudes are starting to change. Some towns have even looked at zoning that emphasizes the buildings and their look over their use, allowing for a mix of retail, service business, light industrial and residential spaces to co-exist.
While he believes Collinsville has the perfect setup for such a plan, McCahill believes the Simsbury has done positive thing with its town center and Avon with its plan to develop a comprehensive center. McCahill said Canton is also generating some positive ideas.
He also feels that West Hartford’s , while not an appropriate scale for everywhere, is another positive step.
“There’s the right kind of style for every place,” he said.
With zoning changes, many existing plazas could become mixed-use villages, McCahill said.
McCahill generally chooses the most direct route to his destinations, not always without controversy. On Route 44, he rides slightly in the vehicle lane, rather than dealing with potholes and other obstructions often found in the bike lane. He feels it would be even more dangerous if he swerved to miss such obstructions.
“You have to behave a little more aggressively to keep yourself safe,” he said, adding that he realizes that doesn’t please all drivers.
He also doesn’t wear a helmet, another point he knows can be controversial.
“They’re important but they’re overemphasized,” he said, adding that skilled defensive riding and the infrastructure are just as, if not more, crucial.
Riding on a road like Route 44 can be a huge barrier to some. Part of it is getting used to riding on the road. McCahill said he doesn’t use the trail network all that often but said they provide a way of transportation for those not as comfortable riding on the road. He also sees them as a great way to get families out riding and exercising.
For example, he’s seen more bicyclists riding to the since a new section of trail between Routes 179 and 44 in Canton was completed.
As he plans for his future, McCahill hopes to teach in bicycle friendly community.
Meanwhile he continues to study, research and advocate for the issues close to his heart.
Ironically he feels bike culture can actually discourage some people from riding more. An expensive bike and specialized clothing aren’t necessary, he said.
"Dust off the old 10 speed or old cruiser and go out,” he said.
McCahill has written extensively about transportation and planning. Read more at http://www.christophermccahill.com/.