Getting to Work

T hey come down Orange Street in ones and twos and threes. They wear athletic jackets and long, flapping coats. They carry backpacks and panniers. They’re among New Haven’s countless bike commuters, and on a weekday morning, if you stand on any corner of upper Orange, you’ll see them zipping past before 9 a.m. at an average of about one per block.

One woman rides with a preschooler in a seat on the back, clutching a stuffed dog. A couple of people ride Onewheel skateboards. This particular morning, Kristen Sorek West is actually walking her bike down Orange near Humphrey, which is why it’s possible to ask about her commute.

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West, who’s carrying her helmet and wearing a winter jacket, a wool hat with ear flaps and a warm pair of gloves over her work attire, says both she and her husband will ride to work no matter the temperature. If it’s raining, she wears a waterproof jacket and pants. “I stop when there’s ice,” she says. “Otherwise we ride, and it’s lovely.”

Ice is pretty much where veteran bike commuter Jim Whitney draws the line, too. He’s been riding from his home in East Rock to his law office at the corner of Orange and Chapel Streets since 1973. He recalls the icy morning that taught him a lesson: “I was just going out of my driveway, and suddenly I was on the ground.”

Before Whitney was biking to work, he was walking, which is still his plan B today. His reason for pedaling to work is more practical than anything. He and his wife, Betty, have always been a one-car family, he says, even when they were raising three teenagers. And riding to work is simply quicker than walking—10 minutes as opposed to 25. “It’s habit, I guess,” he says. “You know, I don’t claim it’s a lot of exercise… I usually go for a little run first thing in the morning.”

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Whitney got his first bike at the age of 10 from his parents; these days he’s riding a bike his grown kids bought for him. No matter the vehicle, his commute hasn’t changed much in all those decades, except now there are bike lanes on Orange Street. People have always ridden to work from East Rock to downtown or the Yale campus, he says. As a result, New Haveners are reasonably respectful of riders. “Drivers can get impatient anywhere,” Whitney says, “but I think drivers in New Haven are used to seeing bikes.” He also figures the city has done a pretty good job of making the streets rideable.

Orange Street is one of several New Haven byways that has a dedicated bike lane, which runs from Cold Spring down to Humphrey, where a bike lane runs for a short distance both east and west. Other bike-friendly streets include short stretches of Clinton Avenue, Dixwell Avenue, the Boulevard, Yale Avenue, Howard Avenue and bits of several streets downtown (or close to it): Cedar, Church, College, Elm, Frontage, Prospect, South Orange, Webster. Stay off the sidewalks, though, as per New Haven ordinance.

There are, of course, hazards to commuting by bike. West’s top advice to her fellow commuters: “Please be safe.” She says it twice for emphasis, then offers tips for what that means: “Wear your helmet. Don’t wear headphones. Get a front light and a rear light. Make yourself noticeable. And give pedestrians the right of way.”

“When I was younger,” Whitney says, “I wasn’t aware [of] how invisible you are to a driver.” Hence the safety vest he wears over his jacket. Then there’s the issue of your bike’s safety. Whitney’s was stolen once from the hallway outside his office, but a colleague across the hall and a security camera helped him recover it.

One plus to a New Haven bike commute, both West and Whitney agree, is the fairly level terrain. West came to New Haven from Pittsburgh, where her two and a half-mile commute included an elevation change of 500 feet, something akin to climbing a hill one and a half times as high as East Rock every day. Whitney, whose daughter lives in San Francisco, marvels at the bike commuters there. When he visits her, he takes the bus.

Though both West and Whitney have a short, flat commute of a mile or so, cyclists converge on the city from much greater distances including surrounding towns. West urges those who prefer driving to give urban biking a try. “If you’re gonna go to the local bodega and pick up a lemon, try riding your bike instead of driving,” she suggests. “It’s fuel-efficient, it’s cost-efficient, it’s a great way to get exercise.”

And if you’re stuck behind a steering wheel instead of a bike wheel? Be respectful of the more vulnerable riders around you. They may seem slow, West says, but “we’re trying to get by, too.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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