Signs for the Western New England Greenway bicycle trail through Westport have been posted on Newtown Turnpike, with additional signs showing the route’s turn onto Broad Street. / Photos by Gretchen Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — A bike route stretching from the tip of Florida in Key West along the East Coast up to Maine, with a separate inland route branching north from Norwalk to Montreal, has been in the works for years. 

Westport is the latest community to join 11 other Connecticut towns on the interior bike route, called the Western New England Greenway.

The greenway is being welcomed by cyclists, who have been growing in number over the last decade, according to Tom O’Brien, a volunteer for Housatonic Heritage, the nonprofit organization that created the bike route.

Bicyclists ride on the new Westport portion of the Western New England Greenway.

“You’re traveling at 10 miles an hour – you really experience the area you’re going through,” he said, noting that Connecticut has beautiful back roads for cycling.

During the COVID pandemic, many more cyclists took to the roads, O’Brien said. “Bike riding increased,” he said. “The gyms closed, but people could go outside.” 

New signs designate bikeway

The green-and-white signs designating the trail were recently installed by the Department of Public Works along the route on Newtown Turnpike and Broad Street in the northwest corner of Westport. It is a key point in the trail because of its proximity to the connection with the Eastern Coastal Greenway.

The signs were installed after the Board of Selectwomen approved a Municipal Roadway Sign Agreement on Jan. 25 with Housatonic Heritage.

“Our obligation is simply to install signage supplied by Housatonic Heritage people,” John Broadbin, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, told the selectwomen. “There is no significant cost to us at all. They will replace the signage should it ever go missing or lost.”

Mapping the local route

In Westport, the cycling route begins at the town’s border with Norwalk on Newtown Avenue, which becomes Newtown Turnpike as it crosses into Westport. It continues on Newtown Turnpike, past MoCA Westport, turning onto Broad Street. The route passes into Weston on Broad Street.

The Westport portion of the Western New England Greenway begins at the town’s border with Norwalk, close to a junction with the East Coast Greenway route.

The addition of signs along the route is a new element of the project, which started last fall, according to Dan Bolognani, executive director of Housatonic Heritage. 

The initial routing of the bikeway took time, he said, requiring his agency to get approval from each municipality the route passes through, as well as signing off with the state Department of Transportation to designate the Western New England Greenway as a national bike route.

“It’s volunteer driven,” he said. 

To create one continuous route, the organization’s bike committee looked at existing bike trails, adding new segments as needed and finding “the best way we can connect [with other trails] and get people safely north on some side roads.”

He stressed that the route, largely planned for the Route 7 area, is not solely a bikeway where cyclists have the path to themselves. It is an on-road bike route where, although its creators have tried to choose the most lightly traveled roads and incorporate bike routes whenever possible, the route doesn’t separate bicycles from motor vehicle traffic. Having routes solely traveled by bikes is costly, he said, requiring empty land or abandoned railroad beds to be incorporated into the route.

“Basically we’re trying to show people how you can travel the Route 7 area without traveling on Route 7, which is dangerous” for bicyclists, O’Brien said. “From Norwalk the route travels east through Westport, Weston and Redding, curves back into Brookfield and New Milford — then follows the Housatonic [River] up to Massachusetts. It’s a mapping rather than an infrastructure effort.”

Cyclists can follow all the New England Greenway bike routes, he said, by using the bike routes page on the Western New England Greenway website. 

So far, there are five towns on the route that have posted the bike route signs, and Westport is one of them, according to O’Brien. Some of the towns have not had the signs delivered yet, he added, although the warm winter weather has helped the sign project move ahead quickly since the ground is not frozen.

Bicycle-friendly businesses

The organization’s next goal is to develop “a bicycle-friendly business program” along the New England Greenway, Bolognani said. 

That would include developing a list of places for lodging and dining that welcome cyclists along the route. It would also provide information on places that provide a basic level of service for cyclists, such as a secure covered area to lock their bikes overnight; those that have bicycle tools available, or have bike racks installed at restaurants or other stopping places.

O’Brien, who delivered the Greenway bike route signs to Westport, said he was pleased to see a rack with bike tools placed outside Westport Town Hall.

Plans for bike routes have been discussed in the region for many years, he said. When the Merritt Parkway was first designed in the 1930s, a trail alongside the road for bicycling and horse-back riding was planned, but never built. 

“They’re trying to resurrect the idea along the Merritt Parkway,” he said, “but it is very difficult.”

A feeling of independence

He and his family are members “Warm Showers,” an organization that provides free lodging to cyclists along trails, many of them international travelers. O’Brien said he and his son have used the organization to find stops on cross-country bike treks, he said. 

Getting his children interested in bicycling was important to O’Brien, and influences his commitment to develop the Western New England Greenway.

“As a kid I grew up riding a bike – it was my first feeling of independence,” he said. “When I moved to Connecticut I was disappointed that very few children rode bikes — a wonderful experience for a child to gain — and I want my kids to have that opportunity.”

For more information, visit the Housatonic Heritage or Western New England Greenway websites.

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Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and currently teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.