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Pedal empowered


Considerable work has been done in some Rochester communities to encourage people to set aside their cars more often in favor of bikes, the bus, or their own two feet.

To date, however, much of the work has focused on infrastructure: curb cuts to make it easier to step on to sidewalks, lockers so cyclists have a safe place to park their bikes, and crosswalk signals to count down the time a pedestrian has to cross.

Local active transportation advocates say they are proud of that work, but more needs to be done. They need to keep pressuring public officials to invest in bicycle and pedestrian friendly infrastructure, they say. And they want to do more to encourage the public to walk, bike, or ride buses more often.

Advocates have a new ally in their efforts. Last month, Elizabeth Murphy joined the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency as an active transportation specialist. She's the first person to hold the newly created job, which exists because of an expansive, multi-year public health grant received by a coalition of community groups, including the University of Rochester Medical Center and the Monroe County Department of Health.

Murphy's is not the first position in the Rochester area to focus on aspects of active transportation, a term that generally means non-car transportation that requires some physical activity. For example, the Genesee Transportation Council has a bicycling and pedestrian program manager. And the City of Rochester's planning department includes employees who focus on cycling and pedestrian issues.

What Rochester lacks is outreach and publicity for active transportation, says Erik Frisch, transportation specialist in the city's planning department.

That's part of what makes Murphy's charge of promoting active transportation throughout Monroe County important. One of the main thrusts of her job is to build connections between people and groups — from government officials to concerned residents on a single block — who deal with active transportation issues.

She might, for example, work with school districts to identify and develop safe walking routes for students. Or she might assist community groups and events, like Color Brighton Green's Curb Your Car Week, to build up active transportation efforts.

"We haven't had the capacity or someone to help coordinate those sorts of efforts," says Rachel Pickering, associate director of community engagement at FLHSA.

Murphy will approach active transportation from a community health perspective, as well as a transportation planning issue. That means stressing the health and environmental benefits, as well as the community benefits.

"It's not going to be four times faster to ride your bike to work," she says. "But there's still a reason to do it."

Murphy is a Rochester native, though she's lived outside of the area for several years, most recently in Boston.

She says she sees herself as an outsider who brings ideas that have worked in other communities. She led walkability workshops in California, for example, and worked for the US Department of Transportation's Volpe Center, which conducts transportation planning research and education, in Boston.

"I've been lucky to see what people are trying in a lot of other places where there's been a lot of success with promoting walking, biking, and transit," Murphy says.

In Boston, she lived near a business that offered bicycle valet parking to customers and organized large group rides.

Murphy says she'd like to work with business here on active transportation efforts and events. Ultimately, those things get people comfortable with walking, biking, or transit, she says.

"I think you need fun events," she says. "It's not advocacy. It's just people participating in things that they think are fun, interesting, or creative."

Murphy and Pickering also say they'd like to work with the region's largest employers to encourage their employees to walk, bike, or take the bus to work.

But Murphy says she also doesn't want to presume that what worked somewhere else will work in the Rochester region.

Different groups are already promoting active transportation in the Rochester area. The Conkey Cruisers, for example, holds rides on the El Camino trail in the northeast part of the city. And there are bike racks on Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority buses.

Just last fall, the city was given Bicycle Friendly Community status by the League of American Bicyclists. A contributing factor in the recognition is the city's Bicycle Master Plan. City planners gathered substantial public input for the document, which has driven much of the city's investment in bike infrastructure, including bike lanes and publicly accessible repair stands. The Towns of Penfield and Brighton have completed similar plans and Greece is starting the process.

Communities and agencies in the region have also emphasized improving and marking trails, resulting in a countywide network of connected, practical trails. Murphy says the trails are a major asset for the area.

Murphy's work will dovetail with other programs. For example, the Healthi Kids Initiative, a coalition led by FLHSA, is evaluating how and where city children play and coming up with ways to make that play safer. Murphy is involved in the effort, which includes how children get to the play areas.

One of Murphy's first major undertakings is to organize the April 30 Genesee Finger Lakes Active Transportation Summit.

The event will build on a similar, previous event: the 2011 Greater Rochester Active Transportation Symposium. It will feature two keynote speakers, including House Representative Earl Blumenauer, who represents Portland, Oregon, and is well-known in the active transportation world.

One of the summit's goals is to get decision-makers and advocates in the same room, Murphy says.

"Under that umbrella we can all work together and really make some positive change within our communities," she says.

But Murphy says she also wants to get a feel for what people and communities in the area want and what would change how they get from place to place.

The summit may give Murphy a good start. Richard DeSarra, a longtime Rochester cycling advocate, says he hopes the summit gives Murphy ideas for future projects.

The afternoon portion of the summit will be devoted to workgroups. And Murphy says she hopes to come away with recommendations, projects, and plans to help move active transportation forward in the Rochester area.

"I want to believe that this is an issue we can work on everywhere," she says. "It's going to look different in different places in different communities."