Chris Brown put on a dark suit, shirt and tie for his day in court Tuesday, then he grabbed an important accessory that he never, ever goes without: a bright green bicycle helmet. As a judge in Hartford Superior Court was about to hear, Brown goes everywhere by bike.
Even to court on cold day with a forecast of snow.
Brown, 39, a trim Trinity College employee, is a two-wheeling pioneer, a part-time bicycle instructor whose sole means of transportation is the heavy-duty, low-riding cargo bike that he locked to a black fence outside the courthouse.
Brown sued the state Department of Transportation last fall over the closure of a Hartford street to accommodate the continuing construction of CTfastrak, a 9.4-mile bus way from New Britain to Hartford. As a result, Brown says, his Frog Hollow neighborhood has no safe, easy access to Asylum Hill, at least not by bicycle.
As he told Judge Marshall K. Berger Tuesday, the alternate route on a busy thoroughfare with I-84 access involves the risk of collision with motor vehicles and other unpleasantness: “There’s usually honking and yelling involved.”
In Brown v. Redeker, his lawsuit against state Transportation Commissioner James Redeker, Brown is testing the limits of how far one committed urban bicyclist and a sympathetic activist lawyer can go in forcing the DOT to revise a big-ticket project that is introducing rapid transit to Greater Hartford.
Specifically, he and his lawyer, Ken Krayeske, are trying to persuade Berger to issue a writ of mandamus ordering Redeker to comply with conditions set last year by a DOT hearing officer, Judith Almeida, for the closing of Flower Street, which runs from Capitol Avenue to Farmington Avenue behind Aetna and the Hartford Courant.
Almeida ordered that Flower Street be kept open to pedestrians and bicyclists during construction of the bus way to the extent possible. She also ordered that DOT build a bridge to provide pedestrian and bicycle access over the bus way.
The DOT closed the street in November, saying it could not safely remain open. Design work won’t begin this spring on a pedestrian bridge providing access over the bus way, and Krayeske says that violate’s Almeida’s order.
Assistant Attorney General Eileen Meskill told Berger that Redeker has the flexibility to close the street now for construction. The state also is challenging whether Brown has the legal standing to seek the mandamus order, absent evidence that Redeker acted for an illegal purpose.
Berger seemed dubious as to whether Brown had standing. The judge noted that by his reading of the law, Redeker had the authority to close Flower Street without submitting the closure to a review by a hearing officer.
“I looked at it as a benevolent act by the commissioner,” Berger said.
“The reality is there is no standing here,” Meskill said.
Krayeske said Almeida’s order should not be ignored, and if Brown cannot seek its enforcement, then who will?
Mandamus actions are what most lawyers, including Krayeseke, consider to be low-percentage legal actions. The standard to force a public official to comply with an administrative order is difficult, as Krayeske conceded in court.
Krayeske is no stranger to long odds and difficult causes, legal or otherwise. He came to a vocation in the law after years as a political activist, including, as the nominee of the Green Party in 2010, challenging the re-election of U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District.
Larson won with 138,440 votes.
Krayeske had 2,564.
Berger delayed action Tuesday on the state’s motion to dismiss the case. Instead, he allowed arguments and testimony on the merits of Brown’s suit. Brown and Redeker each testified briefly, though the commissioner deferred most questions on the approval process to subordinates.
Outside of court, Redeker said the DOT during his time as commissioner has become more responsive to the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, noting that the department has been saluted for its “complete streets” policy, which requires the department to consider the needs of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists when roads are rebuilt.
In general, he said, the DOT has a good relationship with bicyclists.
“They are very organized. They attend meetings, provide good input,” Redeker said. “It’s very valuable to the DOT.”
Brown’s testimony offered a brief tutorial on the challenges of urban bike riding and the limits of what the DOT can do to make major thoroughfares safe for bicyclists.
He told Berger that an alternate route to Flower Street suggested by the DOT includes riding on a sidewalk along busy Broad Street a block east of Flower. It is legal for bikes to use sidewalks in Hartford — in many municipalities it is not — but motorists must cross the sidewalk as they enter and exit parking lots.
Brown, who teaches safe riding techniques, said he has remained safe through his years of urban riding.
“I have not had an actual crash,” Brown said. But, he added, he has had his share of “close calls.”