Making Tracks

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Bicycling is on the rise, but a spate of road-rage incidents and accidents suggests that Maine is lagging when it comes to cultivating a bike-friendly culture.

By Joshua Bodwell

On a cloudless Tuesday morning in early June, Bangor Police sergeant Timothy Cotton began his day as he had for the past week in his new role as public information officer: He sat down and wrote something for the department’s Facebook page.

Cotton penned a proactive and positive reminder that more and more cyclists were on the roads taking advantage of the warm weather. “Remember,” the post read in part, “it is the duty of the operator of a motor vehicle to exercise DUE CARE when passing a bicycle by leaving a distance of not less than three feet between themselves and the bicycle . . . .”

The posting, which included a lighthearted photo of a spandex-clad road cyclist grinning while in a mid-air jump, was quickly shared more than 130 times, liked by nearly 400, and commented on by more than 70. Cotton was pleasantly surprised with the reaction. And then things got strange.

Comments turned not only angry but vitriolic.

One Bangor resident wrote, “All I want to know is when pedestrians and cyclists/skaters walk/roll out in front of me (not in a cross walk or at a corner), can I run them over yet?”

“I was surprised,” said Cotton a few days after his original post. “There seems to be a general consensus with some drivers that bikes just shouldn’t be on the road at all.”

The disparity of reactions to Cotton’s seemingly innocuous Facebook post is just one of the complexities Maine must navigate as it surmounts a cycling paradox. The popularity of road biking — as opposed to off-road cycling such as trail riding on mountain bikes — is growing, and the state’s natural beauty offers resident and visiting cyclists an endless range of spectacular riding opportunities. Yet not only do many drivers appear unaware of or unwilling to accept state laws regarding cyclists, but insufficient paving budgets of towns, cities, counties, and the state leave popular bike routes in various degrees of repair.

Is Maine ready for the growing enthusiasm for cycling?

Wherever you turn in Maine these days, there is an organized bike ride of some kind. This past October, the fifth annual Dempsey Challenge drew more than 1,000 riders. The Eastern Trail Alliance’s Maine Lighthouse Ride is celebrating its 11th anniversary in September and capping registration at 1,200 riders. Back in May, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine hosted its lucky 13th Women’s Ride and is currently preparing for its second BikeMaine ride in September, a major enterprise that will take as many as 350 cyclists across nearly 400 miles over seven days.

And then there’s perhaps the most discussed cycling event in the state: In June, the American Lung Association of the Northeast celebrated its 30th Trek Across Maine, a three-day ride from Bethel to Belfast. While the inaugural Trek in 1985 was just 106 brave souls, this year’s Trek consisted of 2,310 riders registered across 135 different teams. Seven hundred volunteers — one for every four riders — donated their time at intersections and rest stops.

These rides alone put thousands of cyclists on Maine roads each year, and they don’t even scratch the surface of events, from highly organized athletic competitions to casual weekly community rides. All this “pedal-tourism” infuses the state with tons of two-wheeler cash. According to a 2001 study by the Maine Department of Transportation, bike tourism generates a total economic impact of nearly $67 million per year in the state — and the popularity of cycling has only grown since.

As the buzz builds around Maine cycling, there are also sobering reminders of the activity’s dangers: this summer’s Trek Across Maine included one team riding in memory of 23-year-old David LeClair, who fell from his bike during the 2013 ride and was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer. It was the first death in the Trek’s history.

In the 22 years since its formation, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine (BCM) has grown from a part-time director working out of his house to a Portland office with a staff of seven full-time and three part-time employees. Born as an advocacy organization to give Maine cyclists a voice in Augusta, the BCM also offers a variety of programs and events. It now boasts a stable membership of 5,000 (to put that kind of membership in perspective, the last Maine gubernatorial election was decided by a margin of roughly 7,500 votes).

In 2013, the BCM worked with Maine State Legislator Erik Jorgensen to pass LD 1460, “An Act To Update and Clarify the Laws Governing the Operation of Bicycles on Public Roadways.” Jorgensen is a lifelong cyclist and campaigned for his State House seat on a 1970s Motobecane bike he saved for and bought as a teenager.

“During the testimony for LD 1460,” says Jorgensen, “we kept hearing all these terrible things about cyclists being harassed and harangued. It was really troubling.”

In addition to reaffirming and reasserting that operators of automobiles must give cyclists a mandatory 3 feet when passing, the law gives bicyclists rights similar to drivers when using the roadway. Supporters contend it levels the playing field: Drivers must respect cyclists, but cyclists must also adhere to the rules of the road. Opponents say the law gives cyclists too much power, especially the clause stating that if an automobile strikes a cyclist while passing them, it will be assumed the automobile was in violation of the 3-foot law. Currently, 22 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted a 3-foot passing law like Maine’s. Pennsylvania has pushed out to 4 feet, and New Hampshire has a graduated passing law whereby the faster a motorist is traveling, the more space is required.

“Beyond our general culture of road rage,” Jorgensen explains, “some of the animosity points up that there are cyclists who do dumb things like ride on sidewalks and run red lights. But these laws go both ways: Cyclists have to obey vehicle laws, too.” Parity between automobiles and cyclists, he says, was a crucial part of the law.

“It drives me crazy, too,” says BCM executive director Nancy Grant, when she hears about cyclists disobeying laws. She believes the actions of a few cyclists leave motorists with a bad impression of all cyclists. According to the results of a recent yearlong study by the League of American Bicyclists — an organization founded in 1880, when cyclists faced resentment from wagon drivers rather than automobiles — motorists are still more often at fault when it comes to the common complaint of who ran the stop sign: While 2 percent of cyclist deaths are the result of cyclists failing to yield, 6 percent are caused by drivers failing to yield. The same study found that 40 percent of U.S. bicycle deaths occur when a driver hits a cyclist from behind.

“We are hoping to make Maine one of the most popular bike tourism destinations in the whole country,” Grant recently told Jennifer Rooks during an episode of MPBN’s radio show Maine Calling. When it comes to achieving this goal, Grant gives Maine an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.

In the League of American Bicyclists’ ranking of the most bike-friendly states, Maine rose from sixth to second between 2008 and 2011. This year, the state skidded back to 13th, receiving its lowest scores on “Infrastructure and Funding” and “Evaluation and Planning.” Grant believes Maine’s slip occurred after the survey’s methodology was changed to favor states with larger urban centers; Washington State currently holds the number one slot.

“Our biggest challenge is the roads,” says Grant emphatically. “The winters are hard on them, and the paving budgets are tight.” She believes, however, that Maine is ahead of many states in how its larger towns and cities have begun to consider cycling an important component of an area’s livability.

“I think this is a trend communities need to pay attention to if they want to attract new residents,” says Dan Stewart, the Maine Department of Transportation’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program manager.

Maine’s largest city, Portland, has been focused on a 10- to 20-year plan to make busy collector and arterial roads safer and more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. In 2011, Portland launched a 5.5-mile “Neighborhood Byway” pilot project to move walkers and cyclists parallel to collector and arterial roads. With $350,000 in local, state, and federal funding, the project is preparing to expand and employ traffic-calming and wayfinding measures where the byways intersect with major roads.

“The projects and plans have been generally well embraced,” says Portland Bicycle & Pedestrian Program coordinator Bruce Hyman, “but there are still folks who think streets are only for cars.” In reality, Portland has seen a roughly 20 percent decrease in car registration in recent years.

While countries such as Canada, England, and France are going out of their way to incentivize cycling for both its traffic-alleviating and health benefits, Maine, like most of the U.S., appears slow to adopt such practices. One example is the midcoast’s ferry service.

For a cyclist to travel round-trip on the ferry from Rockland to Vinalhaven or North Haven, it costs $34 — that’s $17.50 for a passenger ticket and an additional $16.50 for the bike. A group of four adults would pay $136. That same trip costs just $102 for a motorist whose car is carrying three additonal passengers and four bikes on a bike rack ($49.50 for the driver and car, plus $17.50 each for the passengers). In other words, a group of cyclists ferrying to an island can actually save $34 by bringing a car with them. Even a couple pays more to travel with bikes only: $68 versus $67 with a car with a bike rack.

John Anders, manager at Rockland’s Maine State Ferry Service, says the ferry advisory board — a group of islanders and mainlanders with no binding authority — is in consensus that the ferries maintain their current rate structure.

Portland’s Casco Bay Lines island ferry service — which serves a higher population of daily commuting cyclists — has similar inconsistencies and inequities in their ticket pricing, but its board and cycling advocates are working to address them.

On the rail-service side of things, getting a bicycle on Amtrak’s Downeaster is inexpensive ($5), but it’s also quite limited: just three of the train route’s 12 stations allow passengers to board or depart with bicycles (Brunswick, Portland, and Boston North Station), and advanced reservations are required. The BCM is currently advocating for changes.

Jay Riley inadvertently became something of a poster boy for the escalating tensions between automobile drivers and cyclists last summer when he accused Captain Jim Harkins — a charter boat business owner and one-time local-access cable show host — of nearly running him down on the Martin’s Point Bridge between Portland and Falmouth.

Riley, who makes his living as a sales rep for a national bike company, videoed Harkins shouting profanity and a homophobic slur and then posted the video online. James Tasse, the BCM’s associate director, saw the video and quickly reached out to Riley to facilitate a conversation between the cyclist and local police. “Those guys were great,” Riley says of the coalition. “But I do wish people saw them as lobbyists for better communities, not just lobbyists for cyclists.”

Asked how Maine ranks as a cycling destination on a scale of 1 to 10, Riley is pragmatic. “If Portland, Oregon is a perfect 10,” he says, “we’re kind of the polar opposite of our counterpart in the Northwest.” Riley would give Maine a 4 out of 10 based on what he sees as a need for more infrastructure work and driver education.

Reflecting on his harrowing experience on Martin’s Point Bridge one year later — the same week a new multi-use path for pedestrians and cyclists opened on the bridge — Riley is neither bitter nor spiteful as he expresses hope for the future of bicycling in Maine. While the automobile and cyclist are now equal in the eyes of Maine law, he believes, it is still the motorist who bears the greater responsibility in that equation — the reality is that while a car-on-car accident might only result in the headache of a fender-bender, a car-on-bike accident could seriously hurt or even kill a cyclist.

“Cyclists and pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users,” says Maine DOT’s Stewart. “So it’s not only crucial that they use safe practices, but that drivers give them space.

“It’s important to remember that people ride bikes for different reasons,” he adds. “It’s a hobby for some, but it’s transportation or an economic necessity for others.”

Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Bodwell’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ambit, Poets & Writers, Threepenny Review, and Slice magazine.

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  • Carolina Wilson

    Great overview of cycling in Maine, facts that I did not know. Lobbying for better communities IS lobbying for cyclists, because “everything is better on a bike”. Great article. Thanks!
    Carol A. Wilson, Falmouth, Maine