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Creating a Bike-Friendly Region

Aug 12, 2014 03:24PM ● Published by Erica Shames

The bulk of the money to create a bike path in Brunswick, Maine, came from the federal government, but building the path for bicycles and pedestrians would require a town match of $270,000—a big sum for a town of only 21,000. There was disagreement about whether taxpayers' money should fund a 2.5-mile ribbon of asphalt that many believed no one would use?
After much argument and some seed money from the Rotary Club, the path did get built.

In fact, the project launched ten years of improvements that have made Brunswick, Maine, one of the nation's most bicycle-friendly towns and cities. The national League of American Bicyclists ranks Maine third among the states for bicycle friendliness; Brunswick is the only town in Maine—and one of three in New England—to earn the group's "Bicycle-Friendly Community" designation.

Brunswick is not in the same league as Portland, Ore., with its "bicycle boxes" that reserve space for riders at stoplights, or cities like Minneapolis and Berkeley, Calif., that have created networks of quiet neighborhood streets linked for bikers but not always for cars. Brunswick excels because it has made room for bike riders using an incremental approach that any town with a will can follow.

Along Brunswick's Androscoggin River Bicycle and Pedestrian Path, families with kids on training wheels and toddlers in strollers mosey along; older people gaze at the river; recreational bicyclists pass by the occasional youngster on a scooter, and in turn get passed by speed-demon rollerbladers, athletes training on roller skis and serious cyclists out for a long ride. The 14-foot path is wide enough to accommodate all of the traffic.

Perhaps more important is the change in mindset the bike path has evoke. The town routinely widens shoulders when repaving roads, then stripes them to create bike lanes—more than 40 miles over the past 10 years. Crews get out in early spring to clean up the sand and grit left from winter—a hazard to road bikes’ thin tires—and are gradually replacing road grates with less hazardous designs. Brunswick's new downtown train station will have plenty of parking for bicycles. And every school participates in the state bicycle coalition’s safety education program.

The efforts have yielded a noticeable increase in bicyclists—many over 50—on the town’s streets and country roads. This mirrors a national trend. Though Americans still vastly prefer to travel by car or transit, the nation saw a 43 percent rise in bicycle commuting between 2000 and 2008, according to figures compiled by the League of American Bicyclists.

Communities encourage this trend for several reasons. They're paying more attention to both the physical health of their residents and overall environmental health—especially given mandates to reduce carbon emissions. Even more important in officials' eyes, though, is economic development.

These investments help communities that compete to attract young workers and retirees, who want to live in a place with these kinds of amenities. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s recent announcement that his department will give bicycling and walking equal weight with cars and trucks may bring even more local interest in making bicycle-friendly improvements—if Congress delivers the funding.

An important piece of the puzzle in Brunswick is the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which the town council created during bike path planning. It’s worked hard to keep its issues in front of officials and groups in the region. The committee’s first task, over a decade ago, was to create a long-range plan. It has guided its members and officials as money and public-works schedules permit.

The group worked with town planners on the new train station and the design of the road leading to it; with the regional land trust to find ways of encouraging people to bike to the farmers’ market on a farm the trust owns; with the police to understand the rights and responsibilities of bicyclists (30 of 37 officers are licensed bicycle police); and with local business owners to help them take advantage of Brunswick's location along the emerging East Coast Greenway path, which runs from Florida to Maine.

For all the progress it's made, Brunswick still has a way to go. The ultimate goal: a middle-school-aged child should be able to bike anywhere in the town of Brunswick.

Find Out More

Visit these websites: League of American Bicyclists, Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, Alliance for Biking & Walking and the Federal Highway Administration.

Making a Community Bike-Friendly

  1. Get a sense of your current bicycling situation by surveying where people ride and by talking to people who ride to work—they know what works and where the trouble spots are.
  2. Assess your community's biking infrastructure. Do you have a connected network of streets, bike lanes and bike paths? Do public buildings and private workplaces offer bike parking? Do maps show bike-friendly routes?
  3. Study what other communities have done.
  4. Consider building your own community's "civic infrastructure," such as a citizens' bicycle/pedestrian committee or hiring a town bicycle coordinator.
  5. Learn potential sources of federal, state and local funding.

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