Year-Round Bicyclists Are Hardy Souls; Give Them Room

forlornbikes

I put the bicycle in the basement this week, ahead of the snow that didn’t come. That same day, I met a guy in the post office, girded from head to toe for cold weather in yellow reflective gear. “Do you ride through the winter?” I asked him. He said he did.

I don’t. I’m too old for that s—t. There comes a point when my feet and a heated bus look a whole lot better than a bicycle.

In my box was the latest issue of Portland Magazine, with an article by Jeanee Dudley on year-round bicyclists. I had already begun writing this week’s entry. I guess you know you’re writing about a popular subject when others start writing about it, too.

I admire those hardy souls who bicycle all year. I go as long as I can every autumn, but eventually I surrender to the darkness and the cold. I don’t want to invest in the clothing, for one thing. And I’m scared of slipping on ice.

Fall is difficult for commuter cyclists. The light fails early. The sun is low on the horizon, in the eyes of drivers; cyclists without bright clothing are hard to see. After the time changes, you often find yourself traveling home in the dark. It takes real dedication to continue bicycling through the winter, when conditions are worse.

The bulk of my bicycling is done between Bangor and Orono, which can become a busy corridor in the evening. Sometimes it’s a sea of headlights. I have a flashing red light in the back and a white light in front, and I wear one of those orange and yellow vests the crossing guards use. I don’t see how I could be more visible. But I’ve had harrowing experiences.

One was on Hogan Road, crossing the bridge over Interstate 95 at twilight, going toward the Bangor Mall from Eastern Maine Community College. The bridge has two lanes each way, but just a few feet to the right of the white line on the outside edge of the outside lane. There’s literally no place to go but over the bridge if someone runs you off the road. Which almost happened to me. The driver left me about a foot to spare.

I was glad to see, then, that plans are afoot to fix this interchange. It’s the worst traffic design in Bangor. How are students at EMCC supposed to walk to the mall, which they can see from their dorm rooms? What encourages them to bicycle there? The design of the roadway practically mandates driving – an example of how public policy drives consumer choices.

Is it any wonder people choose to drive, when all the alternatives are perilous? The bridge is no less scary on foot than on bicycle. There’s no footbridge over the Interstate and no footpath underneath it. One of the things we need to do in this country, while we are rebuilding our infrastructure, is to rethink our transportation priorities. Sometimes this can be done without extensive re-building, by removing car lanes in favor of bus and bicycle lanes. Instead of forcing people to drive, policy can begin to nudge people toward alternatives.

Does this make things inconvenient in the short run for habitual drivers? Of course it does. American drivers have grown so used to having the road paved for them that most don’t give a second thought to traffic changes until forced to adapt. But drivers do eventually get used to bike lanes, roundabouts and other improvements that make the roads safer for everyone.

I love to go cross-country skiing in the streets of Bangor during and just after a snowstorm. I’m the most mobile thing on the road. I skied to work at Bangor Metro a few Novembers ago when everyone else was shoveling out cars stuck in driveways. My entire attitude toward snow has changed now that I don’t have to drive in it.

That’s not to say I’m a big fan of winter – I’d rather bicycle home from Orono in the light of a late spring evening that wait for a bus in the dark. But this year the bike went into the basement a month later than last. Now it waits patiently for that first warm day in March.

Winter is the hardest time of year to get around, however you do it. I’ve already slipped and fallen on my butt while walking home. The roads were slick, and Bangor police reported a number of fender-benders. Whether driving, bicycling or walking, be careful out there. A broken ankle, or worse, could be just one slip away.