In a way, Yankee frugality created the signature bike path in Brunswick, Maine. And Yankee frugality almost killed it.
Marybeth Burbank, 79, was on the town council in the 1990s when Brunswick, on the Atlantic coast northeast of Portland, got the go-ahead to build a bypass around downtown. She’d been aching to find a way of giving townspeople access to overgrown land along the Androscoggin River—which the bypass would cross. This, she figured, was her chance: The project would certainly produce excess construction materials.
“So why couldn’t we attach ourselves to this huge project,” she reasoned, “and take the leftover and apply it to a path along the river?”
Plenty of people thought they knew why not. Though the bulk of the money would come from the federal government, building the proposed path for bicycles and pedestrians would require a town match of $270,000—a staggering number for a town of 21,000. Why should taxpayers’ money go to a 2.5-mile ribbon of asphalt that opponents believed no one would use?
After much argument and some seed money from the Rotary Club, the path did get built. And it proved the doubters wrong.
“Even before it opened,” recalls Don Gerrish, then Brunswick’s town manager, “people were going down to use it. It turned out to be one of the most well-loved projects the community has ever done.”
The project launched a decade of improvements that have propelled Brunswick squarely into the ranks of the nation’s most bicycle-friendly towns and cities. Indeed, while 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.
To be sure, Brunswick is hardly 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. Still, Brunswick has made room for bike riders using an incremental approach that any town with a will can follow.
These days along what is officially Brunswick’s Androscoggin River Bicycle and Pedestrian Path, families poke along with kids on training wheels and toddlers in strollers; older people gaze at the river; recreational bicyclists wheel 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.
Its popularity “really opened a lot of people’s eyes about the benefits of having safe and convenient bike and walking routes,” says Henry Heyburn, 53, who co-chairs Brunswick’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.