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Bike-Path Crusaders

Overcoming budget objections to a proposed project, Brunswick, Maine, earns props as a bike-friendly town.

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.

As a result, 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, says Bill Nesper, who directs the league’s Bicycle Friendly America program. 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,” Nesper says. 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.

A key force in Brunswick has been 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.

“There’s a grand plan,” says Jeff Reynolds, 53, a part-time professor of religion and philosophy at the University of New England and co-chair of the committee with Henry Heyburn. “We don’t want to make lanes or sidewalks everywhere, but pick the right, sensible places, and if the opportunity presents itself, take advantage of it.”

The group worked with town planners, for instance, 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. “Our committee decided years ago that our benchmark was that a middle-school-aged child should be able to bike anywhere in the town of Brunswick,” says John Balicki, 60, an Episcopal priest who was once the state bicycle/pedestrian coordinator at the Maine Department of Transportation. “We’re not there yet. That’s our next frontier.”

Find Out More

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

Rob Gurwitt lives in Norwich, Vt.