September 15, 2013

Nerve, virtue drive cyclist's commute to Portland

Once inclined to avoid biking in traffic, a reporter finds pluses in pedaling to work from South Portland.

By Joe Lawlor
Staff Writer

Riding a bike while sharing the road with 2-ton vehicles whizzing by delivers tingling, dagger-like sensations to my central nervous system.

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Joe Lawlor makes the final turn on his bicycle commute across the Casco Bay Bridge. He overcame his “dread” of cycling there.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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I have avoided such situations as much as possible from the day I learned to ride a bike into middle-aged adulthood.

I am not an avid biker, and when I do cycle, I prefer nonmotorized paths. Texting while driving is a menace, and I don't want to be near texters, especially as a vulnerable cyclist.

So why, then, did I volunteer to write about commuting to work via bicycle?

Good question.

I'm not really sure, but I became curious after reading about the biking-to-work phenomenon and knowing friends and colleagues who cycle to their workplaces. I wanted to join them to see what it's like. Portland's compact footprint makes it an attractive city to go car-free, and registered vehicles have declined 23 percent from 2004 to 2011.

While there's no Portland-based study yet to prove it, people have to get to work somehow, so fewer car owners should mean an increase in bicycle commuting. Not everyone walks or takes the bus.

Bicycle commuters arrive at work energized, emanating a special glow knowing they're being healthy and benefiting the environment at the same time.

It's a "twofer" of do-gooding, similar to driving a Toyota Prius while eating organic, locally grown food.

Marching into work clutching a bicycle helmet is a statement, a way to pass judgment on the 99 percent addicted to gas-guzzling, polluting-the-world vehicles. That I would return to the gas-dependent 99 percenters a week later didn't matter. For a week, I would enjoy righteous superiority.

Prior to my foray into two-pedaled commuting, I kept thinking about the long and winding Casco Bay Bridge, with cars and trucks traveling at 60 mph just a few feet away from my bike. My 2.5-mile route from South Portland required crossing the bridge.

But I found that when I actually crossed the bridge for the first time, I was not enveloped with the same dread that Ichabod Crane felt crossing the bridge at Sleepy Hollow, and I arrived on the other side with my head and body intact. The span provides a wide area for the bicycle path, and the cars were not as close as on city streets.

In between dodging the trash that people threw out of their cars on the bridge, I would gaze across the Fore River and enjoy the view.

Although local officials encourage bicyclists to use the bike lanes that run next to the vehicle lanes on the bridge, bicyclists also are permitted to join walkers on the barrier-protected pedestrian path spanning the bridge, South Portland officials said. I tried the "sidewalk" on the Casco Bay Bridge one time, but I found I worried almost as much about my bike hitting pedestrians on the narrow path behind the barrier as I did about vehicles hitting me on the bridge. So I returned to the bike lane.

The other sections of my route involved taking the Greenbelt Walkway in South Portland, traversing downtown Portland near the waterfront before snaking up to Free Street and parking my bike in the garage near One City Center, where the Press Herald newsroom is located. The Greenbelt was by far the most enjoyable part of the trip, and any tension I felt from avoiding parked cars and navigating through traffic went away as soon as I hit that stretch.

Bicyclists and motorists share the road. But, at times, there's a reluctant allocation of scarce resources, namely, how wide the bike path is, if there is one. Bicycle-motorist disputes sometimes hit the news, such as on the Martin's Point Bridge in June, when a cyclist and truck driver argued over how close the driver came to hitting the cyclist. The blow-up went viral on the Internet when the cyclist recorded part of the argument. Fortunately, my easygoing demeanor, staying as far away from vehicles as possible, desire to avoid being recorded saying unflattering things and good luck meant I avoided such confrontations and close calls. No one even honked at me.

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