Today, I present the case of the disappearing bike lanes. One minute, you are riding in a clearly marked lane with little bicycle logos on it. The next minute, the lane has faded or disappeared entirely.

Maine winters take a toll on pavement markings. While Portland restripes its bike lanes every year, the work isn’t completed until fall. That means some lanes are partially invisible during prime bicycling season.

This issue affects a growing number of Maine communities because bike lanes are gaining popularity. South Portland, Lewiston and Yarmouth all have added bike lanes in recent years. Freeport and Brunswick are among the communities considering them.

Portland has 10 miles of bike lanes, plus three miles marked for lanes where bicycles and other vehicles share the road. The city is planning an additional 38 miles of bike lanes and shared lanes, primarily on major arterials such as Brighton Avenue.

Nationally, bike lanes are the most common bicycle “facility,” according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. The group’s website notes that bike lanes separate cyclists from motorists, make their interactions more predictable and serve as a visual reminder of bicyclists’ right to use the road.

But bike lanes are not universally loved.

Some cyclists don’t feel comfortable riding with nothing but a white line separating them from cars and trucks. Some drivers object when a new bike lane shrinks a road’s travel area for vehicles or reduces parking.

Lewiston residents were so upset about plans to replace turning lanes with a bike lane on Lisbon Street that they started a petition drive to force a referendum on the project. Earlier this spring, the Lewiston City Council voted to replace the dedicated bike lane with a shared lane.

Despite some controversy about their value, towns and cities often choose bike lanes as a relatively low-cost way to encourage cycling.

Portland budgets up to $11,500 per mile to plan a bike lane, make any necessary changes in parking or traffic control and paint the pavement with lines and bicycle stencils.

By comparison, a paved, off-road bicycle and pedestrian trail typically costs $750,000 to $1 million per mile, says Dan Stewart, a regional planner for the Maine Department of Transportation.

A downside of bike lanes is that they require maintenance.

Portland spends about $1,500 per mile to restripe its lanes each year. Restriping begins in May, but the city doesn’t finish until September. Some lanes get fresh paint just a couple of months before the first snows arrive. That seems like a waste of money, and it makes bicycling on those roads less safe for much of the year.

I’ve often wondered why Portland didn’t stripe the lanes earlier in the spring. Jeremiah Bartlett, the city’s transportation systems engineer, explained that one reason is that the streets must be cleaned first, and that often isn’t completed until late June.

In addition, stretching out the work over several months allows the city to pay for it in two fiscal years. (The city starts a new fiscal year on July 1.)

Happily, new technology offers solutions to the problem of disappearing bike lanes.

Last year, Portland striped a stretch of road in front of the Portland Transportation Center by making an eighth-inch groove in the pavement and filling it with plastic tape.

While that costs 10 to 20 times as much as standard striping, it should last for several years without maintenance, Bartlett said.

“If the plastic tape wears away, even regular paint will last in the (groove) longer, as plow blades and vehicle tires don’t wear it down as quickly,” he said.

This year, the city will test new paint as well as tape to figure out the most cost-effective combination that keeps markings on the road.

“The primary goal is to provide markings that would last year-round,” Bartlett said.

Elsewhere in the country, some cities have painted bike lanes green to make them more visible.

Cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts and New York also have created what’s known as cycle tracks. These are bicycling lanes on the streets that are separated from the roadway by a raised surface and/or physical barriers such as bollards (short, often brightly colored posts). In some cities, parked cars separate the bicycling route from the sidewalk.

Many places in Maine may not have enough traffic to justify those approaches. But we should be able to solve the problem of disappearing bike lanes.

Shoshana Hoose is a freelance writer who bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at [email protected]