I’m selling my bike.

Until I moved to Maine, biking from A to B was one of the great day-to-day pleasures of my life. I didn’t think Portland would take it from me; I was wrong.

In and around the peninsula, I’ve long been struck by the dearth of cyclists (and pedestrians – another column). I didn’t move here with a bike; I was a Citi Bike user in New York, completing many one-way journeys and free from worry about theft. As my first Maine winter gave way to spring, I toyed with the purchase of a bike but went no further. My schedule lent itself to walking, and the novelty of a car – I’d never owned one – answered for the balance of the time.

Months passed. I was still not cycling.

Five days after starting this job, a bright hope of commuting 6 miles on two wheels stirred, I rushed out and bought a used Cannondale and a new helmet. I was, I felt, about to be back in business.

In my youth, I cycled around my hometown of Galway, Ireland, where bikes are common and given adequate space. My commitment to cycling deepened with predictable velocity during the year I studied in the Dutch city of Leiden, a place thin on cars, where children don’t use training wheels, adults don’t use handlebars and everybody carts around weeks’ worth of supplies in pannier bags. I’m not about to compare Portland to a meticulously arranged town in a bike nation.


I might compare it to Dublin, however, where “meticulous” doesn’t apply in the same way but bike lanes are established without interruption throughout the city, dedicated traffic lights exist at bike level and a critical mass of cyclists make their way around the streets like schools of fish.

I might dare to compare it to New York City, another place I rode a bike most days for five years, circling Brooklyn, zipping up and down Manhattan, and flying over the East River without incident. Accounts of biking around New York City tend to elicit impressed responses. They shouldn’t; it’s easy to ride a bike there.

It’s really hard to bike in and around Portland. It shouldn’t be.

The city is eminently bikeable. It’s packed with people who are physically active, environmentally minded and interested in using bikes to get around it. And, as I see it, the car is king, its reign tyrannical. It’s really hard to reconcile the nature of the place and its residents with the screaming lack of bikes.

What to do? We need many more functioning bike lanes above all else; we need to upgrade the uninviting public bike scheme, encouraging more willing people to take bikes around casually and intermittently; we need places to safely park bikes, of which there are very few; and we probably need PSAs to rouse inattentive motorists and pedestrians.

Just once have I managed my commute by bike. On a Sunday morning in August – the timing of this trial suggests some understanding of how it was about to go – I left my apartment in Portland and wound down onto Veterans Memorial Bridge. The stretch of Route 1 in South Portland that brings you in the direction of Western Avenue is civilized enough. From there to the Press Herald newsroom, your chances of being taken out begin to increase.


That there were no bike lanes, I was ready for. To find no available space for a bike at all was alarming. To say nothing of the inches of life-threatening grit and other accumulate in the would-be verge (undisturbed inches, indicating nobody else was stupid enough to do what I was doing).

What about the mounting and dismounting of intermittent sidewalks to get out of harm’s way? Or the fact that no driver in Greater Portland is ever prepared to come upon you? Or that, once they do, they linger in order to eventually pass you at an exaggerated distance, tempting an accident more complex than had they proceeded to mow you down? What about the road rage? The potholes that make us all drive around like Cruella de Vil? The phone use?

These roads feel dangerous enough in a car, dangerous enough on foot. The Cannondale and I have never made it back to the newsroom. Seldom do we skim around the city together. At my most defeated, I wonder: Am I just a wimp?

I’m friends with a number of daily bikers in Portland. They’re very hardy and skilled, and I am obliged to report that many of them are from out of state. Even so, they fight their way around, assuming defensive positions. There is no switching off. Behaving like a car and bending traffic rules is necessary for survival.

Here and there, you’ll see a bicycle symbol painted in the middle of the road. Charming! Worthless! Elsewhere, seemingly serious bike lanes exist for a few hundred feet and abruptly vanish. It’s hard not to think that everybody would be better off with no lane at all.

This by-halves stuff generates disrespect for what limited cycling infrastructure exists in Portland. It undermines the completely reasonable expectation that a bike is a legitimate part of a local transit mix.

Bike or no bike, that will always be an expectation of mine. If I don’t succeed on Craigslist this spring, there is a chance I will take a deep breath and try again.


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