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Bicycles, Bikeways, Light Rail

Paul Kando

Bicycles use less energy than all other means of getting around, including walking. The next-best energy-miser is light rail. A biker burns, on average, 0.045 kWh in (food-)energy, compared to 0.09 kWh for a walker. A light rail vehicle consumes 0.34 kWh per passenger mile, compared to 1.05 kWh for a passenger car, 1.08 kWh for a transit bus, and 1.32 kWh for an SUV or pickup truck.

Bike Route Sign
Bike Route Sign

If we are serious about climate change—and the fact that Maine imports all its fossil fuels—these numbers matter. Take Ms. Anonym, who commutes 48 miles round trip from Damariscotta to Brunswick, driving a station wagon that consumes 50.4 kWh per work-day. A gallon of gasoline packs 33.7 kWh of energy, so Ms. A. burns roughly 1.5 gallons per commuting day at a current cost of $3.30. If she could, instead, ride a folding bike to Newcastle station, ride a light rail vehicle to Brunswick station and bike from there to her office, she would consume only ~0.18 kWh (in food energy) plus ~16.32 kWh of electricity. Each work-week Ms. A. would avoid burning 7.5 gallons of gasoline; 375 gallons over a work-year. The dollars she’d save could easily pay for her light rail pass, so, compared to the status quo, she would commute for free. Alas, there are no light rail trains running on the existing rail line between Newcastle and Brunswick. But there are many commuters driving alone consuming gasoline.

Bicycles are a 19th century European invention. By the early 21st century, more than 1 billion of them were on the roads worldwide—far exceeding the number of cars. The basic shape and configuration of a typical upright bicycle has changed little since the first chain-driven model hit the market around 1885. Of course, many details have been improved since, allowing for a proliferation of specialized designs.

The bicycle's invention has had a huge impact on society, in terms both of culture and of advancing modern industrial methods. Several components of the automobile—including ball bearings, pneumatic tires, chain-driven sprockets and tension-spoked wheels—were first used in the bicycle.

In many regions, bikes are the principal means of practical, inexpensive, and healthy transportation. (Bikers are seldom obese!) In Scandinavia bikers enjoy—and are subject to—the same rules of the road as automobiles. Copenhagen, for instance, has dedicated bike lanes, complete with their own separate system of traffic lights. Much of rural Sweden is served by a network of paved bikeways separate from the highways. Public transit vehicles routinely carry bikes. New folding bike designs even allow workers to take their bikes into their work places—and stow them in a closet at home.

Biking is also a wonderful way to enjoy our beautiful state. Yet it is one of the most dangerous and annoying ways as well. Since Maine has no dedicated, well-marked network of bikeways, our bikers take a considerable risk riding on our often crowded, shoulderless highways, aggravating motorists in the process.

It doesn’t need to be this way. We can do much better than posting “Share the road” signs, which, of course, do not solve the problem. Ideally, as in other developed nations, our state and federal governments would maintain an up-to-date, 21st century road network, including safe, dedicated bikeways that invite tourists and locals alike. Short of this, we could create maps of, and mark, lightly trafficked, low speed limit secondary roads as preferred bike routes. Along US 1, for instance, there exist miles of paved parallel roadways—remnants of older versions of the same highway.

Between Damariscotta and Bristol, bike traffic could be routed away from Rt.130 to Biscay, Lessner and Benner Roads to Bristol Mills and thence Lower Round Pond and Old County Roads, to Pemaquid.

Doing this would reduce the need to widen highway shoulders to areas without less traveled road alternatives. Mapping and marking such a bikeway system could even be done by volunteers. In a state where land trusts have created a large number of hiking trails in dedicated preserves, well-marked and tended by volunteers (within a 15-20 minute drive from my house I count over 60!), there obviously exist ways to negotiate 8’ wide bike rights-of-way to connect prime tourist and commuting destinations.

As for light rail (that can also forward freight), it’s a no brainer to reclaim not just our Rockland Branch line, but also Maine’s many abandoned rail lines. Consider the half-mile long backups on US Rt 1 approaching Wiscasset and the distant, “behind god’s back” feel of Washington county, despite its beauty and unrealized potential.

Think about it! If I were younger, I would take this one on in a heartbeat.