By John Terhune / The Forecaster
Cycling is good for your health, your wallet and the environment. And the city of Bath is good for cycling.
The League of American Cyclists renewed Bath’s status a bronze-level “Bicycle Friendly Community” in December. Brunswick, which also earned the distinction in 2016, is the only other Maine town recognized by the organization. The league rates cities grades communities based on certain qualities, including engineering, education, and evaluation and planning.
“The city council is very excited about it,” said Tim Blair, chairperson of Bath’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. “In fact, there’s some question about what do we need to do to get to get to the next (silver) level.”
The committee, which oversees the implementation of Bath’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, has worked with city officials to gradually improve infrastructure for cyclists and walkers, Blair said. Though Bath’s narrow streets aren’t a good fit for dedicated bike lanes, the city has recently worked to improve safety and accessibility by installing more bike racks and reducing the width of lanes for cars.
Bath Middle School Dean of Students Paige Gallagher hands out stickers to students participating in “bike to school day” in the spring of 2021. Contributed / Lawrence Kovacs
“We have limited parking in the city of Bath,” Blair said. “Anything we can do to get residents to make their way into town and not use up vehicle parking spaces is a huge benefit.”
Angela King, advocacy manager for the nonprofit Bicycle Coalition of Maine, said bike infrastructure can boost local economies.
“A parking space can only take one car, but it can hold 10 bikes,” said King, whose organization does advocacy and education work throughout the state on cycling issues. “That’s 10 customers.”
Young people nationwide are pushing for more cycling infrastructure, King said. By switching from cars to bikes, Mainers can cut down on the state’s largest source of carbon emissions, according to the Governor’s Agency Office.
“I think it’s really an environmental issue,” said Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee member Haley Blanco. “More and more people are moving up the coast. We’re going to have more cars.”
Blanco moved to Bath in 2017 from Portland, Oregon, one of only five cities nationwide designated as a platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Cyclists. She initially began cycling just because it was the most convenient option, which she said underscored the importance of implementing strong bicycle infrastructure.
“People will do the easiest thing possible and the cheapest thing possible,” she said. “If we don’t really provide that infrastructure then nobody’s going to push to start biking.”
According to a report card that accompanied the award, Bath scored relatively low in areas related to bike infrastructure and participation. Only 0.73% of Bath workers commute on bicycles compared 6.4% in Portland, Oregon.
Yet the League of American Cyclists gave the city higher marks for its relatively low speed limits, active bike planning committee and “Excellent” school-based bike education programs.
Lawrence Kovacs, who teaches math and science for Bath Middle School’s gifted and talented program, helped bring cycling to the city’s students through a grant from a national organization called Outride. The funds allowed the school to purchase 25 mountain bikes in 2017, which students could use during a 12-part bike education program.
Though the program, which covered topics from bicycle sizing to the rules of the road, did not run during the pandemic, Kovacs said he hopes it will return later this year.
“Once a kid has exercised and had this experience of balancing on a bicycle and riding around, they’re going to be much more receptive to whatever learning is happening,” said Kovacs, citing research that has linked physical exercise to academic achievement. “They will understand better. They will problem-solve better.”
Kovacs, who said he’s seen a significant uptick in the number of students who bike to school, said he hopes the program will introduce a generation to the health and environmental benefits of non-motorized travel. But he also pointed to another benefit of cycling: the sense of freedom and connectivity with nature it instills in riders.
“It changes the way people interact with the world and the way they feel about it – basically opens up the world to them in a way that nothing else really can,” Kovacs said. “Bikes are pretty amazing inventions that way.”