KITTERY, Maine — Memorial Bridge is open to bicyclists for the first full season this year, and its well-marked bike lanes mean riders are already surging into Kittery to take advantage of the warming weather.
Bicycle advocates and public safety officials alike are reminding motorists and bicyclists that not only is it important for the two groups to learn to be courteous with each other on town roads — it’s the law.
“People need to be as familiar with the laws as possible — motorists as well as cyclists — and to act in a predictable and polite way,” said Nancy Grant of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “We are sharing the road. And it is concerning when the conversation becomes polarized.”
The issue has come before the Kittery Town Council in recent weeks, as bicyclists are beginning to come out in force on the town’s roads. Just last week, there was an accident involving a bicyclist and a motorist on the Memorial Circle, “and the fact is, there is constant competition for space” between the two groups, said Police Chief Theodor Short.
In Maine, bicyclists can’t ride two abreast on any road, as the law requires bicyclists to ride as far right as practical. On the other hand, they have an equal right to the road. Motorists also have to give bicyclists three feet of space when passing them.
And both have to abide by the rules of the road. That means bicyclists have to stop at stoplights, for instance, and motorists can’t cut bicyclists off who are riding legally.
Grant admits it can be difficult for drivers who haven’t seen bicyclists over the winter, but added, “they are coming back on the road and people need to start paying attention.”
Moreover, said Josh Pierce of the Seacoast Area Bicycle Routes, or SABR, bicycling is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise.
“Bicycle use is on the increase,” he said. “More and more people are using bikes to run errands, go to work, just not be in a car.”
“There’s so many new bicyclists every year, and they don’t have to take driver’s ed like drivers do,” added Grant. “On the other hand, they are good users of the road, they don’t emit carbon and they spend money in local businesses.”
Many bike groups, both local and nationally, will be coming through Kittery this summer. The East Coast Greenway, a Florida-to-Maine bicycle route, takes riders along Route 1A in New Hampshire, into Portsmouth and over Memorial Bridge into Kittery.
Kittery is the first town on the Eastern Trail, the southern Maine portion of the East Coast Greenway, which stretches to South Portland.
“I am hoping as a community, we will be welcoming to the many cyclists coming through and riding on our roads,” said resident Holly Zurer, one of the people who spoke to the Town Council recently.
According to bicycle advocate Steve Workman of Kittery, a member of the Eastern Trail Alliance and a key player in getting a bicycle lane on Memorial Bridge, through-bicyclists typically have few problems with motorists. That’s because the Greenway route heads west on Route 103 through Eliot and into South Berwick. The road tends to be wide enough to accommodate both bikes and cars, he said.
As resident Barry Fitzpatrick told town councilors at a recent meeting, the concern comes when bicyclists turn east on Route 103, and begin taking the scenic, winding and very narrow coastal road through Kittery Point between Kittery and York.
“I’m really concerned someone is going to get hurt there sometime soon,” he said.
Route 103 east is marked as an approved bike route by the Maine Department of Transportation, according to the MDOT Web site. Bicyclists on this route are sent from Kittery to the Nubble in York Beach.
“Obviously, a fair amount of people coming over the Memorial Bridge want to continue up the coast and into York,” he said. “That means drivers have to be aware the cyclists are there. And it means, yes, you have to follow behind cyclists if that’s necessary.”
Chief Short concurred. A motorcyclist himself, he said he is well aware of the fact that car drivers often are not paying attention to any smaller vehicles on the road.
“As a motorcyclist, I’m a defensive driver,” he said. “I am anticipating that people are never going to do what they’re supposed to do.”
Pierce said SABR is working hard to educate bicyclists about their rights and their responsibilities. The organization is teaming up with the organization Cycling Savvy to sponsor a course on state laws in both New Hampshire and Maine. There are still slots available for that class to be held May 9 and 10, which will feature both classroom and on-the-road components. The classroom portion will be reprised on May 13. For more information, visit www.seacoastbikes.org.
“The good and bad of this area is that there are a whole network of roads made for a horse and carriage 100 years ago,” he said. “The challenge is to find a way today to make sure everyone can share that road.”
In the end, said Short, it all comes down to decorum. “I’ve seen cyclists just as possessive of their piece of road as motorists and I’ve seen motorists do some pretty stupid things,” he said. “People need to be patient and courteous. That’s what it comes down to.”