Photo: Diego Cervo/thinkstock.com
Mainers forgo the car for a bicycle commute to work.
Professor Thomas Stone knows he’s “that guy” to his students. He’s the one that shows up on campus in the morning in shorts and a helmet. He’s the guy that rides his bike to work.
Most of the year, a third of his office is dominated by his bike and his bike gear, among stacks of papers to grade and books on physics and mathematics, which he teaches at both Husson University in Bangor and at the University of Maine in Orono. As long as there’s not too much snow and ice on the roads, he’s biking to work.
“[Biking] is a really nice way to forget about the daily grind of work before I get home,” said Stone, 36, a father of two young children. “I definitely feel refreshed and ready to play with our kids by the time I get home at night on my bike. I really value the time I get to spend outside on my bike … and during the school year, it’s the only exercise I regularly get.”
Whether it’s for exercise, saving money, contributing a smaller carbon footprint, or simply for the sheer enjoyment of using your body to get around town, biking to work is an increasingly popular option for Mainers in communities statewide. May is National Bike Month, the week of May 11-15 is Bike to Work Week, and May 15 specifically is Bike to Work Day, on which cycling organizations across the country encourage people to ride their bikes to work.
Jim Tasse, assistant director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine – himself a bike commuter – sees it happening not just in Portland, but all over. On May 15, the BCM will host bike rallies in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, to bring together cyclists of all stripes, whether they ride to work or not.
“My unscientific estimate would be that somewhere around 30 to 40 percent of people who ride bikes generally are commuting at least a few times a month, if not more,” said Tasse, also the president of the Portland chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. “I also know people that commute all year-round, 90 percent of the time.”
The most obvious benefit of commuting to work is the physical activity – depending on how long or hilly a commute might be, a person could get all their daily exercise in simply by going to work and back. And in Maine, there’s the added benefit of being surrounded by natural beauty nearly everywhere you look.
But the financial benefit is nothing to sniff at, either. Stone commutes from his home in Veazie to both Husson and to UMaine, both trips amounting to roughly a 13-mile round trip. He does opt for other transportation most of January and February, when road conditions can be dangerous. He estimates he logs about 1,000 commuting miles in the fall semester.
“Every gallon of gas I don’t burn is 19 pounds of carbon dioxide I don’t put in the air, and especially when gas prices are $3.50 a gallon, that’s when I see extra change in my pocket,” said Stone. “I save, typically, 40 bucks a month by riding. That adds up.”
In some cases, bike commuters can even forgo a car altogether and use a bike as their primary means of transportation, as Portland resident Tracie Reed has done. Reed, 33, got rid of her car two years ago and hasn’t looked back. She started riding her bike to work in 2006, and by 2013 she found she sometimes went weeks without even starting her vehicle.
“I brought my car into the mechanic because there was ice in the engine block because I hadn’t used it in so long,” said Reed, an architect. “I had been toying with the idea of going car-free, and finally I just went for it. It’s been incredibly liberating … and between insurance and maintenance and taxes I’m saving thousands of dollars a year. It’s only between $400 and $600 per year to maintain my bike and buy gear.”
When she’s not working out of her home office, Reed uses her bike to travel to meetings with clients and to job sites, most of which are within Portland city limits. On the rare occasion she has to travel far outside of town, she rents a car through Relay Rides, a car-sharing website with daily car rentals available for between $30 and $50 per day.
“Most of the time you’d be surprised at how little time it does take,” said Reed. “If you don’t have to deal with parking, and you’re going straight to your destination, and I’m usually riding not much slower than regular traffic, the difference is pretty negligible… and I have gear so I can bring whatever it is I need to carry. I get groceries. I can bring a box of pizza home.”
One of the less obvious benefits of biking to work is that it allows the rider to gain a different perspective of the roads and byways of their community. Instead of driving the same linear route to work, day in, day out, a biker can weave in and out of side streets, down bike paths or through forests, cut through parking lots and avoid high-traffic areas altogether.
Richard Baldarelli, a research analyst at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, has biked to work for decades – first as a graduate student at the University of California in Los Angeles, then while working in Boston. In both cities, he found ways to avoid congested areas, and on Mount Desert Island where he has lived for 18 years, he finds way to incorporate the many trails and roads of Acadia National Park into his daily commute.
“I’m very lucky, because I live on MDI, and it’s really a dream for commuting, compared to Boston. I never take that for granted,” said Baldarelli. “Regardless of where you are, there are ways to make a bike commute more realistic. If there’s a part of a trip that you’re not comfortable with, you can drive to an established point, leave your car and then bike the rest of the way. Or you can alternate driving and biking. It’s all about planning ahead and figuring out what works for you.”
Planning ahead is one of the key components of successfully integrating bike commuting into your lifestyle. One of the biggest challenges potential bikers come across when trying to make the switch to bike commuting is the fact that after a morning bike ride – especially in the warmer months – you tend to work up a sweat, even after just a few miles.
“The fundamental question you must first answer is, ‘Will I need to take a shower when I arrive?’” said Baldarelli. “If you’re not riding very far, maybe you don’t have to. Maybe you can wear your work clothes and not change. If you will sweat, you have to plan ahead – bring a change of clothes, toiletries. And what if your employer doesn’t have adequate shower facilities? What if there’s no place to safely store your bike when you get there?”
Both Baldarelli and Stone work for employers that encourage bike commuting – both offer shower facilities and employee health incentives.
“It’s really a logistics game,” said Baldarelli. “You really have to plan ahead to make it work … you have to take that extra time to figure out what you need to make it work.”
Tasse from the Bicycle Coalition of Maine says distance is also a factor – he says the optimal commuting distance is between 3 and 7 miles. Less than 3 miles, and walking might be a more convenient options. More than 7 miles, and it starts to get a bit too long to manage.
“Once it starts to get above that, it starts to feel less like a commute and more like a regular bike ride,” said Tasse. “In our experience, the perfect distance is 4.5 miles … we are in Maine, however, and a lot of folks live in very rural areas. It’s not always possible.”
Even though Maine is a primarily rural state, the infrastructure for cyclists and other non-traditional commuters can vary wildly – even the most casual of bikers has likely had at least one hairy run-in with a car.
“People are not used to paying attention for cyclists,” said Reed. “If you’re on your cell phone, which you shouldn’t be anyway, it just takes one little error to hit somebody … you have to be very vigilant. You have to be very visible, as a rider.”
The risks, however, are far outweighed by the benefits for most riders. In addition to saving money, being environmentally friendly and staying in shape, it’s the little things that make it all worth it.
“It’s still really fun for me,” said Stone. “[I get up early and] I still get a kick out of riding into work under a full moon. I hope I can be a good example to my students, and to my kids.”
“It’s empowering,” said Reed. “I tell people that it’s good for my wallet, my waistline, and for the world.” – See more at: http://bangormetro.com/Archive/1505/Pedal-Powered.aspx#sthash.1XhZMVTi.dpuf