Brunswick bike lane prompts debate over safety, costs

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BRUNSWICK — A new bike lane and “sharrow” on Federal Street last month led to an expected show of support, and unexpected rage about the role of biking in town.

Residents took to social media to express their feelings about the new bike markings.

“There’s a constituency in any community … (which is) often the most verbal and most radical,” said Rich Cromwell, co-chairman of the town’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “A lot of the comments that you might see on a Facebook site or any sort of social media where people feel uninhibited … say some pretty inexcusable things.”

The comments Cromwell spoke of are on Brunswick Public Work’s Facebook page, in a post dated June 18.

The post shows pictures of the new sharrow, which is essentially a painted bicycle insignia in the roadway to alert drivers to the presence of bike riders, and a new bike lane.

“Waste of paint. And time,” Mike Marquis wrote.

“Why is it that I have to pay nearly $1,000/yr for excise tax on two vehicles to use the roads when I have to yield to bicycles that pay nothing?” Andrew Washburn added the following day.

Washburn’s comment alone garnered 13 replies.

“Nearly all bicyclists also own cars and pay the same fees you do,” Scott Harriman said.

In all, the post received 42 comments and replies, and 46 shares.

Director of Public Works John Foster said that amount of traffic was unusual for the department’s Facebook page.

“That’s probably the liveliest discussion I can recall,” he said Tuesday.

Cromwell said the online debate in Brunswick is indicative of what’s happening all over the country.

“The ‘bikes should stay off the road crowd’ are very critical of bike lanes and sharrows. … It is amazing how polarizing bicycles are in the U.S.,” he said in an email. “Hopefully it isn’t a reflection of some dark place in the U.S. psyche.”

But Cromwell said he has received no personal negative feedback about the new bike lanes.

“The bicyclists are all happy,” he said.

The project came with a price tag of $1,350. The Town Council approved the funds by a unanimous vote on April 27 after a public hearing, despite some initial skepticism expressed by Councilor John Perreault.

Part of the reason for the widespread council support is the amount of bike traffic already using Federal Street.

Because Federal Street is on four national bike routes, and is heavily used by the town bike club, Cromwell estimated that the stretch of road might see between 150 and 200 bicyclists a week.

He also said the new bike lane and sharrow are part of a vision to “create a bicycle-pedestrian safety zone in the whole downtown Brunswick area.”

BPAC will begin a bicycle safety study on Union Street later this summer, followed by studies of all the downtown cross streets.

“Federal Street is a cog in the wheel,” Cromwell said.

Another already-completed cog in that wheel is the raised crosswalks completed in 2013 on Maine Street.

Foster said the Facebook post about those crosswalks was the last time he could remember such a heated public response.

“People love them or hate them,” he said. “There’s no in-between.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Sidebar Elements

Federal Street’s new sharrow, shown in foreground, and bike lane, in background, have stirred a debate in town over public funding for bicycle infrastructure.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.