Group hopes to make South Portland better for bike riders, pedestrians

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The Greenbelt trail that runs from the Wainwright fields off Highland Avenue to Bug Light Park is a great artery through the city for residents on two legs or two wheels.

But for Jeff Woodbury, who lives on Hobart Street in the west end of the city, getting to the Greenbelt without hopping in his car is a terrifying endeavor.

To get to the trail by bicycle, he has to straddle the white line and share the road with cars for 1.6 miles. He also has to ride through Cash Corner, the wide-open intersection of Broadway and Main Street.

“Getting there is tough,” Woodbury said in an interview Monday. “For me, biking with my two 6-year-old kids to the other end of South Portland means taking Broadway.”

“It’s like taking my life in my hands,” he said.

Woodbury, 52, is an artist who moved to South Portland from New York City. He said he’s not an avid bicyclist, but he and his two daughters regularly walk, bike, skate and play in the city. He’d like South Portland to develop safer pathways for non-vehicular traffic.

South Portland has no dedicated bike lanes, and there are many stretches of road that have little or no paved shoulders, forcing bicyclists into traffic with cars and pedestrians to make way where they can.

After talking with City Councilor Tom Blake about improving routes through South Portland, Woodbury joined the city’s new Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee last year.

The committee is an ad-hoc group working to identify issues and problems facing bicyclists and walkers. It was formed after conversations at the City Council about bicycle and pedestrian access to Willard Square last summer.

The group includes residents, councilors, city staff and representatives from the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, Rivers Region Healthy Maine Partnership and Planning Decisions Inc.

This spring, it will present its work to the City Council. Then it will either be disbanded or, possibly, given standing committee status to continue its work. 

In the meantime, the group is working to catalog the city’s public bike racks and sniff out trouble spots, such as Broadway and Route 77, both of which have stretches with little or no paved shoulders, and neither of which have bike lanes.

Setting up more bike racks may not do much to ease the stress of bicyclists and pedestrians on Broadway or Route 77, but Mayor Patti Smith, an avid cyclist who also sits on the committee, said it’s a tangible step to making South Portland more bike-friendly.

There’s no inventory or map of where cyclists can lock up their bikes in the city, although most municipal properties – schools, City Hall, parks, the two libraries – have racks. But that’s not enough to facilitate cycling, Smith said.

She said the committee is working on a few plans to get more racks in the city. First, it will seek out funding in the fiscal year 2013 budget to place racks at sites it identifies in its study. It has also talked about trying to get language supporting bicycle and pedestrian access into the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Beyond that, Smith said she is interested in setting up a “bike rack mitigation” plan, similar to the city’s wetland mitigation process.

“We’ll propose that if a development comes along and they can’t place a bike rack for whatever reason, they can pay for one to be put up somewhere else in the city. That way, it’s more of a public-private partnership,” she said. 

The committee is also applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a hub to promote South Portland’s parks and beaches, as well as bicycling.

The NEA has funded bicycle projects before. Erie, Penn., received a grant to build aesthetically pleasing bike racks throughout the city and at Gannon University, according to news reports. In July 2011, the NEA gave Shreveport, La., $100,000 to create a transportation hub and information station with access for public transportation, bicycles and mopeds.

Committee member and City Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis said South Portland’s plan is still just a rough sketch, but the group is pursuing it seriously.

“We’re talking about some kind of cultural center, where people might rent bicycles and pick up maps so they can find the Greenbelt” and other destinations, she said.

Woodbury said that while South Portland could stand to see improvement, he’s not trying to criticize the city. 

“South Portland is actually pretty awesome. We’ve got bike trails and hiking trails. There’s great work going on in Clarks Pond and around the (Maine Mall),” he said. 

The committee is just trying to make all the city has to offer more accessible to everyone, he said. 

“It’s about turning the streets into something that, sure, cars can use, but to make it more accessible and making it look nicer, so that people without cars want to come here, too,” Woodbury said.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.