By Amy Chapman
Local communities will see gains in physical fitness, rider safety, recreational opportunities, and economic development through the identification and mapping of the best routes for bicycling in Oxford County, predicted Jim Tasse.
Tasse, Education Director at the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, recently spoke to a gathering at Sunday River’s Grand Summit Hotel. About 20 area bicycling enthusiasts participated in a bike trail mapping session, one in a series held throughout Oxford County to give cyclists an opportunity to provide feedback about their favorite local bike routes, share information about their riding experiences, and compile a wish list of ways to improve the quality and safety of biking in western Maine.
Tasse is also the director of the Maine Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Education Program, a partnership between the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and the Maine DOT, whose goal is to increase safety for bikers and walkers who share the roads with motorists.
He told the group that informational signage placed along popular bike routes will serve several purposes. Directional signage helps cyclists stay on their chosen route, while warning signs identify potential hazards. Regulatory signs alert both cyclists and motorists to their responsibilities when sharing the road.
While creating better signage and maps for cyclists are part of the group’s short-term goals, long-range objectives extend to advocating for improvements to bike routes through physical upgrades like paved shoulders.
“One of the goals is that by creating and identifying bike routes, we’re going to be able to have a conversation with the DOT that says, ‘This is a preferred route for biking, and we hope it can be optimized in ways that make it more attractive and safer,’” Tasse said.
He hopes that once popular bike routes have been identified, “when the DOT is doing any kind of maintenance and reconstruction along those routes, they can be thinking about the fact that the road has been identified as a bike route and take that into consideration.”
He cited the example of the wider paved shoulders that were added to Route 26 between Bethel and Locke Mills when the road was rebuilt, making it a safer route for bicycles.
The first thing to think about, said Tasse, is “Who are we planning for?”
He described a study done by city planners in Portland, Oregon which found that about two thirds of Americans are both physically able to ride bicycles, and have at least some interest in doing so.
About one percent make up a group described as “strong and fearless,” those who are willing to ride their bikes just about anywhere—in city traffic, during bad weather, or on rural roads with high speed limits and no shoulder. Another six percent are “enthused and confident” cyclists, who ride regularly and are not usually daunted by less than ideal conditions.
For these riders, Tasse said, a focus on route planning and upgrades can serve as a solid economic development strategy, helping to make western Maine a bike-touring destination.
“If we give them good recreational routes here in Oxford County, then maybe they come and stay in some of the lodges around here, they go to the restaurants, and they’re doing century rides on the beautiful routes that we’ve identified.”
The majority of Americans fall into a group identified as “interested but concerned,” Tasse said. “This is the group we should be focusing our efforts on. They are really interested in riding bikes, they know it’s healthy, it looks like fun, they remember doing it as a kid, but they have concerns.”
“They may be concerned about traffic, about getting lost, about what happens if they get a flat tire out in the middle of nowhere.”
These are the people who are on the fence about going out for a bike ride, and providing good route information can give them the push they need to get out and try it. This group includes casual riders, people running errands, and families with children. For them, Tasse said, knowing ahead of time about scenic points along the way, any hazards they may need to watch out for, “and even where to stop for ice cream” can make a big difference in getting them out on bikes.
The bike route mapping sessions are a project of Oxford County Moves, a collaboration between MaineHealth and Healthy Oxford Hills that is aimed at making both walking and biking easier, safer, and more popular throughout the county.
Alex Miller of Norway will enter all of the route information gleaned from the mapping sessions into a GIS database to present to the Maine Department of Transportation. Brendan Schauffler, Active Community Environment Coordinator for Healthy Oxford Hills, said his organization will produce the bike maps and distribute them throughout the county later this spring.
Funding for the program comes from a federal Community Transformation Grant through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.