WALDO, Maine — When Matt Littlefield of Waldo heard last week that Maine is considered to be the second most bike-friendly state in the nation by a national advocacy group, his first reaction was surprise.
Littlefield, a teacher at the Waldo County Technical Center, commutes as often as five times a week on his road bike. It’s a 12-mile round trip journey, one that he said is often broken up by moments of fear as cars and trucks pass much too close for comfort.
“The fact is, I’ve had a lot of close calls,” he said Friday. “When you ask people around here why they don’t ride bicycles, it’s because they don’t feel safe.”
When the League of American Bicyclists released its annual rankings of bicycle-friendly states, it singled Maine out for its “steady rise” through the rankings. Maine this year was second only to Washington state, after the advocacy group evaluated comprehensive questionnaires filled out by Department of Transportation bicycle coordinators across the nation. The lowest-ranked state was West Virginia.
And even though cyclists like Littlefield may be perplexed by the Pine Tree State’s positive performance on the survey, Nancy Grant of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine said that there are more factors at play than road condition and fast drivers.
“Like every state in the country, we do have potholes, we do have crumbled shoulders. But we have strong points, too,” she said. “This ranking is more comprehensive than a lot of people realize.”
The national bike advocacy group graded states based on their performance in six areas. Maine received an A grade for legislation, education and encouragement; a B grade for infrastructure, evaluation and planning; a C grade for policies and programs and an F for enforcement. Overall, the state earned a B grade from the League of American Bicyclists.
Grant said that Maine’s biking law to improve road safety, which became effective in 2007, has been a national model. The law requires motorists to give a 3-foot clearance when passing cyclists, among other points.
“A lot of states don’t have that law,” Grant said. “Similarly, we have an incredibly comprehensive education and encouragement area.”
She said that the coalition teaches 10,000 Maine children per year bike safety in schools and also has been going more and more into places of employment to do the same for workers.
And even though many who have cursed crumbling roadsides while on their bikes might not believe it, Maine has some “great infrastructure” for cycling, Grant said.
“Last year, Maine scored higher than anywhere else in the country on infrastructure,” she said.
There are 500 miles of off-road multiuse bike paths in the state, like the Carriage Roads at Acadia National Park. There are also 150 miles of paved paths, including the University of Maine paths, which are undergoing major reconstruction this summer.
Even on roadways, things are getting better for cyclists, she believes. The Maine Department of Transportation has done a “really good” job using federal money that is dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects, Grant said, adding that it was not the case in every state.
“The DOT is very supportive of bicycle-pedestrian work in Maine,” she said. “We spend a higher percentage of that than most states do.”
Mike McDonald of the downtown Belfast store Belfast Bicycles agrees that there has been progress.
“We don’t have a great biking environment yet,” he said. “But the state is showing interest in improving things.”
According to Grant, one reason why there is interest in improving the infrastructure for cyclists may be economics.
A 2001 study commissioned by the Maine DOT found that spending by bicycle tourists was estimated to be $36.3 million in 1999. Those cyclists came to Maine for the scenery, the bike paths or bike-friendly roads, available services and unique culture.
Although those figures are 10 years old, Grant said that the popularity of bicycle tourism has not waned.
“We feel that bicycling has exploded since then,” she said.
In the summer, groups of 50 or more riders head up the coast, many of whom stop at Belfast Bicycles for repair work or to purchase gear, McDonald said. Some tours are organized by out-of-state groups like Vermont Bicycle Tours or Adventure Cyclists of Montana.
There are also growing numbers of special events that pull in cyclists from all over the country and even Europe, Grant said. Those include the annual Women’s Ride, which will be held on June 5 in Freeport and the annual Maine Lobster Ride & Roll, to be held July 23 in Rockland.
But cyclists such as Littlefield still may not be persuaded that Maine is one of the most bike-friendly places in the country.
“The fact of the matter is, if more people felt safer, more people would bike,” he said.