Gimme Three Feet

In warm weather I regularly bicycle between Orono and Bangor. If I’m pressed for time in the morning, I’ll put my bike on the rack on the Community Connector bus and ride home after my work is done. The return trip is marginally easier by bicycle, as it follows the Penobscot River, and all rivers flow down hill.

My only challenges along this route are two small hills south of Orono and a large one near Eastern Maine Medical Center. A younger, more physically fit person would hardly consider these hills at all. When I lived in California, I would have sneered at them, too.

I like to think I’m in pretty good shape for my age. I never go to a gym, and I gave up running after a sprained ankle in 2001. Exercise for its own sake bores me. I stay in shape by not owning a car. The idea of sitting on my butt all day and then driving to a place to work out strikes me as absurd. I would rather get exercise in the course of my daily life. A good time to do that is on the way to or from work.

My bicycle is transportation. That I burn calories instead of gasoline is a bonus. The extra time it takes to bicycle rather than drive is more than offset by the time I save not driving to some shopping mall to exercise on a machine in front of a television.

For most of the route, paved bike lanes provide a bit of a buffer from automobile traffic. But sometimes people park cars in them, and potholes and debris often make it necessary to swerve out into the main part of the road. I have a mirror on my left handlebar, which enables me to check for cars behind me before I do this.

But there’s a section of the road in Veazie where the bike lanes disappear. (The other main bicycle route between Orono and Bangor, Stillwater Avenue, has no bike lanes at all.) On this part of the road I often encounter motorists who don’t know or don’t care that the law requires them to give me three feet of space.

It’s unnerving to be passed by a car at such close quarters. Prudence dictates that I not ride in the middle of the road, and where possible, I stay to the side. But the law states that the three-foot rule applies no matter where the bicyclist is on the road.

The ride from campus to Bangor takes me about fifty minutes. The drivers who can’t wait to pass me can cover the distance in less than twenty. Waiting until they have a safe place to pass adds seconds, not minutes, to their trip. What’s the rush?

But that’s the mentality the car culture hath wrought. Anything that slows down your trip – a slow light, a driver operating below the speed limit, a bicyclist using the road for the same legitimate purpose – is regarded as a nuisance. As more and more people use bicycles for transportation, this mentality will have to change.

I have heard drivers argue that bicyclists don’t obey traffic rules, that they create dangerous situations, that they don’t pay registration fees or excise tax. All these arguments are easily demolished. Drivers don’t obey the rules. If you don’t believe me, go out on the highway and drive the posted speed limit. Bicyclists are in much more danger from cars than vice versa. And half of all road maintenance costs come from general taxes, paid by drivers and non-drivers alike.

Wherever bicyclists proliferate, traffic safety improves. Drivers learn to accept bicyclists as a normal, everyday part of the traffic picture instead of an occasional nuisance. Overall automotive traffic is reduced; existing parking becomes more available. It’s a win-win for everybody.

Besides, most reasonable people would agree that Americans are overweight, and that we depend too much on fossil fuels. Bicycling addresses those problems while driving exacerbates them. Every bicyclist, like every bus passenger and pedestrian, reduces the number of cars on the road. We are making life easier for everyone who continues to own a car and drive. All we ask for in return is a little respect.




Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.