As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.
No, this isn’t a piece about politics. It’s about bicycles, inspired by a recent conversation with an old friend who now lives near Burlington.
Maine and Vermont have much in common. They’re both rural states with long winters and long roads. You need a car to get around, unless you’re in Portland (population 66,000), or Burlington (42,000). Vermont has a few more hills, but Maine has more lakes, coves, and bays. Travel in either state seldom follows a straight line.
Nonetheless, both states are beginning to embrace the car-free movement, and bicycling in particular.
But this is more than a local phenomenon. All over the country, in communities large and small, bicyclists are changing the way we think about transportation.
Last week I wrote that Bangor (population 32,000) is becoming a friendlier place to do business by bicycle, thanks to the efforts of several citizen organizations. But after talking with my Vermont friend, I realized that Bangor has some catching up to do.
When I stopped owning cars, one of the first adjustments I made was in my pattern of grocery shopping. Americans are accustomed to loading up on groceries once a week or so, and throwing everything into a car. Now, shopping by bus and bicycle, I bought fewer items at a time. This necessitated more frequent trips to the store, but it also resulted in less wasted food, because fewer items tended to get lost in the back of the refrigerator.
As I’ve noted before, most grocery stores (and malls, and other retail businesses) have parking lots. And free parking isn’t really free. The cost of constructing and maintaining a parking lot is folded into the cost of goods at the store. But bicyclists don’t use parking spaces. In effect, they are subsidizing the cost of parking for drivers.
To level the playing field, people who shop by bicycle (and by bus or on foot) should be able to pay less for their groceries. In Burlington, this sensible idea has become on-the-ground reality.
Local Motion is a non-profit organization promoting walking and biking in greater Burlington and throughout the state. Like many good ideas whose time has come, Local Motion started small, focused on tangible, achievable goals. “Community leaders founded the organization in 1999 to develop the Winooski River Bike Ferry and the 10-mile historic Cycle the City tour,” according to their website. In 2015, the group merged with the Vermont Bike and Pedestrian Coalition, and today has 1,200 member households, 250 volunteers, an office on the Burlington waterfront, and thriving partnerships with like-minded public and business entities.
One of those entities is the nationwide Bicycle Benefits program. For five dollars (free with your Local Motion membership), you get a sticker to put on your bicycle helmet, which entitles you to discounts at participating businesses.
According to Adam Maxwell, Community Engagement Manager for Local Motion, more than 50 businesses in the greater Burlington area have joined the program. “They include everything from grocery stores to bookstores, restaurants and bakeries, and of course bike shops,” he said in a recent telephone interview. The program not only reduces car traffic by incentivizing bicycle use, it acknowledges the savings to businesses that have to provide less infrastructure for cars.
“We make that argument fairly frequently,” Maxwell said.
A spokesperson for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine said that some businesses in and around Portland have joined Bicycle Benefits, but to her knowledge, the program has not yet reached Bangor.
This would seem to be a worthy next step for Bangor’s burgeoning bicycle community. I’d like to see the large grocery stores like Shaw’s and Hannaford get on board. It seems like a win-win for everyone. Every time I ride my bike to the store, I’m saving a parking space for someone who truly needs it: a family with small children, a shopper with mobility problems, a car commuter stopping in for a few groceries on the way home from work.
The beauty of the program is that, like the bottle bill and the proposed five-cent deposit on plastic bags, it’s based on reward rather than punishment. Habitual drivers might balk at paying directly for parking, but who could begrudge cyclists the small savings to the economy and the environment they earn every day?
Bicycle Benefits is in dozens of communities across the United States. Bangor should be one of them.
[Historical note: The phrase “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont” references the 1936 election, when they were the only two states not carried by Franklin D. Roosevelt.]