A Tour of Portsmouth’s Bike Lanes

Feeling very frustrated by the Portsmouth City Council’s late night 5-4 vote to remove a 1/3 mile stretch of protected bike lane, I got on my single speed bicycle on a beautiful 25 degree morning and took a longer route than usual into work. I wanted to see some of the other lanes in the city, and to think about Councilor Petra Huda’s claim that “the rest of Portsmouth bike lanes are exactly like what we’re going to do”. And while I’m a confident rider who has done a lot of miles in big city traffic, I am aware that the actions of one distracted driver could easily change my life. I wanted to think about my three year old (who just started balancing and pedaling this week) and my six year old (already trying “no hands”) and which roads I will be comfortable seeing them ride on in the coming years.

I started my bike lane tour on Sagamore Avenue, with its beautiful new curbs, sidewalks, and street trees. It has a decent bike lane on the shoulder with no parked cars, and while there is no buffer or physical protection from the driving lane, most drivers are respectful and pass with at least the 3 feet required by state law.

I crossed downtown to the brand new Maplewood Avenue bike lanes between the Bypass and Woodbury—again, with no street parking, nice new sidewalks, and traffic-calming “speed tables” and speed displays. The bike lane has a striped buffer on the left, and I was happy to see all the recycling and trash cans placed on the grassy curb, not blocking the lanes. It’s a great example of bicycle and pedestrian improvements paired with traffic calming making a road safer for drivers too.

From there, I rolled back over the Bypass and North Mill Pond bridges to the only portion of bike lane in Portsmouth that is between parked and moving cars (despite Councilor Huda’s statement) – Maplewood near the North Cemetery. The lane begins with just inches between a white line marking the driving lane and a white rectangle marking a parking spot, then widens to 3 or 4 feet, meaning if you hug the left side you just might be out of the way of a carelessly swung open car door. This is the configuration that killed a 58 year old bicyclist in Durham in 2014—he was in the bike lane, and a parked driver opened a door into him, throwing him into traffic. I’m not sure when I will feel comfortable letting my kids ride this route.

Portsmouth is still a long way from having truly connected routes, and from there I carefully shared the road with car traffic. Continuing on Middle Street from Austin to Highland there are painted “sharrows” showing where confident bicyclists should be positioned to avoid those car doors, and I took the center of the lane where necessary, but otherwise stayed right to let cars pass when I could safely. “Sharrows” and “share the road” signs are a far cry from bike lanes, whatever some councilors say.

I then rode in the much-discussed “parking protected” bike lane on Middle Street, and although the flex posts aren’t up yet the cars were parked properly, and the lane is nicely separated from the passenger-side doors by a painted buffer. I had plenty of time to see cars at intersections, and for them to see me. Middle Street has always had high traffic volumes and speeds, but the visual narrowing of the road has discouraged speeding and distracted driving, resulting in a big drop in car crashes. That physical separation of bikes and cars makes a huge difference, and I would feel fine riding it with my kids when they are just a little older– if it is still configured this way.

I turned left on to Lincoln, which is a pleasant, slow street to ride on as long as you know to stay out of the “door zone”, to make room for cars coming the other way, and to give way to crossing traffic at the many stop signs. Mayor Rick Becksted and four councilors have decided to designate it a “bicycle route” to substitute for Middle Street, but I don’t understand how a sign or two suggesting riders turn onto a road that doesn’t go the same direction will have any impact. Now we understand they have no plans for a real bike lane here. It’s a nice street as long as you ride slow, and from there I was able to weave across to the waterfront.

While I’m incredibly frustrated by the step backwards that our Council is making against all professional advice, there is nothing like a sunny bike ride to raise your spirits. The people of Portsmouth have made it clear again and again in master planning processes that we want roads that work for all, and we have a Complete Streets Policy and a Bike/Ped Plan that encourage incremental progress when possible. There seems to be no convincing these five (councilors), but there will be an important council election in November, and I’m hopeful that this six month trial change for Middle Street could be reversed afterwards or when the road is repaved.

In recent years Mayor Jack Blalock and others led a bicycle “Mayors ride” with city staff and residents to tour bike improvements and discuss plans. We at Seacoast Area Bike Riders are planning to follow their route with a family friendly “slow roll” on a regular basis this summer, and we’d love to have elected officials, potential City Council candidates, and residents of all ages join us. Sign up for our newsletter at [email protected] and keep riding with a smile.