Portsmouth City Council Wants to Endanger the Lives of Cyclists. Help Us Stop Them.

As long-time advocates for the cycling community in Portsmouth and neighboring towns, Seacoast Area Bike Riders (SABR) has played an active role in promoting cycling as a fine way to exercise for all ages and, whenever possible, as a healthy alternative way to run errands and commute. We pay special attention to the needs of new riders, especially the very young. Because this year’s pandemic has forced us to rethink many aspects of life, the surge in new riders has delighted us! Ridership in Portsmouth has expanded dramatically and it’s unlikely to abate. On Middle Street alone, ridership is up 50% over last year!

We have worked locally for many years to improve cycling infrastructure in Portsmouth. It’s been slow going, but the Middle Street bike lane project was a first major step to provide safe, buffered travel for cyclists along one of the City’s main corridors. After many years of staff work and multiple events for public input, Portsmouth embraced the “Complete Streets” concept and has adopted a long-term goal for “multi-modal” transportation that caters equally for the safety of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. To quote from Portsmouth’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan:

“The vision for the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan captures and articulates Portsmouth’s commitment to increasing walking and bicycling. This commitment is evident in the policies and plans that have been created since the adoption of the City’s 2005 Master Plan, which called for “safe and convenient bicycle and pedestrian circulation throughout the city.”

It was alarming to us, then, when Councilor Huda recently referred to the Middle Street project as an example of “pushing an agenda to trade in vehicles for biking . . .” Nothing could be further from the truth and her remarks serve only to deepen the unnecessary division that’s developed around the project. Area cyclists are also drivers and pedestrians and they park vehicles. They understand the concerns of reasonable residents. It’s a pity that residents haven’t had the chance to hear the kinds of shared concerns and creative thinking going on among the cycling community. When people come together in a spirit of goodwill to discuss problems they invariably find they have more common ground than not. That hasn’t happened and the Council hasn’t encouraged it.

At their next meeting, the Council will vote on Councilor Huda’s motion to immediately return parked cars to the curb over a long section of the bike lanes, thereby placing cyclists, without adequate buffering, back next to the travel lane where vehicles routinely travel at 35mph. The Mayor and other Councilors are determined to do this in spite of safety recommendations from every single source of expertise that cyclist safety would be compromised. Those sources include NH DOT, national best practices and standards, the City’s professional staff, and 8 of the 9 members of our own Parking and Traffic Safety Committee (notably including Police Captain Newport and Fire Chief Germain).

We also note that Councilor Huda took a hawkish stance during our recent budget process. For example, she and the Mayor made a specific line-item cut of over $35,000 to the public works restriping budget. Road stripes are essential for all road users, but are especially important as the basis for the entire bike lane project. From the perspective of fiscal responsibility, moving parked cars back to the curb will essentially waste a good chunk of the $225,000 grant funding and $85,000 of City money already spent. The City will be liable to repay the grant money to the State. The cost of undoing the project will entail a further engineering study (up to $10,000) and restriping costs of over $50,000. The budget cut and these costs taken together make absolutely no fiscal sense: save $35,000 here, waste over $300,000 there.

Based on our own expertise and experience at SABR, we add our voices to those who caution against a dangerous step backwards. We completely understand that residents and drivers are being asked to adapt a little and adjust to new patterns. However, we also know that with goodwill and creativity all around such projects can work. During the first three years of the project, City staff have taken public concerns very seriously and made improvements each year. Every single concern of residents has received a response. One small example resulting from improvements: the sight lines for drivers entering Middle Street from Aldrich Avenue and Cass Street have NEVER been as good for drivers as they are now. In addition, the accident rate on the street over the last 11 months is down by more than 50%.

Portsmouth’s growing cycling community would rather work together with residents around a common theme: safety, especially for our most vulnerable travelers. If you ride, are thinking of buying a bike, or are the parents of young riders, please let the Council know that you support the continuation of the Middle Street bike lanes as an important step towards something even better in the future.

If you’d like to know more about SABR and how you can help promote cycling in Portsmouth, please email us at: [email protected]