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Maine Life | Friday, August 27th, 2010, 2:28 pm

Biking, courtesy and applied physics on Portland’s roads

See a bicyclist on the road? May be best to stay quiet.

I’m not much of a conversationalist, but even I know better than to try and start one while traveling twice the speed of my intended conversant.

As I vaguely recall from high school physics, something happens when velocity meets frequency with the end result of sound waves being stretched and smooshed as an object making noise passes by. It’s called the Doppler Shift and it explains why so many of my daily on-bike conversations sound like someone shouting “HEYWHARRRNNNDDERRRGRPH!”

If I manage a translation it often turns out they are yelling something about a bike lane, and how I should be in it. And by “bike lane” they usually mean “shoulder.” But along with making them sound funny, my slower speed offers me a different visual perspective — while they see a black blur I see a lane full of gravel, branches, roadkill, broken pavement, glass and other surprising objects. Once, a live turkey. Recently, an office chair. These were on the same road. Maybe the turkey is setting up shop.

There’s yet another perspective shift to consider. Drivers turning from side streets don’t expect anything faster than a pedestrian to be traveling in the shoulder. I don’t like surprising drivers. It tends to lead to things like me flying over my handlebars as they turn out in front of something moving much more quickly than they expected.

Thus, I find it’s a lot safer for myself and drivers (and turkeys) if I avoid the shoulder entirely. Maine law agrees with me here, and states that shoulder use is completely optional. In fact use of actual bike lanes, where they exist, is optional as well. This is fortunate as bike lanes are often full of the same debris you’ll find in the shoulders, or in a direct line of fire of parked cars opening their doors. Rather than play “guess if someone is in that car about to door you,” I prefer to keep my eyes on the road ahead for the safest possible ride.

With over 10,000 crash-free miles of biking around Portland, this strategy is working well. Most drivers don’t have a problem with it either. Sure, there are a handful who feel compelled to shout something as they pass me. But thanks to Doppler I don’t really have to listen to them.

Mike Popovic rides his bike in and around Portland every day just so he can eat more doughnuts. Contact him via mike@bedope.com or on AIM: mik3pop

6 Responses to “Biking, courtesy and applied physics on Portland’s roads”

  1. Great article, Mike!

  2. Julie says:

    Mike’s way of pairing common sense and humor is powerfully delightful.

  3. Hey, all that stuff is true in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I ride, too. Must be some universal truth.

  4. Dana says:

    Very well put. I wish more motorists would ride so they’d see the road and hazards the way we see them.

  5. James says:

    I enjoyed the article. Bikers in Portland scare me. Over the last few months I have seen a few very near and potentially fatal accidents do due bikers not following traffic rules. Near the Nick I saw a car have to slam on the brakes as a biker ran a red light almost killing himself. I saw another biker hit by a car on Congress street. An angry crowd of people started going after the driver of the car although he did nothing wrong. This is a common scene with an angry Portland biker screaming at a car or kicking the car. It has happened to me twice.

    I work with two sponsored bikers who I always see riding around Portland and they obey the traffic rules and work hard to be very safe. It just seemed like there is a very angry group of Portland bikers. I do not understand this. There are more bike lanes than ever.

    Anyways I was just curious what the traffic laws are for bikers. I honestly do not know.

  6. Mike Popovic says:

    James,

    Some bikers scare me too! And some car drivers. And some truck drivers. But they key word is “some” – as you note later in your comment you are familiar with some bikers who happily follow the laws. As always, it is the people doing crazy things that stand out, but it is good to know that they are the minority, NOT the majority.

    Here is a link to a summary of traffic laws pertaining to biking in Maine:

    http://www.bikemaine.org/10-safety/maine-biking-laws

    That page also has links to the actual laws in case you’d like to dive into the legal details!

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