With the coronavirus vaccine rollout came an ethical question: Who gets priority? While there’s no simple answer, the response has generally been to favor the most vulnerable. This is a sensible way to organize resources in a society, and yet it’s far from the norm when it comes to sidewalks, streets and roadways – where vulnerable populations have the highest risk.

If you don’t drive because you’re too young, unable or cannot afford to, you’re at a great disadvantage for not having reliable transport. You may rely on buses, your feet, your wheelchair, RTC, taxis or a bicycle. Sidewalks are impassable long after streets are cleared of snow. As cars speed by on arterials, you may have to walk blocks to get to the closest crosswalk.

Maine and the U.S. as a whole need to do a better job addressing “mobility equity.” It’s critically important that transportation options are available to people who choose to move around their communities using something besides an automobile.

Safe streets are more than just a matter of not getting run over – they make communities more productive. Safe streets are walkable and well lit and have lots of human activity in the form of people walking, sitting, shopping and socializing. Unfortunately, all over Portland we’re hearing versions of the same story: Our streets are not safe.

• A friend lives 10 minutes from her job at Maine Medical Center, but the walk is so bad that she drives a quarter mile to the employee garage to take a shuttle to the actual hospital. The whole process takes twice the time and distance.

• A friend who uses a motorized wheelchair cannot traverse the rough terrain of sidewalks, so they’re obliged to travel in the roadways.

• Speeds on roadways across the city (and state) routinely exceed the posted speed limit.

• Motorists often do not yield to pedestrians showing intent to cross at marked crosswalks.

Traditionally, much of Maine’s federal highway dollars go to roads and bridges far from Portland. But for the first time in decades, there are real signs of hope on the national, state and local levels.

The new federal administration has committed to reshaping transportation policy for equity, sustainability, economic development and public health. It’s uplifting to us, as longtime advocates for active transportation and community development, to hear that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg understands the interconnectedness of these issues. This is an exciting opportunity that marks a distinct change from the previous administration.

In addition to the efforts of the federal government, awareness is growing through campaigns like “20’s Plenty for Us” (internationally) and “Slow ME Down” (Bicycle Coalition of Maine), and Belinda Ray, Portland city councilor and Transportation Committee chair, has expressed the need to make speed reduction a priority.

This means for the first time in decades, funding could be available for projects that have long been advocated by citizens and city officials alike. This includes the redesign of Franklin Arterial as a city street; calming traffic via the restoration of two-way traffic on State, High and outer Congress streets and Park Avenue; redesigning Interstate 295’s Exit 6 (Forest Avenue) to enhance the safety of pedestrians and cyclists crossing the road, and the reimagining of arterials as functional, safe community streets.

The issues surrounding walkability, bikeability and livability enjoy tremendous public support, which, coupled with federal money, would allow us to meet the many challenges these areas face. Also, most, if not all, of these projects have been studied and are shovel-ready. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine and Portland Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee are working to make our streets safer, especially for those of us who don’t live downtown but would like to walk, cycle or take the bus to get to work, school, shopping and recreation. We need just two things: a cohesive master plan to connect them to one another, and more political champions to make sure Portland is not left behind.

This is a moment of opportunity that deserves our immediate attention. If safe, accessible streets are important to you, please contact your city councilor and state legislators and let them know you support investing more in sidewalks, crossings, bikeways and other facilities to meet the needs of the most vulnerable users.


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