Build enough streets designed only for vehicles, and pretty soon drivers begin to think they own them.

Throw in the popularity of ever-larger trucks and SUVs, and a pandemic of rage and risk-taking, and you have the conditions for a deadly time on American roads.

Yet at the same time, people desire neighborhoods where the residents are connected. They want to be able to walk near their homes – to school, to work, for recreation and to run errands. They want alternatives to getting into their car every time they need something.

Officials have noted this desire, and have taken small steps toward realizing it. But spending on transportation still goes overwhelmingly toward supporting travel by personal vehicle.

Not only does this contribute to climate change, but it also makes life much more dangerous for people who aren’t in a car or a truck. Deaths of pedestrians and cyclists are at an all-time high, even as driving time was slashed during the pandemic, continuing a trend that goes back 20 years.

Longer than that, really, as roads for decades have been built for vehicular speed and convenience over everybody’s safety.

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In recent decades, bigger and bigger trucks have poured into the market and onto those unsafe streets, making them worse for everyone else who wants to use them.

As a result, crashes have become far more fatal for everyone, with pedestrian deaths in particular rising 46 percent over the last decade.

Then came the pandemic. Officials have noted an increase in risk-taking behavior in response to the life-changing times, as well as the loss of social cohesion, which has led people to drive faster and with less concern for others. In 2020, in terms of fatalities per vehicle miles traveled, pedestrian deaths were up 21 percent.

Maine has not been immune, not even in just the last few weeks.

In a recent two-week stretch, Portland saw three pedestrians hit by drivers. In addition, a mother of four was “lucky to be alive” after she was hit by a pickup Feb. 8 while walking home toward downtown Skowhegan, while a Canaan woman died in January after being hit while walking her dog. In December, a mother was killed while walking with her son in Topsham.

On Saturday night, a Bates student was hit by a vehicle while crossing in a crosswalk.

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In one sense, the collisions between pedestrian and vehicles are not accidents, but the result of a failure to make roads work for everyone. We are free to choose a different path.

Of course, we all have a personal responsibility to act responsibly on the roads. Drivers must be aware that others may be using the road just the same as they are, and they must act accordingly.

And for goodness’ sake, if you are unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident, stop and get help. You could be the person’s best hope.

But solving this problem requires more. It requires building roads that slow traffic, and prioritizing public transportation as well as sidewalks, paths, footbridges and other structures that provide cover for pedestrians – and show drivers the road is not only for them.

(Outside of the transportation budget, it requires building housing along public transportation routes and near where people work.)

The Maine Department of Transportation has in recent years improved the main thoroughfares in some communities, including Hallowell and Naples, through its Village Partnership Initiative. A spokesman said recently the DOT wants to do more projects like those. They would be welcome.

But out of the nearly $3.2 billion state transportation work plan, just $30 million – less than 1 percent – will go to walking trails, sidewalks and bicycle lanes.

If the state is going to do more to let drivers know they don’t own the road, that’s not nearly enough.


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