Earlier this week, in broad daylight, 44-year-old cyclist Christina Holt was killed in a collision with a motor vehicle in downtown Portland. This continues a tragic trend in Maine, as well as nationwide, of a rapid increase in pedestrian deaths, which tripled in the first part of 2021 from the same period in 2020, according to a recent study by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Maine was tied for first place with Vermont for having the largest increase in the nation during that time. In 2021, the Maine Department of Transportation reported that 150 bicyclists and 149 pedestrians were injured, and 2 bicyclists and 16 pedestrians were killed by cars.
Much is being written on message boards and in the comment sections of newspapers about who is to blame: the driver or the pedestrian. These crashes are violent and traumatic for both drivers and victims, their friends, and families. There is nothing to be gained by litigating these events in public online forums, or in allowing a personal responsibility narrative to cloud our collective reason. Instead, we should ask ourselves, how did we get here as a society, what systemic issues are causing this trend, and what should we demand of our municipalities and the State to reverse it?
In Right of Way (Island Press, 2020), Angie Schmitt, a transportation writer and planner, answers some of these questions. Her book covers many social and systemic causes for the steep climb in pedestrian deaths since 2010, all of which are currently in play in Portland and the State.
Gentrification is one such cause. Unsustainable development in Portland over the last 15 years has pushed poor and working-class individuals out of the city, to work and live in areas that are more suburban or rural. Infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists was already bad, or non-existent, in those areas and is not keeping up with the exodus of people from urban centers caused by rising housing costs. Head out of town on Route 302 and try to find a safe, protected bicycle lane. I’ll save you the trip: there isn’t one. Drive anywhere outside of Portland and you regularly come upon people walking their dogs, walking to work, jogging, or riding their bicycles on narrow, shoulder-less, and poorly maintained rural highways. Every two or three months in Southern Maine, we read a news report about one of them being severely injured or killed by an automobile.
Even within Portland city limits the disparity of ‘walkability,’ an in-vogue term that makes an excellent surrogate for gentrification, is so obvious we have to ask if it’s intentional—as in the case of the Planning Board placing a massive homeless shelter in the far reaches of Portland that will house a group of people who are largely reliant on self-powered transportation. Walking from the Riverton housing development, near where this shelter will be located, to the nearest grocery store, for example, is no easy task. Crosswalks are few and far apart and there is a lack of snow clearing. Combine that with the generally poor state of sidewalks off-peninsula, it is no wonder that older individuals, those with mobility disorders, and even able-bodied people take to the roadway instead of the sidewalk, or try to cross the street without the protection of a crosswalk, when the next closest crosswalk is blocks away over a sidewalk strewn with snow and ice. Wealthy neighborhoods and those close to businesses and public services are safer to walk around in than poorer neighborhoods, where capital and services are scarce because the City of Portland underfunds pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and mass transit compared to the giveaways they hand to developers.
Even Portland’s bike lanes and controlled intersections pose dangers for bicyclists and pedestrians. The ‘green lanes,’ once vibrant, are already losing their paint, and few of them have a vertical barrier, such as flex posts, to keep cars from veering into them. In Europe, where pedestrian death rates are dropping rather than rising, hard barriers, raised curbs, and dedicated signaling systems are prevalent and provide true protection. The placement of these green lanes is also poorly thought out and not functional for getting around a congested city, especially one that experiences even more traffic during the better weather months. At the same time, City of Portland official communications, and publicly funded entities like Portland Downtown encourage people to ride or walk because it’s better for the planet, never mind that it might get you killed.
Commercial Street on a summer evening is a nightmare of dodging cars looking for, or backing out of, angled, front-in parking spots. Pedestrians must cross three lanes of traffic, with too few crosswalks, competing with far too many private cars and delivery trucks, which are often parked and unloading goods in the middle turning lane, creating sightline hazards for everyone. Add distractions for both walkers and drivers related to the business and entertainment district that has been created, without the pedestrian infrastructure to match, and the outcome is inevitable.
One can already hear the ‘but who will pay for this’ crowd getting rankled. Who, indeed? In a city like Portland, where tax breaks to large corporations and developers are regularly offered to entice them to ‘do business’ in Portland, there might truly be no money in the coffers for projects like improving pedestrian infrastructure. Ironically, to make up this shortfall, Portland relies heavily on parking meter revenue and construction of massive parking garages, worsening the issue by funneling more cars into the city. The well-documented increase in the size of those cars over the last two decades is another factor, creating larger blind spots and elevating bumper and hood heights, which has been directly correlated with greater trauma to pedestrian bodies when they are struck.
The conclusion Schmitt makes, and we who are witnessing these tragedies should come to, is that these pedestrian deaths are not accidents, but rather the predictable by-product of poor city and transportation planning, decades of pandering to the oil and automotive industry, as well as to real estate developers, the Chamber of Commerce, and other actors interested in the monetization of cities at any cost, while neglecting the people who live in these places, especially the old, the poor, and the disabled. Nearly every pedestrian death is preventable.
Instead of blaming the drivers or pedestrians, it’s time to scrutinize the policies of our city, and state, and to break the stranglehold that developers, corporations, and other forces of capitalism have over them. It’s time to take back our streets.