The Bicycle Coalition of Maine (BCM) applauds the Maine Department of Transportation’s (MaineDOT) efforts to define a strategy to reduce carbon emissions in the critically important transportation sector. However, this plan continues a pattern of downplaying the role of active transportation in Maine’s efforts to fight climate change. The MaineDOT—and all other state agencies and departments—needs to move beyond an emphasis on cars to solve the climate crisis.
The Coalition wholeheartedly agrees and supports actions to make the shift quickly to electric vehicles–this must happen. But simply replacing gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs) will not be enough to meet Maine’s carbon reduction goals. Replacing the automobile fleet with EVs will not help reduce the additional problems of an automobile-centric transportation culture: increasing traffic congestion, record numbers of roadway injuries and fatalities, unwalkable and economically depressed downtowns, and social isolation in Maine’s older population who are unable to access daily needs in their community. We need to shift our transportation system to prioritize moving people safely, efficiently, and sustainably rather than continuing to rely on the outmoded approach of moving automobiles as quickly as possible through communities.
The BCM is disappointed and concerned that the only mention of active transportation in this strategy is to note the creation of the Statewide Active Transportation Plan (which presents laudable goals, but fails to plan for funding and a construction timetable). Active Transportation is not expanded upon in the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) section of the MaineDOTs Carbon Reduction Strategy: there are no goals set and no incentive programs referenced. E-bikes are mentioned in Electrification Initiatives, but there is no mention of anything to indicate their role in replacing VMT. And yet, according to the US Department of Transportation, 59% of all trips in Maine are 5 miles or less, and 75% are 10 miles or less–and these statistics hold relatively closely in all sixteen Maine counties. This means more than half of all trips taken in Maine could reasonably be made by bike or e-bike if safe infrastructure was made a priority. It is not unreasonable to set a goal of 10% of all trips less than 5 miles to be replaced by active transportation.
The heart of the problem is articulated most clearly when the plan claims that, in Maine, ”…individual motorists decide when and where to drive…” which suggests that Maine motorists are the reason why our transportation system is so dominated by cars. But this statement asserts, in many respects, a false premise. Residents and visitors of Maine have few transportation choices. If a person has only one option to choose from, there is no choice. Many people in Maine do not choose to drive–they are forced to drive as the only viable option in many cases. This may be because there are no or limited transit options, no or limited bike/ped infrastructure, roads are unsafe for anyone outside of a vehicle, or there is little incentive to find other options. For the people who do not, cannot, or would prefer not to drive, their options for safe, efficient, and low-cost transportation are severely hampered by the systemic and institutional decisions that have created a transportation system that not only prioritizes motorists, but, in too many cases, has built infrastructure that exclusively caters to motorists.
We know that it is possible to create alternatives, even in a rural state like Maine. For example, Vermont has areas that field an effective rural transit system, and a robust and growing network of bike paths and lanes to connect communities and businesses. There are similar robust transit, bicycle, and pedestrian systems in the Midwest and Canadian provinces like Quebec.
The recent completion of the MaineDOT’s Family of Plans–Transit, Rail, Active Transportation, and Aviation–is a good first step to understanding other transportation modes, but it is far from action. The next several years will show if there is any measurable shift toward investment in those modes of transportation. In addition, the absence of a Vehicle Plan (passenger or freight) sends a clear message that cars and trucks continue to be the primary and default priority for the MaineDOT’s work, rather than simply one of many transportation modes.
For our climate health, environmental health, economic health, and personal health, we need to get out of our cars. We need to do more than electrify the transportation system, we need to re-envision a transportation system that is safe, efficient, and sustainable. A core strategy needs to be creating walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible villages, cities and towns across Maine. Such a strategy would not only decrease carbon emissions—it would also improve the quality of life and place across the great state of Maine.