For many people in Maine, public transit and coordinated sustainable community initiatives are vague concepts that apply to larger cities, but not to those of us who live in rural areas. We have long been an independent population, and our private cars have been our connection to the important elements of our lives. That reality is changing.

Members of the Sustain Mid Maine Transportation Team and the Active Community Environment Team have been meeting regularly to discuss and promote ways to keep Maine residents active, healthy and independent, regardless of whether they have access to a private vehicle.

Maine has one of the eldest populations in the country. Most of these people are hard-working, tax-paying residents who value their independence and have worked hard to maintain their homes and their lifestyles. The reality for a growing number of people is that, for a variety of reasons, including health, economics or other factors, they can’t, shouldn’t or choose not to own a personal motor vehicle.

People without vehicles who live in Maine’s larger communities where public transit services and good community development initiatives exist, continue to have access to the vital services that sustain their lives including food, health care, social activities, employment and education and can do so independently. Unfortunately, those options are limited or nonexistent in most areas of our state.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average family spends 15 percent of its total household budget on car ownership and operating expenses. These expenses typically amount to more than they spend on food and health care combined, and this percentage typically grows for people with low or fixed incomes. More and more people are choosing to locate in communities where they can thrive without incurring this expense. Money not spent on cars, maintenance, insurance and gasoline can be spent on improved housing, better food, medicine or recreational activities.

In order to meet the needs of an evolving population, communities need to rethink their design, encourage policies that rebuild our downtowns to be safe, vibrant and self-sufficient, and improve access to our communities and tourist destinations for people without cars.

The ideas are not new. Before World War II, most of Maine communities had vibrant downtowns, thriving local businesses, schools in every neighborhood, and local doctors and hospitals where people could walk, bike or take a bus or passenger train to access every important component of their lives. Since then, we have built a large and complicated network of roads, bridges and decentralized communities primarily based on private vehicle access. The infrastructure has simply outgrown our ability to maintain it safely and cost-effectively. We need to make our old ideas new again.

Imagine a community where anyone, regardless of their ability or desire to own a motor vehicle, people of any age, economic status, or physical health or disability, could live comfortably, affordably and safely. Imagine a community where economic development initiatives are not compromised because of lack of access to a readily available educated and qualified workforce. Imagine that anyone could walk or bike anywhere in their community safely and easily.

Imagine that a person whose life has been affected profoundly by accident, illness, age or physical deterioration is not also affected by a lack of transportation options. Imagine a place where access to a job or college education is not limited by access to a set of car keys. Imagine a community where people could access all of the things that make their life rich with a transportation budget of $100 or less per month.

Our vision is to make our local communities places where these systems and opportunities exist. We hope our leaders and policymakers will share the vision and help to make our towns livable and sustainable long into the future by adopting Complete Streets and commercial core strategies. We encourage the increased development and support of public transit systems to ensure community access for all of our residents, young and old.

Jim Wood is the transportation director for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program and leader of the Sustain Mid Maine Transportation Team.


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