When it comes to roads, there’s more to think about than cars and trucks.

For starters, state and local officials should think more about the pedestrians and bicyclists who, by preference or necessity, use roads alongside automobiles.

Most of the time, roads, particularly major thoroughfares, were built and are maintained with the thought of automobiles foremost in mind. The needs of walkers, bicyclists and wheelchair users are secondary, as are concerns over how auto-centric arteries can wall off neighborhoods.

That is starting to change. Pedestrian deaths have spiked in recent years, highlighting how dangerous roads designed for vehicles have become for everyone else.

Between 2003 and 2014, the number of pedestrian deaths in Maine ranged between seven and 13 per year. In 2015, the number jumped to 19, with another 17 in 2016 and 21 in 2017. After just five deaths last year, eight pedestrians have been killed so far in 2019.

That follows the national trend. Annual pedestrian deaths rose 27 percent 2007-16, and now stand at nearly 6,000 a year, the highest in a quarter century.

In response, the Maine Department of Transportation launched the Heads up Pedestrian Safety Initiative. The department’s focus is on 21 communities that together account for 69 percent of pedestrian-involved accidents — places where population density means more pedestrians and more vehicles, and thus more collisions.

Forums were held in each of the designated communities. The work is now coming to fruition.

In 2017 in the city of Augusta, nearly 50 people showed up to talk about their problems getting around on foot and bike. Typical among the attendees was a man who said he no longer feels safe walking his dog across busy Western Avenue, which runs alongside his neighborhood. “You’re taking your life in your hands,” he said.

Just as in other communities in the program, residents at the meeting marked problems spots throughout the city, and the DOT used that and other information to offer the city recommendations.

The City Council last week reviewed those recommendations. Unsurprisingly, most of them involve retrofitting roads to consider the pedestrians and bicyclists who were not thought of the first time around.

The study calls for making crossing more visible by using fresh paint, lights and perhaps raised platforms. It calls for more narrow travel lanes to slow down cars and force them to think about what’s on the side of the road. Its says four-lane roads should be reduced to three with a turning lane, and the extra space on the side given to pedestrians and bicyclists.

The DOT says the city should also work to educate pedestrians on how to stay safe, and to better enforce traffic laws. That’s good. Just as transportation officials need to think about pedestrians, so too do motorists, who too often don’t acknowledge that other people are using roads — and without hundreds of pounds of steel around them.

But it is street design that will ultimately make roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

It will strengthen communities too. If you build walkable streets, people will walk. If you build bike lanes, people will bike.

In both cases, improvements will bring people out of their houses and into their neighborhoods. It will be healthier for the people who walk and bike, and for the planet.

That’s something to think about.


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