About 35,000 years ago, a giant glacier retreated across the land we now know as Maine, leaving behind Mount Katahdin, Casco Bay and the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers.

The glacier did not give us big-lot subdivisions, congested highways or suburban sprawl. Those were things we built on our own.

That’s worth noting because you might get the impression that land-use policy in Maine is a natural phenomenon – that it has always been exactly the way it is right now, and it will stay that way forever.

But just as Mainers reacted to changes to the national economy in the decades after World War II by buying cars and building roads and houses in what used to be woods and fields, today’s planners are looking ahead how to manage the forces that are changing our state – whether we want it to change or not.

An optimistic view of that future is the focus of a study called “Transit Tomorrow,” released last week and put together by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, in partnership with regional transit agencies. It’s worth a read for all Mainers, no matter where they live, because the challenges it addresses are not limited to one part of the state.

The region’s first-ever strategic transportation plan describes a 30-year vision of a fast-growing region with a bigger share of its population settled in affordable, walkable neighborhoods that are connected by fast and reliable public transportation, either bus or rail.


To achieve this, transit companies aim to deliver frequent service, limiting waits to no more than 10 minutes in peak demand times, and extending hours from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

For their part, town halls would need to relax rules that prohibit multifamily housing and mixed-use developments so that there would be enough riders living and working near the routes to support such a high levels of service.

If that sounds like a lot of change in a short time, you need to remember that changes are taking place right now, and this time they are not happening at a glacial pace.

The coronavirus pandemic has supercharged a trend of remote work that economists have been predicting for years: Once people could work from anywhere, they said, many would choose to bring their jobs here.

We see evidence of this in the red-hot real estate market, in which houses are selling quickly to out-of-state buyers, often for prices higher than the sellers were asking.

The pandemic will end someday, but this trend is likely to continue.


Droughts, hurricanes and forest fires are already starting a climate migration within the United States, according to a 2020 report by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. They list New England and the upper Great Lakes region among the safest places to be in the United States as the world gets hotter.

The arrival of remote workers is a mixed blessing. We have been trying to bring in younger working people to Maine for a long time, but competition for housing drives up prices, forcing lower-income Mainers out of the more desirable areas.

Only 5 percent of land in towns near Portland is zoned to allow multifamily housing. That disperses new development, making housing and municipal services more expensive, according to a study by MIT urban studies professor Jeff Levine.

It also puts an economic burden on those least able to pay it. People who might like to ride a bus to work or have their children walk to school can’t do that if they live in a place with no transit. The price of lower-cost housing is owning and maintaining a working car and using it for everything. That means more vehicles driving more miles on congested roads, contributing more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

The “Transit Tomorrow” plan illustrates how land-use and public transportation policies can work together to address a wide range of issues – from housing affordability and economic development to environmental protection and climate change.

Many of the challenges the plan addresses fit the state’s other metro areas as well — Lewiston-Auburn, Augusta, Waterville, Bangor — and similar work specific to those regions would inform how those cities and towns could handle growth.

We may not be able to stop the forces that are transforming Maine, but we can make sure that we are ready to meet them.

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