Traffic-Free Ideas for Camden

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 3:15pm

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

With the desire for distance so great in the coronavirus time, people around the world -- Maine very much included -- are setting aside some of their once most car-choked streets for strolling, shopping, and restaurant dining. Once people take back these streets for personal use, odds are they won’t want to surrender them again. Rockland has admirably turned itself into a leader in this movement. Belfast is participating in the trend, too, albeit to a more limited extent.

But is this a movement from which Camden, my town, is frozen out by the presence of a busy federal highway through the middle of town for which there is no good alternative route? Not if we use our imaginations. Blocking off Main Street in Camden is a non-starter, since there’s nowhere else for all those trucks and cars on Route 1 to go. But there’s plenty we could do instead.

How about closing off the first couple of blocks of Bay View Street? The road down to the town landing, with its parking spaces and harbor access, could be left open, as could at least one entrance to the parking lot of the Waterfront. But the space in-between fronts on or leads to several restaurants, stores and galleries that could doubtless make wonderful use of some extra outdoor space in these troubled times – and perhaps beyond.

The part of Mechanic Street that runs alongside French and Braun is another bit of downtown Camden that people might reasonably take back. Maybe just to the 90-degree turn the road takes there, leaving the entry to the small town parking lot free. Or maybe through to Washington Street, if compensating parking could be found elsewhere nearby – after all, most people get to Camden by car and need some place to put it before they can walk around.

The street space could be made available to stores that have a front or back-entrance onto Mechanic Street, and perhaps also to some of the other shops and stores on Main Street. And perhaps stores on Main Street could get extra, outdoor space by eliminating all but the handicap-only parking and using part of the street, with temporary barriers provided. Again, other nearby parking could probably be found.

Another possibility we might consider is expanding allowed parking time to three hours from two, giving people more time to eat, shop and look around without having to rush off to avoid a ticket.

At least two of my fellow Camden residents have suggested an alternative approach: closing off the town landing to parking, as we have historically done during the Windjammer Festival, and making it available to merchants and restauranteurs. That wouldn’t be my first choice but, hey, I’m not the one deciding. What I’m proposing is a conversation that involves an extraordinary outpouring of community spirit and involvement to match our extraordinary times.   

Rockland is providing an inspiring example with its plan to close several blocks of its Main Street to traffic – at least through the month of June and possibly beyond. Important details such as whether the closure will be all week or only at the weekends are still being discussed widely by the various people involved, but the town council has said it will happen.

The idea in the moment is to give stores, restaurants, galleries and museums more room so they can provide the personal space that the governor’s disease-control rules require. But whatever Rockland decides on the details for June -- and however long the virus crisis lasts -- precedents in other towns and cities strongly suggest that the locals will love the traffic-free space, Rockland businesses and other community institutions will thrive, and more and more possibilities will be put forward for giving more space back to people (Link highly recommended).

Camden’s neighbor to the northeast is providing a “Curbside Belfast” permit that will allow stores and restaurants to use public parking spaces, town green space and other property they own for outdoor shopping and dining. Portland, too, is opening some streets to people rather than traffic. Of course deliveries to businesses will be accommodated. Of course curbside pickups will be accommodated. But so will walking and other non-motorized activities.  

All this is exciting and it’s imaginative – imagination being what we most need if we’re going to find a way not just through the coronacrisis, but through the bigger social and economic transition that the Climate Crisis requires. This could be a first step to a reset of our thinking to build people-friendly paths to the post-carbon world.