The need for town government and taxes evolved in large part out of the need to build and maintain roads for public use. The original settlers all had to agree to let public roads be erected across their lots wherever it was deemed necessary and instead of paying taxes they were required to assist in building those roads and keeping them passable by working a certain amount of time each year for the first ten years of settlement.

Keeping the roads passable was the name of the game and no one had to worry about the danger of any group getting by too quickly. The roads were slow and rocky and muddy and often washed out. And in the winter, they were slippery and all sorts of other things.

The need for sidewalks didn’t come along until the roads began to be heavily used by horses and other livestock and the downtown became dense enough that sanitary issues arose. The lines began to form between the use of town roads by those with horses and those without.

In the March 24 edition of the Courier-Gazette from 1903, the editor offered the following reminder: “we submit that we are not, as taxpayers living in a progressive community with a live Board of Trade, doing right when we permit the elements to make walking unbearable for an entire winter… We pay for making the middle of the streets comfortable for horses, which are never heard to complain, but we let poor tender-footed humanity slip and stumble and break its bones and the commandments and appear to regard it quite as a matter of course.”

How many times have we heard complaints about pedestrians walking in the road even when there is a sidewalk? Well, I’ll bet the reasons are almost always similar to the ones from 1903.

Yes, there are certainly inconsiderate pedestrians, but for the most part, people only choose the road over the sidewalk when there is a noticeable disparity in the conditions. Almost every road in Camden is in better condition than the sidewalk, if there is one, and it is the sidewalks and not the roadways that are frequently obstructed by telephone poles and mailboxes.

Just as towns prioritized horse and cart passage over making the sidewalks passable for people, we fall into the same patterns today with cars. Some assume that the only people out using our sidewalks are those walking by choice or children who are not yet old enough to drive. They also tend to imagine that the activity is seasonal and that by winter everyone is in cars.

There are of course many reasons that someone might make the choice to walk around town rather than drive but there is also another demographic: the carless. I’ve been renting rooms in our home on Mechanic Street since 2008. Advertising on Craigslist and wading through all the inquiries and getting to know the people during their time has shown me that many people are without a vehicle either by chance or by choice.

In fact, I got so used to having people without cars that we actually started charging more if a tenant would need to park a car in the driveway. The reasons that our tenants have not had cars have been numerous, including financial issues, physical disability, license revocation, anxiety, a preference for walking, never learned to drive, no need for a car, and probably more that I can’t think of.

When I first moved back to Camden after college, I quite comfortably shared a car with one of my housemates but the longest I went without a car completely was about 9 months. My kids were quite young at the time, and I worked to conquer my nervousness on a bike in order to be able to pull them around in one of those carts.

So much of our town is designed and operated on the assumption that everyone needs or wants or can afford a car, but it’s time to start acknowledging the fact that not everyone has one. If the carless in Camden suddenly all had an automobile they needed to park and drive, we’d notice an increase in congestion. On a similar note, if a few more of us could get by without one more often, we’d all benefit with cleaner air and less congestion.

One of the many obstacles to the creation of affordable housing is that it all has to be built with the assumption that we are building space for as many cars as people, and sometimes more.

For the people who already need to walk or bike, we owe it to them to make that experience as safe and accessible as possible and that will mean clawing back a little space and preference that has been ceded to automobiles.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Vice Chair of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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