A while back, I had the outrageous good fortune to be invited to spend a couple of weeks of my summer on the islands of Cape Cod. I just got back from the trip a few days ago, and I had the time of my life; I ate seafood every day and floated for hours in the ocean, drank bourbon cocktails with new and old friends and woke up each morning at sunrise, feeling healthy and (somehow) never hungover, ready to do it again.

I don’t have a lot of pictures from my time on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard--I find it hard to pop out an iPhone when I’m enjoying a good conversation with a buddy or a plateful of lobster on the beach--but suffice it to say, it’s one of the most idyllic places I’ve ever been, all boats and carousels and cotton-candy colored sunsets. Even on a cloudy day, it’s flat-out difficult to take a picture on these islands that doesn’t look like an incredible screen saver (see my photo on the right).

But there’s one thing I didn’t take a single picture of: all the damn cars.


Nantucket, in particular, is a traffic nightmare in high season. Only 14 miles across at its widest point, the island is home to a year round population of about 12,000, but that swells to 60,000 in the summer months. The most recent data available from 2007 suggests that when you factor in day trippers and vacationers like me, over 400,000 different people travel to the island over the summer months.

Guess how many of them bring their vehicles.

A staggering 43,046 vehicles were ferried to Nantucket in 2007 (and not necessarily from, at least not quickly, since many people stay for the summer.) The report I linked to above shows a 2.3% increase in vehicles ferried over from the mainland every year for decades, so if that pattern has continued, there are more than 50,000 vehicles traveling to Nantucket this year. The locals I stayed with told me that peak season ferry reservations for cars sell out quickly every year, and that securing one is something of a blood sport. It costs a flat $200-225, each way, to carry your vehicle to and from the island, depending on the make, model and weight. That price point isn’t slowing anyone down; again, the locals I stayed with told me that it’s common for whole families to bring a different vehicle for every driver.

The thing is, Nantucket is not built for cars--not by a long shot.

I spent hours happily tooling around their extensive network of protected bike paths, stopping now and then to ogle harpoons at the Whaling Museum or wade in the ocean. Their downtown has no surface parking lots by law. Big box stores (and even smaller-box chains like Walgreens and CVS) are similarly outlawed. Many of the narrow, one-way side streets don’t even offer on-street spaces, though that doesn’t prevent whole blocks of SUVs from parking halfway onto a sidewalk. A mix of stringent historic preservation standards, a robust historical tourism industry and careful, NIMBY-influenced planning has kept most of the parts of Nantucket that I saw downright car-hostile. It’s a paradise of fine-grained urbanism and people-centered design.

And yet the cars keep coming.

Vineyard Haven, a town in Martha's Vineyard. (Photo by  John Phellan )

Vineyard Haven, a town in Martha's Vineyard. (Photo by John Phellan)

Martha's Vineyard

On the other hand, Martha’s Vineyard (MV) is a much larger island--there are six towns on it, compared to Nantucket’s one--and its road network is a little more extensive. It’s actually smaller than its sister island by pure square miles, but it feels bigger, with long roads winding their way to fishermen’s villages and along distant cliffs, a robust and impressive bus service with incredibly helpful drivers who act like tour guides.

In the tourist town of Oak Bluffs, where I spent most of the MV leg of my trip, cars seemed to know how to handle pedestrians. While on Nantucket, many design signals that should suggest that this was a street built for people seemed to fail, the Vineyard drivers seemed to take stock, slow down, and chill out. Partly, of course, those signals were simply louder on the more populous island: Oak Bluffs has a whole village of technicolor gingerbread houses (formerly a Christian study camp) smack in the middle of downtown, segments of which aren’t even paved and much of the rest of which is swarmed constantly by vacationing children playing ball in the shared courtyard.

But get out of the tourist trap cities and out on the road, and you’ll experience something very different. The bike paths stop. The roads widen a touch, and the speed limits climb just a bit too high for the blind curves; 30 mph here, 35 mph there. I lost count of the number of times drivers tailgated me, honking for me to get back on a bike route that had abruptly ended 3 miles ago. There were no street lights after dark, and the bike rental shop hadn’t given me a front or a rear light for my cruiser; clearly, after dark and beyond designated borders, this became an island for cars.

A Lack of Feedback

I found myself thinking a lot about feedback as I lay on the beach, listening to waves coming in and out. Nantucket could embrace the fact that they had an enormous and carefully protected asset--a downtown built before the introduction of the car--and actually limit the number of available vehicle spots on those ferries, or at least raise the price so drivers started limiting themselves. Without doing so, the only feedback available to drivers on the mainland who were considering whether or not to shell out $500 round trip to bring the Jeep was, quite literally, an ocean away.

Nantucket vacationers probably don't realize what an utter hellscape driving and parking in downtown Nantucket  is until they’ve arrived and found themselves in the thick of it. By then, they’d probably insist on driving; they’d paid $500 to get the car there, after all. They better use it. Meanwhile, repeat vacationers might learn that the island isn't car-friendly on their first trip, but after that, it feels like a right of passage to fight down those brick-lined streets, and they probably can't imagine getting around the island another way. The lack of continuous feedback that we get from living in a place, rather than vacationing in it, could become its own obstacle. 

Menemsha, MV (Photo by Rachel Quednau)

Menemsha, MV (Photo by Rachel Quednau)

On the other hand, if you’re a mainlander planning a trip to Martha’s Vineyard you’d take one look at a map and realize that you pretty much needed a vehicle to get around, at least if you ever planned on leaving the town where you happened to be staying. Outside of a triangular lollipop of bike routes that connects the three most touristy outposts, cyclists find themselves riding in the dark with a bunch of tipsy drivers, cruising around hillsides without any streetlights. You could take the bus, sure, but you might end up marooned on the Gay Head Cliffs for an hour waiting for the next one. To get from my Airbnb in Oak Bluffs to the fishing village that served the best mussels I’ve ever had in my life in Menemsha, it took 45 minutes of white-knuckling driving.

A lot of American metro areas are like Martha’s Vineyard: sure, there might be a few cities here and there that seem like havens for pedestrians and cyclists, but without enough thought to how someone without a vehicle might navigate between those cities, those paradises don’t mean much.

On the other hand, even the Nantuckets of the world aren’t much better off; you can build a whole island that seems designed for people-scaled transport, but if there’s no feedback mechanism before you board the ferry to tell tens of thousands of car owners that it won’t be a great place to drive (and especially if that population is largely temporary), they’ll probably feel compelled to force their will and drive anyway. Paradise will turn into a parking lot.

And I haven’t even touched how Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard astronomically inflated real estate values and the island’s stringent zoning and building codes have impacted their transportation problems, or the way that these issues particularly disadvantage the islands’ enormous homeless and low income populations.

No city is an island

No city is an island, even if yours is literally at sea. The places we love are made by the choices we make and the feedback loops those choices create, whether we choose to listen to them or not. I came to urbanism as a bike advocate, convinced that if we just completed our streets, threw up a network of protected paths and changed all the laws to prioritize multimodal transportation that the world would be a better and safer place. But even if I somehow managed to turn my city into a Nantucket or an Oak Bluffs--all those protected routes and narrow shared streets and perfect, human-scaled design--that still doesn’t mean I’d have built a strong town.

What I’d need to do would be far simpler and far harder. I’d need to stop building a fantasy island and start listening to and watching the world around me: the honk of a car who can’t believe a cruiser bike is in the middle of the street, the desire lines that cut a quicker path to the beach, the silent signal that the price of the ferry is too damn low when it sells out in mere days, the unnatural spike in real estate values on a graph. When I trained myself to hear that feedback, maybe then I could start building a place where people could really thrive--and not just for the summer.

(Top photo source: Wikimedia)

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