If you see one bark beetle and you are an entomolo gist, you know immediately you’ve got big problems. Those beetles can eat an entire forest.
I’ve long thought that we are making a mess of Island roads — a widening here, a widening there and the Island rural character slowly dribbles away. I’ve looked diligently to see whether these changes were just products of inattention or a real contagion bent on making Martha’s Vineyard look more like everywhere else.
I’d looked for the roadway equivalent of a bark beetle for some time, when I finally found it several years ago. It’s at Five Corners. Next time you go through the intersection notice the two directional signs sitting on the post office side of the road. They are particularly apparent if you’re getting off the ferry. They show the way to Edgartown and Aquinnah in Helvetica white letters on a green background. You’ve seen this format before. It’s exactly the same as the signs leading into the Lincoln Tunnel in New York city or strung along Interstate 405 in Los Angeles. They run across America, and they are sure evidence of an infestation here. We are under siege.
New York avenue now has 12-foot wide travel lanes. That’s the same width as the lanes on Interstate 495 around Boston. Last summer my wife and I were having lunch in Oak Bluffs eavesdropping on two high-school students waiting tables who were chatting behind us. They were both lamenting a downtown that had become “ugly” with all the new striping on the streets and the “bulbed-out” sidewalks. One youngster thought these changes looked as if you were at the entrance to a freeway.
It hasn’t stopped. The new bridges on State Road in Oak Bluffs look like something General Patton might have put down to take tanks over the Rhine River. The most salient features are concrete barriers topped by steel railings, but there are also big swathes of asphalt for pulled-off buses. Why buses would be stopping here rather than somewhere else is a mystery. Maybe jumping off the bridge was an attraction, but you can’t do that anymore. Then again who would want to now? The new bridge actually brought back some nostalgia for Norman Rockwell. The whole affair is girded with granite curbs. I’m a fan of granite curbs, but they belong downtown, not at the beach.
Now we’re debating the big enchilada — a roundabout at the blinker — not really the blinker anymore, but the four-way stop near the high school. A roundabout promises to ease traffic through the intersection. They’ve sprung up in a number of communities and they’re being pushed by a number of highway departments. But the hanging question, the question unanswered here, is will it get you to Edgartown from Vineyard Haven any faster on a summer morning. The answer is no.
Imagine for a moment you’ve glided through the roundabout. But facing you is another traffic jam just down the road at the Triangle in Edgartown. The inexorable facts are that the faster you get to the Triangle the longer you must wait there. On a recent July morning I counted 19 more cars at the Triangle than at the four-way stop in Oak Bluffs. Going the other way you encounter the State Road and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven intersection, which is a real bear. Of course we could solve these problems with two more roundabouts. This is how traffic planning works. While we’re at it, a roundabout at Five Corners would make good sense. It never ends.
It’s worth noting that this proposed roundabout isn’t particularly friendly to bicyclists. The Federal Highway Administration suggests that localities give instruction to bicyclists on how to use a roundabout. This roundabout also features bus turnoffs, sidewalks to nowhere, granite curbs and lots of native planting. If it is built somebody is going to have to maintain it.
To be fair, you would save some time from Vineyard Haven when dropping kids off at the high school. On the other hand I would miss that moment when you reach the intersection, look at the motorist across from you and say wordlessly, “No, please, after you.” It’s much like meeting people at the post office.
These observations beg the real question, however, which is this: How do we see the Vineyard and how do we want others to see it. The Island is home for and provides employment to a large swath of its population. Hotels, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, bars, farm stands, nurseries, retail stores and house cleaners all depend on customers who come to the Vineyard because it is different. They don’t want Greenwich, Conn., or Montclair, N.J. There’s a roundabout on Nantucket. It’s quite old and far smaller than what’s being proposed here. I remember my reaction the first time I saw it — oof, that’s ugly, I thought: how out of place.
I suggest that instead of the New Urbanism, which is what traffic planners call these improvements, we return to the Old Ruralism. It starts with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Instead of commenting on state highway plans from Taunton, the MVC itself should start laying out designs for Island’s roads.
We will all join in. How do we want the Vineyard to look? Dozens of communities across the country have already taken this step. The National Park Service has actually narrowed some roads going through its parks by turning paved shoulders into wildflower beds. One park official told me they’d gotten rid of the white lines at the edge of the road in Olympic National Park because “the lines separated the motorists from nature.”
Suppose we charged the MVC with getting rid of the mess we’ve made of the Tashmoo overlook, of planting trees and getting rid of the shoulders on the Edgartown/ Vineyard Haven Road. Suppose we got rid of many of the signs. Suppose that rather than just rules and regulations, we actually made plans.
Craig Whitaker is an architect who lives in New York city and Vineyard Haven.