The automobile has long been an integral part of American life; there are 40 million more registered motor vehicles in this country than licensed drivers.
Yet on Vineyard sidewalks and bike paths this week, people cruised along on bicycles with no worries about traffic and congestion. The parking lots for the Tisbury and Edgartown park and ride programs were jammed full, while bus stops for the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority were packed with people waiting to be picked up at all hours of the day.
Sales for gas are down while bike rentals are way up. By these indications, the number of cars on Island roads should be down as well.
But that is not the case.
The number of cars arriving on the Vineyard via the Steamship Authority boats as of the end of last week was actually up five per cent over the same period last year. And despite the runaway success of the Vineyard Transit Authority, the number of cars registered on the Island has increased steadily in recent years. According to statistics from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, the number of cars registered here went from 27,282 in 2006 to 28,463 in 2007. This year the number is expected to rise again.
Anyone who tried to drive on the Island this week didn’t need statistics to know there were plenty of cars on the road and traffic was as bad ever. Traffic at the blinker intersection backed up to State Road in Vineyard Haven and the County Road intersection several times this week, while congestion at the other traditional trouble spots like Five Corners in Vineyard Haven and the Triangle in Edgartown was just as bad.
“I don’t think people in this country will ever give up their cars entirely, even if gas is $10 a gallon,” said Henry Stephenson, a member of the Tisbury planning board. “Even if you provide a bus or a shuttle, a lot of people will still get in their and drive where they need to go.”
In recent years, Mr. Stephenson has been involved in various plans to reduce traffic in downtown Vineyard Haven and reduce the overall number of cars on the road. Two years ago, the planning board released a master plan for the town that among other things envisioned a series of new vehicular traffic patterns and service roads, including several new roads that were aimed at reducing traffic at Five Corners.
The plan calls for two new connector roads: one behind the properties facing Beach street connecting Lagoon Pond Road with Causeway Road, and another linking Beach street extension with Beach Road at the Boch property. It also calls for reversing the flow of traffic on Union street and altering bus routes for the Tisbury Park and Ride program.
Although much of the plan was conceptual, some of the work has already been completed. Both the Stop & Shop and post office parking lots have been redesigned to improve traffic flow.
But some of the more ambitious aspects of the plan, such as creating bypasses to State Road and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road and turning Five Corners into a four-way intersection, have never gained momentum.
Mr. Stephenson said making substantial changes to improve traffic is difficult if not impossible on the Vineyard. The Main streets and downtown areas of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown were laid out before the advent of the automobile and are oriented more toward pedestrians than vehicular traffic and parking.
Close-together buildings make it difficult to create parking lots and service roads, while narrow streets make it impossible to create two-way thoroughfares or provide enough space for cars, bicycles and pedestrians.
But Mr. Stephenson also said the quirky and markedly anti-urban layout is what makes the Vineyard so special.
“I think if people had the choice to widen the road or continue to put up with traffic, people would choose to live with the traffic,” he said. “If you start widening roads and creating [two-way] streets, you lose what makes the Vineyard what it is. At the end of the day we are never going to solve all the traffic problems, because if we did we would have some cookie-cutter city grid system, and people don’t want that.”
He said there are smaller things that can be done to improve traffic, like changing bus routes to avoid congested downtown areas and creating additional access roads.
“A lot of people will complain about traffic on the Vineyard, but those are the same people who would have a heart attack if we proposed Main street be a two-way street,” he said. “You have to walk a fine line between making changes that are needed and making changes people want.”
One example is the proposal for a roundabout at the blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs. Although a report from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission stated that the roundabout — sort of a miniature rotary — would improve traffic and safety for motorists and pedestrians, it was widely opposed by Islanders.
Mark London, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said he is optimistic people will accept the roundabout once it is completed in the coming years.
“Everywhere else people see these things as this sort of benign traffic-calming technique that is a much more harmonious traffic solution than a gaudy intersection or massive rotary,” Mr. London said.
“It got a bad reputation here, and while I don’t think [that reputation] was warranted, I completely understand why people were nervous — it is a substantial change,” he said. “But I think in the end people will accept it when they realize [it improves traffic.]”
He said the transportation work group of the Island Plan, a commission initiative, is now moving into the public phase of its planning process.
“I think the group will look more to do fine-tuning than change the layouts of roads. Under current zoning, the population could expand another 50 per cent in the coming decades, and the roads as laid out now just can’t support that,” he said, adding:
“We have a lot of outdated traffic patterns — like the Triangle in Edgartown and Beetlebung Corner in Chilmark — but they are part of the Vineyard and people have gotten used to them and they work . . . the question is will they work when there are more cars and more people.”
A draft version of the transportation work group discussion paper states that the overall goal is to “reduce dependence on private automobile and promote alternative modes of travel — bus, bicycle and walking — for both residents and visitors.”
The plan acknowledges several town initiatives to relieve traffic now under way, such as plans to construct the roundabout and the creation of a series of connector roads to relieve traffic at the intersection of State and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Roads.
Mr. London said recent changes in traffic patterns and roadways have been successful without making substantial changes to aesthetics. He said recent work on New York avenue and the installation of new crosswalks and sidewalks in downtown Oak Bluffs have radically improved traffic flow and safety.
New York avenue was reconfigured so the berms were narrowed to create more of a shoulder along the road.
“It all depends on how this work is done,” Mr. London said. “When you take New York avenue, it seems the roadway has been widened, but in realty the road is the same width. If something is done with granite curbing and lots of lighting and amenities that people don’t want, then it’s bound to upset people.”
Paul Foley, coordinator for developments of regional impact for the commission, said the traffic problems always come back to one thing: the number of cars on the road.
“You hear all about the cost of gas going up, but then you go out on the roads and there are the same number of cars,” Mr. Foley said. “I don’t think the traffic problems of the Vineyard are going away anytime soon. And we are looking at some pretty major projects in the next few years, we have the [ongoing] hospital project, the drawbridge, the YMCA — if I had to guess I would say traffic will get worse before its gets better.”
He then picked up on the theme of people’s aversion to change on the Vineyard.
“When people were talking about the roundabout, I always asked myself why they didn’t just make it a stop light two months of the year and then a four-way intersection [the rest of the year] . . . but the words stop lights are not popular on the Vineyard . . [stop light] is a like a swear word around here,” he said.