As the tumult of summer slips back in our collective rearview mirror, the cooler, calmer air of early fall prompts some consideration of whether our Island quality of life — sometimes cynically marketed, but always sincerely valued — is under threat. Let’s leave the really heavy stuff — the almost impossibly complex challenges like climate change, housing shortages, and diversifying an economy overly reliant on the building, buying, and beautification of second homes — for another time, and just consider one issue that we can all agree is a problem: summer traffic.

Last week, in a commentary for the Gazette, Abigail McGrath lamented the sharp increase in drivers honking their horns, in particular those frustrated with her leisurely manner of driving. As far as I know, no one is collecting hard data on this (Would this be a raw number or ratio? Honks per mile, or beeps per minute?), but I’m willing to bet she’s right about the trend. The trouble is, someone else could have easily written an equally impassioned column criticizing some of the behavior Ms. McGrath exalts, in particular the bit about two drivers stopping in the road to have a conversation, while those delayed cheerily catch up on their reading. What is inconvenient, rude, or even dangerous is a matter of perspective.

What is clearer is that without serious planning and active measures to reduce traffic, congestion on our roads will increase, and these conflicts will become ever more intense. It’s not just that there are more summer tourists driving too fast; there are also more of them who sometimes drive too slow (or without a clear sense of purpose), more delivery vans making frequent stops, more landscapers with long trailers careening around turns, more parents taking kids to camp, and more year-rounders desperate to get to work on time. All these drivers have different goals, backgrounds, and expectations while they’re behind the wheel, creating the colorful mosaic of driving styles that makes our summer traffic so much more — interesting — than could be predicted from just the raw number of cars.

So what sort of active planning would the Vineyard Conservation Society advocate? Unfortunately, a long-term, deeper solution to our traffic nightmare can only be realized in the context of successfully addressing the broader issues I so casually dismissed at the top. A highly-seasonal tourist economy that specializes in rental homes located on single lots in a rural/suburban setting will always have a traffic problem in peak season. (I’m heading to New Hampshire next weekend, and I expect to see some fabulous traffic.)

But dispensing with the fatalism, our traffic situation could benefit from some triage measures. For example, increased funding to expand the routes and schedules of the VTA could help. Are there any parallels to the successful Menemsha sunset shuttle, which has done so much to alleviate a notorious traffic quagmire? Could the general idea that different times justify radically different levels of service be applied more broadly, i.e. extra beach and ferry shuttles on summer weekends? Expanding our network of bike lanes would be wonderful, especially up-Island, both for commuters and to increase the possibilities for visitors to reach their Island home without a car at all. Simply putting more bikes on the road, especially giant tour groups with a van in front and behind, doesn’t help anything, but bike trips that actually replace car trips are a crucial part of the solution.

However, in addition to these helpful but expensive measures, there is a partial solution to our summer traffic problem just sitting there, right under our noses. Last month, the Steamship Authority took out a full-page ad on the back of the Gazette asking for public feedback on their new operating schedule. One line, itself probably not intended to be commented upon, really caught our attention at VCS:

“During peak travel times unscheduled trips may be added to meet traffic demands.”

We all know what this means: bringing more cars over on Friday and Saturday, and taking them back on Sunday and Monday. Now, with no offense intended to the good folks at Pie in the Sky, Quicks Hole Tavern, or (when things truly go badly) the Sands of Time, no one denies that spending some extra time in Woods Hole is an inconvenience, unexpected expense, and/or disappointment. But adding extra ferry runs at times of peak demand is obviously going to increase traffic on the Island at exactly the time of maximum traffic. Is it worth it? The answer might depend on whether it’s Friday and you’re standing by the car wondering if you’ll make it to the Vineyard that night, or Saturday morning, and you’re sitting in a three-mile backup wondering if you’ll make it to the farmers’ market before it ends. But it’s a question worth asking.

It should be stressed that increased automobile trips on the ferry is not the sole, or probably even the primary cause of our worsening summer traffic. We are not blaming the SSA for the problem; in fact, we are the problem, with our increasing population, larger cars and SUVs, and greater affluence allowing more cars per household. But the SSA does have the ability to help us do something about it: reducing, or at least holding steady, total auto capacity should be a serious consideration. Simply choosing not to add extra unscheduled trips to meet peak demand would be a good start.

Truly solving our summer traffic problem is a grand challenge that will require intense planning, compromise, and sacrifice — and even then it may be impossible. But to just make things a little bit better next summer, we don’t have to build new roads or buy more buses; rather than asking the towns to do more, it might be more reasonable to ask the Steamship Authority to do less.

Jeremy Houser is a biologist and staff member of the Vineyard Conservation Society.