Soundings : Try something else
One of my short-list nominees for Best Island Government Program Ever celebrates an anniversary in the weeks ahead. Ten years ago, on Memorial Day weekend in 1998, the Vineyard Transit Authority launched its first inter-town bus service on what is still called Route #1, from the Steamship Authority docks in Vineyard Haven to the Edgartown Visitor Center and back.
Angela Grant, administrator of the transit authority, remembers thinking, as she rode the 26-foot Bluebird out of Edgartown on the first morning of that holiday weekend, "Oh, please, let people get on this bus somewhere!" She remembers her relief when a rider at the edge of town flagged the bus down and hopped aboard for the trip to Tisbury.
It was a modest beginning, but Ms. Grant and her board understood that if the VTA was going to change the habits of Islanders, they'd need both persistence and patience. So for the early years of this new service, the VTA threw a fleet of shiny new buses out on the Island roads and drove them around, winning people over one rider at a time.
"Clearly," says Ms. Grant, "the old adage of 'build it and they will come' is true. You have to be willing to take some criticism from time to time - and it did take some gumption at the beginning, but in the end people have responded positively."
The Vineyard's first serious effort at public transit was primarily a seasonal service at first, its focus on hauling the crowds of summer. But the service grew steadily until, in 2005, the VTA proposed to the Island towns that it was time to try running all its inter-town routes year-round. It was another leap of faith. And again, the VTA met with solid public support.
In the winter and spring of 2004-05, the last year before full service in the off season, VTA buses carried 65,672 passengers from November through April. From November 2007 through the April just past, VTA passengers numbered 139,613.
This year, thanks largely to this doubling in ridership during the off season, the Vineyard Transit Authority is on track to carry more than a million passengers. These are buses, not Ferraris, but accelerating from zero to a million in 10 years sounds pretty impressive to me.
And yet, habits are so hard to change. When Charlton Heston stood at the podium of the National Rifle Association and shouted, "From my cold, dead hands!" he was holding up a musket. He could as well have been gripping a steering wheel.
Here's our situation: Gasoline has sailed past $4 per gallon at the Island pumps. Our landscape is laced with bicycle paths and big white VTA buses trundle past every few minutes; meanwhile, our doctors tell us we should exercise more and environmental leaders proclaim the urgency of energy conservation. Overtime parking fines are rising this summer in every Island town, while the VTA still sells a one-year, ride-anywhere pass for $100 - the price of four parking tickets in Edgartown.
Never mind that exercise promotes better sleep, improves sexual function and helps prevent depression, stroke, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis and several kinds of cancer - we're too busy, and besides, there are pills for all those issues, and other pills for the side-effects of the pills. We can't imagine walking from Tisbury to Oak Bluffs without first calling all our friends and gathering pledges. Bicycling to work strikes us as somehow undignified, yet we have no problem with people driving a two-ton vehicle 10 miles to the health center, prowling the parking lot for a spot near the entrance, and paying $600 per year to suit up and pedal for half an hour on a machine that's bolted to the floor.
The Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation reports that the average household in our state now spends more on transport than on food. Meanwhile, 74 percent of all commuters in Massachusetts drive to work alone. My sense, from counting heads on the walk into work in Edgartown, is that fewer than one car in four on the Island roads at the start of the working day has any passengers inside.
Angela Grant says that when she meets with community and business groups on the Island, folks are quick to suggest ways the VTA can make its service greener. How about bio-diesel and hydrogen, they ask?
How about if we look in the mirror instead, and consider our own entrenched habits? The bike paths run almost everywhere, and we have six or seven months of fine weather ahead. The buses are frequent and their drivers friendly, and they'll stop wherever you wave them down.
"I'm not the preaching type," says Ms. Grant, "but we all have to be willing to make some adjustments to how we do things, and not expect that somebody else is going to solve our problems.
"What we really need to do is make a commitment, even if it's one day out of ten, to make that trip using some form of alternative transportation, whether it's carpooling, biking, walking, public transit - something else."