At Large: Cars and us

At Large: Cars and us

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Updated at 11:45 am, November 7

Through the end of September, including the five busiest months of the Vineyard year, the Steamship Authority carried fewer automobiles to and from this Island and Nantucket, by a bit less than one percent, or 1,334 cars, compared with the same period a year a go. Auto traffic on Nantucket routes was more dramatically off the 2012 pace, down 2.4 percent, or 1.227 vehicles. Nantucket vehicle fares are extremely dear and may be discouraging even the one percenters from taking their Teslas to the distant sandbar. Any way you slice it, these are soft numbers, and the boatline’s traffic has been soft for a decade. If the SSA were a public company, investors would be driving the stock price down.

Just for the record, passenger traffic on Vineyard routes fell .4 percent, or 6,816 people, for the period, while truck (freight) leapt 4.8 percent. Nantucket freight traffic increased at about the same rate, and its passenger traffic jumped 3.5 percent.

Oh, not to worry: despite this modest sales performance, the Steamship Authority’s topline is holding up very well. Passenger revenue is up 3.1 percent, or about $700,000, auto revenue is up 1.2 percent, or nearly $300,000, and freight revenue is up 11.6 percent, or about $800,000. That’s because the Steamship Authority has pricing power — rates will rise again in 2014 — and near monopoly support from state law.

What is interesting about Steamship Authority traffic statistics is that they seem to contradict our impression of how overwhelming the on-Island traffic problem is and how it is worsening. Not to say that it isn’t knotty, at some times of the year especially, and at some intersections and main streets. Of course it is. But with about 17,000 of us here year-round, and because history tells us that the vehicle to human ratio is out of whack in favor of the vehicles, it’s safe to say that we have 20,000 or so cars. Through October this year, there were 302,558 trips between the mainland and the Vineyard, many of them by Islanders, many by folks who live elsewhere but do business here, many by seasonal property owners and summer residents, and some by daytrippers. (A round trip passage is counted as two, so that an Islander’s “vehicle traveling round trip would show up as two auto trips or two truck trips in our statistics, depending on make and model of vehicle,” as Steamship Authority general manager Wayne Lamson explains it. ) By the way, the corresponding figure for Nantucket was about 51,000. Looking at physical size alone, just 45 square miles, half the size of the Vineyard, Nantucket, with just a sixth of the proportionate vehicle load, is relatively innocent of traffic congestion, compared with the Vineyard.

And, over the years, even as we’ve tarted ourselves up in an effort to attract visitors and summer and year-round residents, we’ve complained bitterly about the traffic in the summer. Sometimes we’ve blamed the tourists, sometimes the Steamship Authority, rarely ourselves. But, we haven’t actually done anything about it. Given modest size of the the raw numbers, and forgiving we year-round residents for our contribution to the volume and the mayhem, it seems clear that we ought to be able to do something about the driving experience, which is at times dangerous and infuriating.

One approach would be my tactic back in the 1970s. My ride then was a 1949 Willys Jeep I bought from Justin Welch, the late former sergeant of the Tisbury police. A fire-engine-red beauty, she had a 1954 engine that didn’t quite fit in the engine compartment, so a hole had been opened in the hood to accommodate the breather. There was no top, so you couldn’t drive it in serious rain, the windshield would not stand up to its responsibilities, so the driver was continually pasted with flying insects. And the brakes took life at a maybe yes, maybe no pace. I dealt with congestion by withdrawal, because my Jeep hardly ever ran, despite Binky’s relentless efforts.

I don’t offer that as a solution. But, there are solutions. The new Roundabout is one. It’s a smooth apparatus and it decongests traffic, slows it down, and makes it safer. We had to subdue our no change, not us demon to make it happen, and that took a decade, but here it is.

Another is the proposed overland connector between State Road, Vineyard Haven and the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road. Tisbury voters will have a chance this month to revisit the issue. They rejected it when they considered it earlier. It’s a good example of a way to unsnarl traffic in one area — downtown Vineyard Haven and Five Corners — by offering the motorist whose destination is not downtown Vineyard Haven a chance to bypass the crowds.

Another is the redesign of the Old County Road-State Road intersection, which doesn’t choke drivers but has proven itself dangerous to less crafty drivers among us. By the way, I’m sure it is not bedrock thinking among traffic planners that intersections and traffic patterns should be designed in the style of a nexus such as Five Corners, to test the drivers that use it for their flair, ingenuity, aggression, and craftiness. I wouldn’t argue for a minute that year-round Island drivers have not, through years of Five Corners practice, honed their driving skills to a level comparable to those possessed by circus aerialists, but is it fair to ask the elderly, the youthful innocents, and even visiting drivers trained in New Jersey to attempt the passage? I don’t think so.

Then there are bike paths — not really bikes-only paths, but multi-use paths. The ones we have are terrific, the path along Sengekontacket Pond, in particular, is actually splendid. But, we could build more. Why have we stopped?

The traffic problem is of such a modest magnitude that we can get our arms around it, and because growth and change are inevitable, we should.

This column was updated to correct an error in attributing the reported traffic figures. The figures were Steamship Authority statistics for the period January through September 2013, not January through October. The update also adds an explanation by Wayne Lamson, Steamship Authority general manager, of how the Steamship Authority counts auto trips. Mr. Lamson emailed the writer after reading the column this morning. DAC