The view from the saddle


Our relationship with the automobile started with a taste and ballooned into full-blown addiction in the span of a single century.

In the early 1900s, Tisbury garage owner William G. Manter kept an informal tally on the Island’s growing fleet of automobiles. In 1911 he counted 93 vehicles, about one for every 50 people on the Island. In 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue counted more than 31,000 vehicles registered on Martha’s Vineyard – about two for each of us.

Automobile addiction is so universal today, the few people who don’t suffer from it seem to be the eccentric ones. I remember emerging from an errand at the Vineyard Veterinary Clinic one morning last winter to find Frank Jennings, proprietor of an Edgartown bicycle shop, checking out my bike. In the ensuing conversation, Frank said the reason he closes his shop every off-season is that by his count, only five people in Edgartown use their bicycles through the year.

I have the bike rack outside the Edgartown Library to myself for half the year because most of us still think of bicycles as toys for children and tourists, not serious transportation. As a regular pedaler through puddles, I can tell you that one proof of this is in the widespread absence of fenders on the Vineyard’s two-wheeled fleet. Adding fenders, a carrier, a bell, mirror, and lights can turn that toy in your garage into a viable Point A to B machine.

The Island’s glut of motor vehicles is the most vexing in July and August, but public health leaders are becoming worried that our year-round automotive habits are literally making us sick. The automobile is one part of what the Commission of the European Communities described, in a recent report, as “the obesogenic environment.” Declared the commission: “Transport and urban planning policies can ensure that walking, cycling and other forms of exercise are easy and safe, and address non-motorized modes of transportation.”

Denmark, where half of all commutes are already made by bicycle, is building a network of more than two dozen “super cykelstier,” cycling superhighways designed to lure even more Danes onto two wheels. Cities from London to Chicago are planning similar projects that will make cyclists feel less like interlopers in the transportation landscape. Among the superhighways’ friendly features: air-pump stations and streetlights timed to be green for miles at a stretch as cyclists cruise along at 12 miles per hour. (Oh, and by the way: Denmark’s obesity rate is less than half of ours.)

In Massachusetts, we have “Mass in Motion,” a state Department of Health initiative targeting obesity, which is on track to surpass smoking soon as our state’s leading cause of preventable deaths. Healthy eating and exercise are the program’s key elements, as well as planning for infrastructure that encourages people to leave their cars at home and walk or bicycle to school and work.

For Mass in Motion, improving the diet in our schools is a comparatively easy part of the equation — the low-hanging fruit and vegetables, if you will. Building infrastructure that makes pedestrians and cyclists feel like something other than second-class citizens will take more money and political determination.

The Vineyard, with its bike-friendly scale, has tantalizing possibilities as a model community for encouraging alternatives to the automobile. Transit planners say the ideal distance for commuting by bicycle is five miles or less, and for many of us the trip to work is well within that range. But our infrastructure isn’t ready: the national standard for safe shared-use bicycle paths (which is what we have on the Vineyard) calls for a width of 10 to 14 feet, while almost none of our paths are close to that.

The most challenging distance here, the most daunting Point A to B, is not on the highway but inside our heads. We have a long way to go before bicycling is accepted as viable transport, not summer play. In our current mindset, the bicycle commuter is the oddball, while we see nothing unusual about driving an SUV to the health club, changing into sweats and pedaling for an hour on a bike that’s bolted into the floor.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious or holier-than-thou because I use a bicycle for commutes and grocery runs all year. We’ll never manage the shift toward this terrific alternative to the automobile if our prime motivation is guilt. What I encourage you to discover is what I’ve found for myself: Bicycling is a healthy choice that happens also to be enjoyable.

When you bicycle to work, certainly you’ll be easing traffic congestion, reducing air pollution, lessening our reliance on petroleum fuels, and improving your fitness. You’ll also be having fun.