Car-Free on Martha’s Vineyard

Holly Nadler gets around on her bicycle. — Photo by Charlie Nadler

Living without a car is second nature for people in many, if not most cities. It’s a new cutting-edge option for folks in locales such as Davis, California, and Bogota, Colombia, where bike paths and pedestrian malls mark a vital feature of urban planning. But here on the Vineyard, those of us who’ve shed our automobiles have had to pursue our own unique ways of getting around.

Cheryl D. Burns, therapist and minister, lives off Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs. Back in 2005 her old beater of a car was wearing out. It needed major repairs or, the usual next step, replacement by a newer vehicle. At the same time, Cheryl was inspired by the travel modes of two friends. One of them, a teacher in his fifties, rode his bike everywhere on the Island, while his car languished in his driveway. Another friend, a dress-shop owner in her sixties, never ferried her car off-Island. She relied on the Peter Pan bus to take her to Boston and sometimes, from there, to the four corners of the earth.

Between the two of them, Cheryl realized a single role model had been achieved: No one needed a car of one’s own, either on or off the Island. She decided that when her old heap’s speedometer clocked in at 200,000 miles, she would discard it and “study cars no more.”

“After that, I never looked back,” she reports contentedly.

Cheryl walks a lot, and takes the VTA’s Number 9 bus, a short ramble down the hill from her home. She’s got the bus schedule down pat, the way master mariners navigate by the stars.

And then there’s David Whitmon, known far and wide for his banana-yellow velomobile with its rocket-shaped nose, bright red nighttime lights, and aggressive jaunts through traffic.

David, who recently turned 60, is raising two daughters in a house outside the State Forest in Oak Bluffs. Always an avid bicyclist, he nonetheless found his passion blocked by a degenerative joint disorder. When he was 34, doctors advised two knee replacements. Rather than book himself into the hospital, he acquired a recumbent bike, and found his knees began to mend. His transportation means varied. Sometimes he drove his jeep, other times a gigantic van. He and his daughters made many trips on a tandem and triplet bike, and he still loved his solo rides on recumbent wheels.

Several years ago, David discovered the exciting new concept of the person-powered velomobile, first inaugurated in the Netherlands. The velo is tricked out with 27 gears, and the aerodynamics enable David to roll along at maximum Island speeds. David is out to prove to motorists that the roads can be — and indeed must be — shared by all vehicles, not only those with noisy, carbon polluting motors.

“I’ve been run off the road countless times,” says David. “The drivers don’t stop to realize I’m traveling at the same clip they are. They see a narrow, yellow, weird vehicle, and they want to mow it down. People become total jerks behind the wheel. We know this.”

We do.

David long ago ditched his jeep and van, and now attends to all his errands with the velo. Moreover, he endures a rugged workout. In the 45 months of Quest ownership, he’s racked up 25,300 miles on the speedometer. Oh, hold on. That was last Saturday. By now he may very well have topped the 25,500 mark.

Professor and author Jessica Harris owns a summer cottage in Oak Bluffs (astutely purchased by her father many decades ago), a brownstone in Queens, and a house infused with Creole charm in New Orleans. There is no car to be found on any of these properties.

“I got a driver’s license back in college, and my parents gave me a convertible. But I never liked to drive.”

And so she doesn’t. To transport herself and her cats to the Vineyard from one of her other homes, she asks friends for rides, and repays the favor with a stay at her Oak Bluffs house. While here, she walks and cadges rides from her wide circle of friends and, in a pinch, calls for taxis. For most of her shopping, she uses the European method — buy things the day you need them. So she she shops lightly, and often, making the errand do-able without a car.

My own epiphany arrived in 2002 when I waved goodbye to my defunct yellow Dodge Dart as it sailed off from the Packer wharf in Vineyard Haven on the funeral barge for cars.

Now what? We lived half a mile outside of town in Oak Bluffs where I owned a fledgling bookstore. I decided to punt for a while without a car. I knew I could always buy an Island junker that would run for a while, the kind of vehicle you never export to the mainland for fear its motor will conk out before you’ve made it to your favorite Chinese joint in Falmouth.

The decision to scrap the car had been made in summer, a good time to sally into town without a care in the world, particularly about parking. During the fall, the whole operation still seemed feasible. Come January, however, as I cycled towards Circuit Avenue with snowflakes fringing my eyelashes, I started to feel sorry for myself.

But still I persisted. And you know what? Forfeiting a car was the best thing I’ve done in my life, other than giving birth to my son. If someone handed me the keys and the registration slip to an auto tailored to my taste — a SmartCar, perhaps, or a cute Mini-Cooper, I would graciously decline (well, perhaps I’d ask for the cash instead.)

Living car-free has given me the exercise I could never discipline myself to do in a gym. I walk and I cycle everywhere, less in the winter, of course, but still I venture forth as I remind myself of an old Yankee saying, “There’s no bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” I have the right clothes.

Like Jessica, I grab rides from friends. I have an annual bus pass and sometimes, as an extreme measure, I’ll call a cab; I keep a list of numbers handy in my wallet.

The average cost of car ownership is $6,000 annually. This figure represents a job — or even two jobs — I’m free to drop from my repertoire. Nice work if you can get it.

Each day for a car-less country dweller, life slows to the speed of a walk or a gliding set of wheels. You hear the birds, smell the honeysuckle, call out to friends, get caught in a rain shower which turns out to be more exhilarating than inconvenient. You talk to strangers on the bus and, like any millionaire or billionaire around the world, you enjoy the scenery and leave the driving to a professional.

Here’s another idea: when loved ones announce a visit, suggest they come to the Island car-free. Remind them of the money they’ll save. Better yet (and to save more money), encourage them to arrive at Woods Hole by any means other than automobile. Don’t even let them think it’s acceptable to park on the mainland. This past 4th of July week saw drivers turned away from Woods Hole and Falmouth; every rectangle of asphalt in every church, school, and Steamship parking lot was filled.

As more Islanders cast off their vehicles, it may finally become an adage that You Don’t Need A Car On Martha’s Vineyard (bumper sticker, anyone?). And as more people get the message and chose to arrive here without autos, our home could become a magical place where people swim, hike, cycle and jog, the only vehicles along the roads emitting the old-fashioned jingle of the ice cream truck.

Yes, that’s a mite idealistic. But we could, in the process of finding more joyful ways to live, reduce the traffic snarls that seriously dampen the pleasures that all of us — Islanders, visitors and vacationing presidents alike — are now actively pursuing.