The internet loves Martha’s Vineyard’s 44 miles of bike paths!
“Martha’s Vineyard is truly a cyclist’s paradise.”
“What’s unique about biking on Martha’s Vineyard is that you’ll find not only the smooth, well-maintained paths indigenous to the Cape, but also long stretches of road with virtually no traffic that, while rough in spots, traverses breathtaking country landscapes with sweeping ocean views.”
“Bike riding on Martha’s Vineyard is simply spectacular. Whether it be along the shoreline or through the forest, biking on the Vineyard is fun, easy, and very bike-rider friendly.
“Not all roads are bike-friendly, especially during peak traffic season. However, where biking is good on the Island, it’s nothing short of phenomenal.”
“From family-friendly bike paths down-Island to challenging, hilly rides up-Island, biking is a great way to experience the natural beauty of Martha’s Vineyard.”
But the internet is wrong! Perhaps those gushing platitudes were accurate 15 years ago, but today hundreds of gaping slashes like this one on the Barnes Road bike path are what cyclists experience:
In addition, cyclists are sure to encounter tree roots, sinkholes, overhanging brush, and puddles that persist days after the rain has ended. Think of it this way: The Vineyard’s breathtaking, bucolic country landscapes and ocean views are still present, but the joy of the ride has been taken away because cyclists have to be on guard for hazards.
Over the years, the towns of Edgartown, West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven have allowed the paths to deteriorate. Why this has happened is unclear, but what should be an embarrassment of riches for cyclists is merely an embarrassment — and in some sections is downright dangerous.
Most of the 44 miles are in Edgartown, but three other towns — Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, and Vineyard Haven — also have a few miles of bike paths, which are properly called “multi-use pathways.” There are no bike paths or multi-use pathways up-Island.
Parts of nearly every bike path are in pretty bad shape, with deep and wide cracks, protruding tree roots, and sinkholes that can throw bicycles out of kilter. Because of the condition of the paths, many cyclists are riding on the roads instead. It may be just a matter of time before we have a serious accident.
As I see it, Martha’s Vineyard attracts three kinds of cyclists:
- Recreational bikers, often with children, and more often than not without helmets. These folks travel slowly, at speeds ranging from 4 to 9 miles an hour. Slow and steady, they are ALWAYS on the bike paths.
- Semiserious bikers, who pedal at 10 to 15 mph. These riders (and I count myself among them) tend to stay on the bike paths … and will continue to do so, if the paths are maintained.
- Serious cyclists, who travel at speeds of up to 25 mph. These cyclists never use the bike paths. This is the smallest group, perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the island’s bikers.
What is at stake here is where the middle group rides. If the bike paths are not repaired, these people will end up biking on the roads, and that will double or triple the number of bikes on the road. If the paths are maintained, they (we) will ride on them. In other words, it’s in the self-interest of nonbikers to see that the multi-use paths are maintained.
Signs of a problem
One pressing problem, the lack of signage, should be fixed immediately.
Many, perhaps most, summer cyclists are biking here for the first time, and need to be told where and when to cross roads. Oak Bluffs understands this.
There’s simply no way to miss this message: “Cross here!” Both Edgartown and Vineyard Haven need to copy their neighbor, Oak Bluffs.
Bikers leaving Edgartown ride with traffic on Upper Main Street, but when they come to Cannonball Park, nothing tells cyclists to cross over to the bike path.
This yellow sign directs pedestrians to cross to Cannonball Park, but offers no guidance to bikers.
And so, every day dozens of bikers — often families with small children — proceed along Upper Main Street, unaware of the (safe) bike path that’s opposite them. And it’s not their fault, because the parents are paying close attention to their children and the traffic. Expecting them to see the path and switch over is worse than folly. It’s a recipe for tragedy.
Another sign is needed at the Post Office Triangle to inform bikers bound for Oak Bluffs or State Beach where they should cross. Again, many new riders assume they should cross at the point of the triangle, because nothing tells them about the crosswalk 50 yards ahead.
The path from Edgartown to Vineyard Haven — used by commuters, touring visitors, and serious cyclists — ends abruptly in Vineyard Haven, becoming a standard sidewalk.
Nothing tells cyclists to cross over, and there’s no marked crossing lane. At least one sign, perhaps two, should be put up before someone is seriously injured.
The best and worst
Now to the bike paths themselves: The best one on the Island is the State Forest Loop, which begins in Edgartown at the airport’s north end on Barnes Road, proceeds west along the airport security fence, turns into the woods, and ends three miles later at Old County Road in West Tisbury. This inviting path, which is wide enough for three bikes to ride abreast, is smooth, partially shaded, and free of cracks and protruding tree roots.
This well-maintained multi-use path is the responsibility of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, but perhaps we should hold our applause, because apparently the same agency also is responsible for maintaining the Barnes Road path by the airport, and the path along the south side of the airport, which are two of the worst-maintained paths on the Island.
At Old County Road, the forest path connects with a narrower path that runs north-south for one mile. Then at the West Tisbury School, riders encounter what some call “the Solar System Path,” which has our sun and all seven planets painted on it (by students years ago), properly spaced. The path is wide and inviting, and it’s challenging to try to identify our planets. (You probably remember that Earth is “third rock from the sun,” but can you name the others?)
After nearly 1.5 miles (well beyond Neptune!), the path becomes challenging: hilly, choppy, full of twists and turns, and — sadly — badly cracked.
This stretch also contains an impressive statue of a heath hen, extinct since 1932. Learning the sad history of its extinction is worth the trip — or would be if riding there weren’t such an unpleasant experience.
Before long, riders find themselves on one of our Island’s worst bike paths, the long stretch that borders the airport. Numerous hazards make the path all but unrideable, which is why many cyclists ride on the heavily traveled Edgartown–West Tisbury Road, despite its 45 mph speed limit and numerous trucks.
Another contender for the Island’s worst bike path runs along Barnes Road. I have lost count of the ride-jarring cracks, some five and six inches wide and two inches deep, but riding on it is so unpleasant that many riders brave the traffic on the adjacent road.
Two of the most popular bike paths are the two legs of the triangle going to South Beach, along Herring Creek Road to the west and Katama Road to the east. They are the yin and yang of our paths. Although the Herring Creek path floods easily in a few places, it is wide and almost free of cracks. By contrast, the Katama Road path is a rough ride, with 20 to 30 gaping cracks that measure two inches or more.
The path to State Beach, which also connects Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, is probably the most widely used path of all, and it is in embarrassingly bad shape. For openers, it is far too narrow — more of a glorified sidewalk — which makes it a harrowing ride when cyclists pass each other. Other problems include protruding tree roots:
Collapsed sections of path that have been hastily and inadequately repaired:
And low-lying sections that flood easily and often — and drain very slowly.
Cyclists weighed in on the popular Facebook page Islanders Talk, and the Edgartown-O.B. path attracted scorn. “The Edgartown section, from around Trader Fred’s to approximately Cow Bay, has been in disrepair for more than 10 years. A fast-moving road bike will flip over because of several huge cracks in the payment,” one biker wrote.
Gaping cracks and protruding tree roots aren’t the only issues. While most people probably associate water hazards with golf, several bike paths have sections that flood easily and often, most notably the path to State Beach, but also Herring Creek and the path that connects the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road to Oak Bluffs.
‘Amateur’ repair efforts
The deterioration of our bike paths has not gone unnoticed or unmarked. Years ago some thoughtful souls spray-painted circles around the sinkholes in order to warn cyclists of impending danger.
Today, however, there are vastly more sinkholes. These are unmarked, and visible only after a rainfall fills them up. Unmarked sinkholes are a recipe, if not for disaster, then for serious damage to fine-tuned bikes.
Other repairs have been attempted, such as pouring hot tar into cracks. It almost never has worked, as in this gaping three-inch crack.
On one path, some enterprising person attempted to cover several of the six-inch cracks with metal. Nice thought, but unfortunately the nails and the sharp edges stick up, which actually makes the situation worse.
Amateur repairs are no substitute for what needs to be done.
Why this matters
Why is it imperative that our multi-use (bike) paths be made safe and attractive? Let Dick Cohen, a 73-year-old cyclist and Oak Bluffs resident, count the ways:
- To keep our promise to visitors and residents alike, so that riders and other users can truly enjoy the paths without undue stress or risk, whether it’s for exercise, pleasure, or going to work. Keeping this promise means more visitors, and more money pumped into our local economy.
- To keep cyclists and others both safe and healthy.
- To protect our towns from possible liability lawsuits, if and when accidents occur. This is a real possibility, because the hazards are well-known and widely publicized.
- To help protect our environment, because bikers and walkers reduce our carbon footprint.
- To relieve traffic congestion during the summer season and both shoulder seasons. Less traffic makes the Island a more pleasurable place for everyone.
- To help Islanders who do not have or cannot afford a vehicle. Many Islanders commute by bike, and perhaps more would if the paths were in good condition.
- To make our Island more inclusive. Multi-use paths ought to be available for use by citizens who are too often marginalized, isolated, or segregated: seniors and war veterans with significant mobility impairments, including those who use wheelchairs. Well-maintained paths provide an excellent recreation opportunity for these citizens.
- To save money in the future. Repairing the benign neglect of the past years seems certain to cost more than annual maintenance would have. We have to spend the money now, but we can also budget wisely to save in the future.
The future is cloudy
How our bike paths got so bad is less important than the issue of repairing them. Immediately after the May 22 Edgartown town meeting unanimously approved spending $300,000 to repair sidewalks and bicycle paths, I asked the official in charge whether $300,000 would be enough to do the job right. “Absolutely; $300,000 is plenty of money,” the official responded.
And while neither Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven, nor West Tisbury requested funds for bike path repair at their town meetings, West Tisbury did approve $125,000 to add more than two miles to the Old Country Road path, which connects State Road to the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. And Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven continue to plan (and argue about) creating a decent bike path connecting the two towns.
Repairing the multi-use paths matters, of course, but bike and cars are always going to have to co-exist on this Island, which means that drivers need to accept that bikes have equal rights with cars on the road, and that cyclists need to follow the rules of the road (stop running signs, going the wrong way on streets, etc.) As Cathy Mayone, a serious cyclist, told me in an email, “We constantly need to educate both cyclists and motorists to know the rules of the road and cooperate and be tolerant of one another. Every cyclist has regular stories of cars that brush too closely to them, or drivers who yell at them to get on the bike path. At the same time, I’m sure every driver has a story of a cyclist who was riding in an unsafe manner. And every cyclist, myself included, has had a situation that we know was our fault or we could have signaled to a driver better, but we just couldn’t get clipped out of our pedals fast enough, or there was a lot going on at an intersection for us to think fast enough. We’re all human, and we all need to be tolerant and patient.”
Does anyone actually benefit from not repairing bike paths? Considering how important bike rentals and sales are to the island economy, why aren’t bike shop owners up in arms? Perhaps it’s time for cyclists to organize and demand action!
Today’s bike path situation is not without irony. Just over a year ago, in September 2020, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission announced plans to add six more miles of bike paths, along North Road through West Tisbury and Chilmark’s rolling hills and farmland. The goal, apparently, is an Island-wide network from Edgartown to Aquinnah, but why build more bike paths if we aren’t going to care for what already exists?
Well-maintained bike paths attract visitors — and their dollars — to the Island. More cyclists also mean fewer cars, fewer irritating traffic jams, and reduced air pollution. As Mayone put it, “Like many cyclists, I put more miles on my bike than my car, so, by not being in a car, we are actually helping all cars to get where they need to go faster!”
On the flip side, poorly maintained bike paths disappoint — and may eventually drive away visitors. Even worse, our poorly maintained bike paths will inevitably lead to serious — and completely avoidable — accidents.