One year ago, this newspaper published my photo essay on the sad condition of the Island’s neglected bike and pedestrian paths, most of which have continued to deteriorate without intervention. The piece was intended as a wake-up call, but unfortunately, our elected leaders rolled over and went back to sleep — despite Island voters having authorized spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for repair and maintenance at town meetings.
Edgartown spent a few dollars — clearly not enough — for repairs like these two, one of which did not last through the summer.
In fairness, a few particularly egregious chasms were filled in successfully, but a few patchwork repairs cannot be allowed to pass for responsible behavior. Left alone, the cracks widened and deepened. Lest readers think I exaggerate, see below. And I wear size 12½ shoes!
The photo essay called attention to the appalling lack of signage, like at this corner in Edgartown, where every summer day scores of bikers continue on Upper Main Street instead of crossing over to the safe bike path that starts at Cannonball Park.
So I put up this temporary sign. Fingers crossed that the town will now act.
Life teaches us that standing still is an impossibility: If we are not growing and moving forward, then we are falling back and decaying. I believe that the Vineyard stands at a crossroads. Embracing the future means safer bike paths and roads, healthier citizens, a cleaner environment, and enhanced revenue from bike tourism. The other choice leads to physical danger, more crowded roads, and dirtier air. But biking and bicycle paths are not just about tourists. Local bikers who commute to work save their employers money on healthcare costs because they are healthier. Moreover, the money they save by not driving their cars can be spent in local businesses. Reducing car use means fewer traffic jams, smaller parking lots, reduced costs for road repair, and cleaner air.
I am confident about this because I have seen the future, and it includes safe, well-maintained bike paths, mandatory helmet use, speed limits, and electric-assist bikes. In September my wife and I spent 10 days biking in Bavaria, Germany’s southernmost state, and Austria. We pedaled our electric-assist bicycles on well-maintained bike paths for most of the 375 miles we traveled.
One magical morning we shared the bike bath with a herd of curious four-legged friends.
(The terminology can be confusing, because the industry uses “e-bike” to describe both electric-assist bikes and electric bikes. In this essay, I use the term “e-bike” to mean electric-assist bikes only, not electric bikes.)
Electric-assist bikes — which require you to pedal — are a game-changer. Generally, so-called e-bikes have three or four gears AND several power levels. The ones we used in Germany had three gears and four power levels: Economy, Tour, Sport, and Turbo. We used Economy almost all the time, but when we came to challenging hills, we increased our power level, even going to Turbo as we approached the Austrian Alps. And don’t forget that whatever level we used, we were always getting some exercise.
Electric-assist bikes are actually hybrids, because — it bears repeating — they do not move unless you are pedaling. In other words, they are NOT the same as those electric bikes you may have seen speeding on Island multiuse paths this summer. Those devices have a throttle, and don’t need to be pedaled. Their family tree includes giant Harley Davidson hogs, Vespas, and those ubiquitous mopeds, while electric-assist bikes are descended from the one-speed, fat-tire Schwinn, like the one I used on my paper route when I was a kid.
Electric-assist bikes are here to stay. As NPD Research (bit.ly/BikeMarket21) reported, “In the most recent 12 months, compared to two years ago, sales of mountain bikes increased 70 percent, children’s bikes rose 57 percent, and e-bikes grew by a whopping 240 percent … This number is remarkable because it makes e-bikes a larger category than road bikes.” They are growing in popularity because they enable riders of any age to overcome their own limitations. Another survey (bit.ly/NITCsurvey) found that “nearly one-third of respondents (30 percent) stated that they had a physical condition that makes riding a standard bike difficult; the conditions commonly listed were knee problems, arthritis, asthma, and back pain. Nearly 65 percent of respondents stated that one of the main reasons why they bought or converted to an e-bike was to replace some car trips; 21 percent reported having a medical condition that reduced their ability to ride a standard bike; and 52 percent wanted to increase fitness.”
While high-performance road bikes, off-road dirt bikes, and other single-use bikes have limited appeal, e-bikes are what experts call nonthreatening. Data indicates that those who buy e-bikes tend to use them more: to get exercise, to run errands, to make visits, and so on.
E-bikes come in a dizzying variety of shapes, capacities, and prices, so be wary. Some manufacturers claim their bike battery can take a rider 100 miles on a single charge, but that ain’t gonna happen here on windy and hilly Martha’s Vineyard! Pedaling down-Island in the Eco mode, you should be able to travel 45 to 50 miles on a single charge. And while prices vary, e-bikes are not cheap. Expect to spend at least $1,500 for a reliable e-bike … and you could drop a lot more! Renting is easy, but not cheap.
Nearly every bike shop on the Island rents e-bikes, generally for between $60 and $100 per day.
The electric-assist bike revolution is well under way, but unless the Vineyard changes direction, the Cape and Nantucket, not this Island, will be the local economic beneficiaries. And there are economic benefits: Our group of 16 friends boosted the local economies in Bavaria and Austria for 10 days and 11 nights, staying in local hotels, eating at local restaurants, and shopping in local stores. (The tour van carried our luggage — including purchases — from town to town.)
Bike tourism is big bucks in the U.S. A 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association found that bikers’ trip-related spending totaled $83 billion, and they generated $97 billion in retail spending. The same study reported that bicycle recreation spending contributes to the creation of nearly 850,000 jobs. Those numbers increased during COVID, and must be significantly greater today.
I hope Martha’s Vineyard will consider taking the following 10 steps, and perhaps others that I have not thought of. Of course, repairing and, in some cases, widening our multiuse paths is essential, but investing in maintenance is nowhere near enough. Here’s what else I think we need to do:
- BETTER SIGNAGE: More signs giving bikers (most of whom will be tourists) necessary information about the bike paths: location, distances, etc.; and put up ‘road sharing’ reminders for drivers;
- A SPEED LIMIT ON BIKE PATHS: Dukes County and down-island towns ought to establish — and enforce — a speed limit of perhaps 15 to 17 mph on multiuse paths. While most e-bike motors have a built-in regulator that prevents them from exceeding 25 to 28 mph, that’s too fast and too dangerous for multiuse paths;
- WEAR HELMETS: The Massachusetts state law mandating helmet use for those 16 and under should be enforced, and legislators should explore extending the mandate to cover all bikers;
- BELLS AND MIRRORS: These save lives. All rental bikes should be equipped with bells and mirrors.
- TICKET WRONG-WAY BIKERS: Traffic officers must be empowered to ticket anyone riding their bike the wrong way on one-way streets. Bikes are vehicles, and cyclists must follow the rules.
- RECONFIGURE BIKE PARKING: Because e-bikes have larger tires and wider frames, the bike parking areas must be reconfigured.
- MORE PARKING STATIONS: Put more bike parking stations in convenient places, to make bikers feel welcome.
- BAN ELECTRIC-ONLY BIKES FROM BIKE PATHS: Just as mopeds are not allowed on multiuse paths, electric bikes must also be banned. Restrict the multiuse paths to pedestrians and those using devices that require human power. Because those electric scooters would therefore have to be licensed and insured and travel on roads, such a regulation is certain to be challenged. Its defense is common sense, the same logic that led to the moped ban on our bike paths.
- Build more multiuse paths around the Island. The new path between Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven is a great start; and
- Do all of the above — no exceptions!
A more prosperous and healthier future is within our grasp, but without strong pressure from their constituents, Martha’s Vineyard’s leaders seem unwilling to embrace it. If you know any elected officials who are bike-friendly, encourage them to educate their colleagues. Cards, emails, and phone calls to the rest might help, but why not invite the members of town councils, State Senator Julian Cyr, and State Representative Dylan Fernandes to join us on rides? Being positive and pleasant might work.
Edgartown resident John Merrow tries to bike every day.
State-owned bike paths need improvements
Some cyclists have been dissatisfied with the work done on certain Edgartown bike paths, but the fault may belong to the state.
“Nearly every complaint that I have received about the conditions of bike paths within the confines of Edgartown have been state-owned areas,” Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty said. “For example — Upper Main, Beach Road, [Edgartown–West Tisbury] Road, and State Forest bike paths are all owned and maintained by [Massachusetts Department of Transportation] District 5 — not the town.”
Hagerty said the town will take “emergency action” when necessary, but “it is ultimately the responsibility of the commonwealth.” An interactive map showing Massachusetts’ “road inventory” is available at bit.ly/3gZzaco, although roads under city or town jurisdictions are not shown in color.
A collective $600,000 was approved by Edgartown voters during the 2021 and 2022 spring town meetings. Bike paths were among the various infrastructure improvement projects the money was meant to fund. Edgartown is undergoing its annual audit, but Hagerty said he can “get specific numbers” from the town accountant “on how much was spent” during the week of Nov. 6.
“There should be balances remaining in those appropriations due [to] difficulty in obtaining vendors for sidewalk work,” Hagerty said.
If there is an area of town-owned bike paths, such as at South Beach or Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, that has received criticism, Hagerty will follow up with the highway department “regarding likely repair timelines” once he is notified.
Judith Reardon Riley, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, was not immediately available to comment.