The two-block section of road between the West Tisbury Road and Pease's Point Way, as pertains to bicycles, pedestrians, traffic, and the safety and well-being of all of the above, especially during July and August, has concerned, vexed, and troubled me for a very long time.
I have been wanting to put my thoughts and ideas into writing at least since the summer of 2011's well-intentioned but disastrous experimental bike lanes were painted onto the street, and then again when the repaving began in the fall, but I have found it difficult to find the time to do so - not to mention, once the winter sets in, the urgency is gone and summer traffic issues are all but out-of-sight and out-of-mind; out of mine, anyway.
But a chance meeting with two young men who were measuring the sidewalks in front of my house on Tuesday afternoon - students from Northeastern, working on a transportation studies project, I was to learn - and my conversation with them, has inspired me to sit down and share a few thoughts and ideas, especially since spring will soon be here, summer will too quickly follow, and that beautiful new pavement is fairly begging for paint.
First, a brief history. This house at 117 Upper Main Street has been in my family since my Boylston grandparents purchased it in the 1930s. I grew up in this house, and have owned it since 1992 when I inherited it from my mother. I now reside, for half the year, in a small upstairs apartment from which I see and hear everything that happens down below on the streets and sidewalks - whether I want to or not. In the summer months, I spend many hours on my front porch, which overlooks and is only a few feet away from Main Street, so I also have a front row seat for the comings and goings of the whole town. Even the period when I was gone, during the thirty years when I was raising my family around the corner on Plantingfield Way, I either walked, biked, or drove on this stretch of Main Street on a daily basis. Also, for eleven years, during the 80s and 90s, I was a school crossing guard on the corner in front of the jail. Suffice it to say, I am intimately familiar with this neighborhood and with this particular stretch of road, even more so during the past three years since returning to my childhood home.
117 Upper Main Street
(What follows is the long version of the sidewalk conversation I had with the Northeastern students, accompanied by photos I have been collecting since last spring.)
There is a big pedestrian, bicycle and car problem here. These two blocks during the summer are absolute pandemonium, beginning up the street where the bike path ends. First of all, the bike path - a multi-use path, really - terminates rather abruptly, then you've got two big green crosswalks leading across the street which many cyclists mistake for a continuation of the bike lane. Then, once they get across the street, just beyond the gas station, they are met with signs that read, "No Bikes on Sidewalk. Ride with Traffic," at which point, many cyclists ride off the sidewalk, into the street, and continue riding against traffic. Many more cyclists continue their journeys on downtown on the sidewalk.
At the very same time, bicyclists on the other (south) side of the street have followed the crosswalk across the West Tisbury Road and either end up in the street, or - and what is more often the case - they ride right up the ramp and continue their ride into town on the sidewalk.
So, what we've got here are fourteen possible layers of travel, and on any given non-beach day in August, sometimes all possibilities are happening concurrently:
On the north side of Main Street:
1. Pedestrians walking east on the sidewalk.
2. Pedestrians walking west on the sidewalk.
3. Bicyclists riding east on the sidewalk.
4. Bicyclists riding west on the sidewalk.
5. Bicyclists riding east in the street.
6. Bicyclists riding west in the street.
7. Vehicles traveling west.
On the south side of Main Street:
8. Pedestrians walking east on the sidewalk.
9. Pedestrians walking west on the sidewalk.
10.Bicyclists riding east on the sidewalk.
11. Bicyclists riding west on the sidewalk.
12. Bicyclists riding east in the street.
13. Bicyclists riding west in the street.
14. Vehicles traveling east.
This is the bike (multi-use) path, approaching its terminus at the intersection of West Tisbury and State Road/Upper Main Street.
Bike lanes in the city are often green, so these crosswalks are often mistaken for bike lanes.
The lane that goes left leads to the north (wrong) side of Main Street.
Say what? This is the sign that greets you if you take the first green path across Main Street. Confusing, to say the least.
Many bicyclists continue straight ahead, across West Tisbury Road...
...where they are greeted with this message: No Bikes on Sidewalk. Ride With Traffic. Directing bicyclists into the maelstrom of Main Street, with no attempt to offer a safety zone for the cyclists or slow down the speeding cars is irresponsible, in my opinion.
If bicyclists have not already taken the previous left-hand crosswalk-cum-bike lane, they frequently turn left here on this (previously much greener) crosswalk.
After crossing Main Street at Pine, bicyclists are now on the north sidewalk in front of Depot Corner, heading into town. Prior to last fall's re-paving, this sidewalk was also green, which added to the perception that this is a bike path. How many conversations have I had with bicyclists who swore up and down that they were on a bike path - too many to count. I also have had many bicyclists thank me, sincerely, for explaining the traffic pattern because the confusion of signage and crosswalks makes it so difficult to know how to proceed. I have long given up the practice of telling bicycles to ride in the streets - especially children - because from what I have observed, it is far too dangerous for children and inexperienced riders to cycle here. I do recommend to parents, when given the opportunity, that the safest way to proceed from here is to dismount and walk their bikes on the sidewalks the rest of way into town. Too often, I have found myself apologizing to our guests for the confusing and dangerous situation.
Approaching the sidewalk in front of Atria.
This sign, I believe, is a major contribution to the chaos. Many of the people who are now riding their bikes on the ride side of the street see this sign and obediently glide right down into the street (thanks to the ramp at Atria's driveway), directly into the face of oncoming bicycle and automobile traffic heading out of town.
This is the sidewalk on the south side of Main Street (we are now facing west, looking towards the jail) and is where many bicyclists end up when they continue traveling straight towards town on the same side of the street as the so-called bike path (that has just ended). The dilemma is, the street is full of speeding cars and is not safe, especially for children and inexperienced riders - I'm sure that people take one look at the speeding traffic and decide they'd be safer on the sidewalk - but this sidewalk is perilously narrow in places; one mistake and the cyclist ends up falling into the street (which I have witnessed on more than one occasion).
The situation here has been unacceptable, on so many levels, for a long time. One, it is - at a minimum - annoying for the pedestrians who are trying to walk along the narrow sidewalks; and two, extremely unsafe for the bicyclists. On a personal level, it is also very stressful to see and be surrounded by this mish-mosh of humanity going every which way - including loose - on a daily basis. Most people in town have only a fleeting sense of this situation because they are only passing through; I, on the other hand, live it, breathe it, see it, hear it, 24/7, so I am keenly aware of the dynamics involved here: bicycles going in every direction, cars and very large trucks and buses speeding (vehicles go much too fast along here) past inexperienced and unknowing families and small children - this all has a very unsettling effect.
On yet another, even more basic level, the not-so-subtle message to our visitors as they struggle to find their way along those last two blocks into town is, "We really don't give a damn about any of you; you're on your own."
The view from my kitchen window; all quiet now.
The view from my bathroom window.
The view from my living room window, facing downtown.
The view from my living room window, directly above Main Street. In July and August, there are sometimes fourteen different layers of bicycles, pedestrians, and automobiles traveling on the sidewalks and street below: bikes going in both directions on the sidewalks and on both sides of the street; pedestrians simply trying to walk along the sidewalk, and cars - many of them speeding, making up for lost time on this straightaway after being constrained by downtown Edgartown's narrow, clogged summer streets.
View from my living room, looking west.
My city home, on Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, where I spend half the year, overlooks four lanes of traffic and the Green Line trolley and is one block from bustling Coolidge Corner, but ironically, the city traffic does not bother me. I love the city and I love the activity there; I thrive on the hum of the place. It's busy, but there's a rhythm and an order to it all. Bicyclists, automobiles, and pedestrians are, for the most part, following rules - crossing at crosswalks and stopping at red lights.
The view from my Brookline window.
Beacon Street, in-bound.
Bustling Coolidge Corner, the intersection of Harvard and Beacon, is one block to my west.
The view from my bowed window, down Beacon Street towards Boston. In the summer, I can see the lights of Fenway Park from my window.
I've been complaining about the Edgartown situation for years - initially about the bikes all over the sidewalks and the fact that there's no safe place for pedestrians to walk for those two blocks - but it is about so much more than bikes on the sidewalk at this point. It's about safety, especially for the bicyclists. My heart is literally in my throat on any given day during July and August on that street.
Last summer, to our police chief's credit - he's the first person to attempt to fix anything here in a long while - he instructed the highway department to paint a rudimentary bike lane on each side of Main Street. I had heard that this was being planned - as an experiment, since the street was scheduled to be re-paved in the fall and if it didn't work, well, it would soon be gone - and I was concerned about the fact that the lanes would be too narrow to offer bicyclists any degree of safety. Sure enough, the new bike strips were painted onto the street, complete with little pictures of bicycles. For the first day or two, I thought, well, at least there's a little more order; there aren't as many bikes on the sidewalks, and many more of them are on the right side of the street; maybe it's not so bad. Chief Bettencourt stopped by one afternoon and asked my opinion about the lanes, and to support him and his good intentions, I wrote a favorable e-mail to the Board of Selectmen. But yikes! Before the day had ended, it was obvious that the new bike lanes had in fact created a dire situation. Now there was no more ambiguity. Cyclists were absolutely being diverted into the street, into a narrow little lane. And with the bikes "safely" off to the side, the vehicles were going faster than ever. I was horrified. Especially since, the previous summer, in response to the grisly bicycle/truck accident in Vineyard Haven, I had written an e-mail to Chief Bettencourt, and one of my suggestions had been to install bike lanes (but when I wrote "bike lane," I was thinking full-sized, official bike lanes in the middle of the street such as we have in the city where the bikes have right-of-way). I did not sleep another night until those white lines were painted over (but all summer long I heard parents admonishing their children to,"stay inside the black lines.").
I have lived in Brookline for the majority of the winter for the past ten years. Brookline abuts Boston, and as I do in Edgartown, I walk and ride my bike all over the city and have been observing the way Brookline, Boston, Cambridge, and other communities have been working with bicyclists for a while now. There are many, many bicyclists in Greater Boston; more so every day (you would not believe the people I see riding past my Beacon Street apartment on bicycles, even in rain, sleet, and snow, commuting to downtown Boston), and much has changed in terms of the interface between cars and bicycles. Not only has there been more concession to bicyclists, in terms of creating bike lanes and sharrows and cracking down on motorists who block the bike lanes and don't respect bicyclists' right of way, there is, concurrently, a growing movement of bicyclists who are taking the rules of the road more seriously; stopping at red lights, for example. And, as bicyclists' rights have been more respected, so have their responsibilities, because some communities, including Brookline, have begun ticketing bicyclists for not following the rules of the road.
The biggest change I have observed in recent years, is that bicycles have become more visible all over the city. Instead of their being relegated to the sidelines, increasingly, bicycles are being integrated into the mainstream, into special, brightly painted and designated bike lanes, smack in the center of the car lanes. Concurrently, there has also been a big push to educate motorists who are learning to respect and coexist with bicyclists, paying more attention when opening car doors, and giving them the right of way in the integrated bike lanes and sharrows.
Harvard Avenue, Allston. This is a very busy city thoroughfare that runs between Commonwealth Avenue and Cambridge Street. It's not wide enough for a bike lane on the side of the street so bikes are given the entire car lane. Bikes have the right of way here and cars must adjust their speed accordingly.
Longwood Avenue, Brookline. Longwood Avenue is also a major thoroughfare and runs between Coolidge Corner and the Longwood medical area - Childrens' Hospital, Beth Israel/Deaconness,etc - on Brookline Avenue. On the east-bound side of the street the bikes are given the full lane - again, cars must follow behind the bikes; when the opposing traffic abates, most cyclists know to move over to the right so the car that has been patiently following behind may pass. In this scenario,a cyclist is not expected to squeeze over to the side to allow a car to speed past while cars are also coming from the opposite direction.
Longwood Avenue, west-bound. On this side of the street, there's room for a full, legal-sized bike lane. Longwood Avenue is a combination full-lane traveling east, and side-lane west-bound, which works well.
Commonwealth Avenue, near BU. This full-sized green bike lane is smack between the farthest car lane on the right and the middle (of three) lane. Increasingly, drivers are learning to give the cyclist in the bike lanes the right of way.
Kenmore Square. The bikes are given the full third (of four) car lane.
Washington Street, Brookline, near Brookline Village. Washington Street is another major thoroughfare that runs from Brighton, across Beacon Street, and ends in the village at Rt. 9. Here, the bikes are given the full lane heading towards the village. Again, the whole purpose is so that cars slow down behind the cyclist rather than trying to squeeze past. It's a philosophy of sharing, respect, and safety rather than "Get the hell out of my way." (which has been the dominant Vineyard philosophy for too many years).
Washington Street, heading west, away from Brookline Village. Here, as with Longwood Avenue, the bikes get the full lane traveling east and a side-path west-bound.
I'm no traffic expert, and I don't even play one on TV, but I have often thought that something similar to the above examples would be a great solution for Edgartown's Main Street. What, you say - Edgartown is not a city? Au contraire, mes amis - Edgartown, in the summer, is worse than a city. In Brookline, most of the people traveling to work and school are familiar with the area. They travel these roads every day. On the Vineyard, the population goes up from around 20,000 year-round to over 100,000 in the summer. And these are people who are here only for one week at most, and often just for the day, so they are in a constant state of unfamiliarity; 80,000 strangers wandering around, trying to find their way. Years ago, people came for the entire summer and had a chance to become familiar with their surroundings and slow down to the island pace. Those days are long gone. Now during the summer, the whole island is filled with visitors who are, well, lost - and still moving at off-island speeds. So yes, Edgartown - the whole island - becomes a small city in the summer.
I think Edgartown now has a unique opportunity to model a new paradigm for safety and sanity as pertains to bicycles, and traffic in general, on the island.
Here's what I'd love to see:
A la Longwood Avenue and Washington Street, let's turn these two blocks of Upper Main Street into giant, designated and highly visible bike lanes and reduce the speed limit for cars to 15mph.
The shared bike/auto path in Woods Hole.
This is a totally radical idea for the island, I know, because ever since I can remember, going back to the early days of the youth hostel in West Tisbury, which brought us our first big bike tours (remember screaming out your car window, "Ride single file!" at them?), there's been a huge movement to get bikes out of the way of cars (car is king). It's no secret that one of the island bike paths' main purpose is to get bikes out of the way so the vehicles can continue to speed on down the road .
The only safe way to ride a bike on Main Street, I have found, is to ride right in the middle of the car lane. I do it all the time. It annoys the motorists, but it doesn't allow them to attempt to pass me, unsafely.
So yeah, giving bikes the right of way on Upper Main Street would definitely require extensive signage as well as re-education and increased enforcement (as Boston and other cities have been doing, successfully), and it would definitely piss off a lot of motorists, but I believe it would succeed in:
1. Increasing bike safety.
2. Returning the sidewalk to the pedestrians.
3. Slowing down the traffic - the traffic on this street is horrendous! People drive like lunatics here (as Simmie used to say, "They're all in a G-D hurry, with no place to go). Come sit on my porch some morning between 8-10am. It will blow your mind (I'll even give you a cup of coffee and play you a fiddle tune).
4. Creating order and sanity.
5. Projecting a message of welcoming and caring to all of our visitors.
The one thing I would not like to see happen in this location - and I can't state it more emphatically - but I've heard rumors of its possibility - is to rip out the sidewalks and install multi-use paths - the bane of every cyclist in the world, nor do they provide safety or sanity for pedestrians. Bottom line: they get everyone out of the way so cars can continue to speed. Very. Bad. Idea. This is the old, outdated model, folks.
Anyway, that's my .02 on the matter.
See you soon - and here's hoping for a wonderful, safe, sane, summer.
The Gateway to Edgartown - what lies ahead?