How I got through one of the busiest summers on record without ever getting stuck or wasting time in traffic.
[Originally published on the SAND.agency blog in September of 2019.]
Most people who live on Nantucket like to complain. If there was a “Complaining Olympics,” Nantucket would take bronze, silver, and gold every four years. And the number one thing people on Nantucket complain about is traffic.
But let’s be clear here. Traffic on Nantucket is different than traffic in America (as we like to refer to the rest of the United States). Here, if there are six cars stopped in a row at a stop sign, people complain. I lived in Boston before the advent of Waze or Google Maps and before the Big Dig was dug and the Lenny Zakim Bridge was suspended above the Charles so I know what soul-sucking, mind-numbing, nerve-inducing traffic is like. Nantucket is like the Indy 500 in comparison.
Still, we do have close to 31,000 cars on the island in Summer according to the Nantucket Data Platform. And when the sky clouds up, many people head into town to shop and stroll around instead of going to the beach. There is congestion. Finding parking spaces is difficult. Tensions do run high. People with Connecticut and New Jersey license plates drive their oversized vehicles with a mixture of entitlement and aggression.
And despite working in town most days, I was not affected by any of it. I never once got a ticket. I never had trouble finding parking. I moved in and out of Downtown Nantucket four or five days a week as a ghost moves through walls. How?
I was on a bicycle.
It’s that simple. I got on my bike in the middle of the island and I pedaled into town and then out again. I took advantage of the bike paths and bike routes that we all paid for with our tax money. I moved with ease, passing cars that had to wait. I flew through rotaries. And when I arrived, there was always a spot waiting for me. And I never had to worry about some summer cop-in-training putting a ticket on my vehicle or chalking up my tires.
How was I able to make this lifestyle change away from having a car to preferring my bike. Here’s how:
- We decided to become a one-car couple. It wasn’t easy to give up a car here on Nantucket. But when you consider all of the time both cars would sit in the driveway unused, it just made sense to consolidate. Plus it saved us a ton of cash. We still have a second car, but it’s off-island, waiting for us when we need it.
- I have a bike that fits me. And my style of riding. I am a very large man. Larger than some pro defensive ends. Most bikes feel like toys beneath my hulking frame. But My Cannondale Jumbo Adventure hybrid bike is like a speedy two-wheeled indestructible tank. It has the gears to get me moving with traffic (and in some cases faster than traffic) and it can handle the occasional dirt road or cobblestone street with ease.
- I invested in some handy panniers (saddlebags) to go on my rear-wheel rack. For me, this is a better option than a backpack or sling bag because there’s nothing heavy against my back to make me sweaty or pull on my muscles. And I can carry a laptop, a steady cam, a tablet, a notebook, extra water bottle, twelve pens, assorted papers and all of my biking gear: pump, lock, helmet in a single pannier. Plus, two panniers allow me to carry up to four bags of groceries. The ones I got were from IKEA and they are not sold anymore. But they are simple canvas totes, very similar to these.
- The weather cooperated on most days. That was nice. Even on days when it was a little misty, biking wasn’t a big deal. I keep this lightweight jacket in my pannier if I need it.
- I set up meetings out-of-town when possible. Not every workday had to happen downtown. So I mixed it up. I also did a fair amount of work in the home office. Flexibility is key.
- I have two of each of the crucial bike accessories. Two helmets. Two locks. Two panniers. So if anything is dirty or wet or missing, I can grab the spare. I also have two bikes, although one is a slow fixie cruiser that I only ride occasionally. It came in handy the day the rear tire on my 24-speed blew.
- I have a bike client. So I was often reminded I had to talk the talk. And pedal the walk, so to speak.
- I get my bike serviced regularly. No excuse to take the car if you have a bike that works well and is a pleasure to ride.
- On those days I couldn’t bike, I had other options. I could always walk. Except for one day when the heavens opened up and there was so much flooding, I had to turn back. And as a last resort, the keys for the car are in the cupholder.
- When we do drive, we park just outside the downtown area and walk into town. People don’t realize that there are plenty of spaces four minutes away from the Atheneum by foot. (I’m not going to tell you where my secret parking spot is. You can find your own.)
- I overcame my internal preconceptions about biking. I recently heard a comedian joke about seeing a guy in his community who was over 50 on a bike and wondering if he was getting in shape or had a DUI. In a place like Nantucket where the millionaires mow the lawns of the billionaires, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that a man of a certain age on a bike and not in a $60,000 Range Rover is either poor or has had his license revoked. Either way, there is shame associated with traveling simply. I got over that. And I suspect this will be the hardest thing for most people on-island who contemplate such a lifestyle change.
Since this is Nantucket, I’m sure that there are more than a few cynical people who want to complain that biking is too hard for them. Maybe even impossible for them. Let me try to anticipate your objections if you’re one of those folks.
“I can’t bike into town. I have kids.”
Kids can ride bikes, you know. Last time I checked. And if they are too small, there are kid carriers and trailers that work great. Need to pick up groceries? There are a number of great solutions for moving a whole lot of stuff at once. I’ve been jonesing for one of these for years.
“I’m not physically fit enough to bike four or five times a week.”
Okay, I get that. I have been not physically fit at various points in my life. But maybe, for some, biking four or five times a week is exactly what they need to get on the road to physical fitness. And if you need a little help, there’s always an e-bike.
“I’m too old to ride a bike.”
How about one of these? More your speed? It’s electric and will not fall over. Doesn’t even need a kickstand.
“I need to carry lumber and tools. There’s no way I can bike.”
I’ve seen those job sites with five pickups and six workers. You would think that one or two of those guys could bike when the other folks take their trucks (yeah, I know, the dog rides shotgun in all of those vehicles)? Also, there are cargo bikes. (I was looking at one of these the other day and when I get a dog or start that pie delivery business I’ve been considering, I’m getting one.) These things are rated for 200 pounds of stuff. Unless you’re hauling concrete, it can do most jobs that are too small to bother the delivery guys at Marine lumber over.
“I don’t want to mess up my clothes before work.”
We all know that the average islander’s idea of business casual is “a clean t-shirt” So it’s really hard to mess up Nantucket work attire on a bike ride, but if you need to wear a three-piece suit or fancy dress at work, maybe riding and then changing clothes is an option? If not, consider that millions of people bike to desk jobs every day around the world. There are lots of ways to ride, be safe and still look good when you arrive.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit, biking is not for everyone. But if just a fraction of the people on Nantucket took their bike more often instead of their car (say one out of 12), the so-called traffic problem on the island would be as good as solved. If the estimated 750 downtown workers each picked one day a week to bike there would be a minimum of three dozen additional free parking spaces per day. It’s getting better. I see a lot of two-wheeling, smiling islanders out there. But we need more. We can solve this problem together. And set a good example for the people from Connecticut and New Jersey.