“It’s all about the cars, stupid...”
James Carville might not have come up with that one but for anyone who has spent some time on Nantucket this summer, 2023 has been as much about cars and traffic as the economy was to Bill Clinton’s election campaign in 1992.
Each summer season, there seems to be a central theme that we all like to complain about. Generally, it’s a cyclical thing where most topics resurface roughly every 10 years. Weather, erosion, lack of parking, beach parties, and road closures have been popular rotating punching bags. Two years ago, it was COVID-19. Last season, it was too many people on Nantucket with estimates of well over 100,000 during early August.
Boy, did we bitch about that one.
This summer, it’s all about cars and traffic. It’s almost too easy of a target to write about. But, since I am stuck in traffic, why not start?
This time around, I think the topic is legit. Simply put, there are just too many cars and trucks on Nantucket.
So, the first thing we need to do is blame someone. And, as we all know, whatever ails us on Nantucket is a direct result of the summer people. It’s in our DNA to hold them accountable for everything from fog and flight cancellations to shark sightings on the south shore.
Why not blame them?
They bring their cars. They bring their SUVs. They bring us traffic congestion.
Or, do they?
Certainly, they do bring cars and trucks to the island. Steamship Authority advanced auto reservations to the island for the summer sell out faster than a Brian Glowacki comedy show. As we creep closer to Labor Day, that much coveted Saturday, September 2nd, mid-morning ferry ticket to Hyannis is worth its weight in gold.
The only silver lining to the additional cars and trucks on-island this summer has been the humor associated with watching off-island drivers trying to negotiate our rotaries or the Civil War monument on upper Main Street. Clearly, these drivers have not spent any time with Dennis Caron and the Nantucket driver’s ed program because what typically unfolds is a comedy of errors.
It’s not just Main Street but everywhere. All my shortcuts are long gone. When you run into a traffic jam on Winn Street or Saratoga Lane cutting over to Hummock Pond Road, you know you have a problem.
Cynically, I have to admit that I do get a kick out of watching road rage develop. As long as I am not negatively affected, I love to sit back and watch it unfold. It’s a slow-boiling encounter typically pitting a CT, NY, or NJ plate vs. a NI plate. It’s a lot of arm-waving - the usual international, one-finger hand salute of friendship - and screaming from within the comfort and safety of one’s NY SUV that quickly ends when the local pick-up truck, driver’s side front door starts to swing open.
Obviously, more summer houses lead to more cars. And when summer residents enjoy having a small fleet available to them so they have “choices,” clearly, they are adding to the problem.
However, is it fair to blame everything on them?
As Lee Corso once said, “Not so fast…”
Several other factors are adding to the island’s proliferation of cars and trucks. For example, there are more rental cars available on-island than ever before. We are well aware of the spring and fall relocation of rental cars to and from the island to handle the surge much like the migrating swallows of San Juan Capistrano. Even with Jeeps renting out for $499 per day, demand far outweighs the supply.
Additionally, rental sites such as Turo have taken hold on Nantucket. In fact, it has become a cottage industry for many on Nantucket to rent out an extra car from their private fleet garaged on Nantucket. Handsomely compensated, the income far outweighs the wear and tear, and the Stop & Shop parking lot routinely acts as a pick-up/drop-off lot for those coming off the Hy-Line to “grab and go.”
More freight - more deliveries - more services - more cars and trucks. The list goes on and on. Ask Matt Fee, he’s got a few answers. The guys on the bench in front of Lemon Press know why. Every cocktail party and charity event eventually turn their conversations to traffic and congestion on the island.
But when you factor in one important trend on Nantucket this summer, maybe we should be looking in a different direction.
Unlike the summer of ’22, the summer population is down on Nantucket this season. It’s easy to see especially with summer rentals way down. Right now, you can go on Open Table and secure a last-minute dinner reservation at several downtown restaurants. Many merchants such as John Sylvia are saying, “Sales are up - people are down”.
It’s no secret. There are fewer people and it is noticeable. Frankly, I like it. But if the summer population is down but cars and traffic are up, what gives?
The answer is clear. There are more people living year-round on Nantucket, and with that, more cars and trucks inevitably follow.
The true number of year-round residents is guarded like a state secret. Whenever asked, we traditionally give an underestimated number of people living on the island as if we are all part of a secret society. Local census efforts are useless. Monitoring septic flow might work for COVID-19 but it just doesn’t smell right for an accurate, year-round head count.
But we all know it…There are more people living here year-round but we don’t want to acknowledge it. I’m guilty. When asked, I never come clean. It’s like asking someone their weight. When you hear their answer, you know they are lying but you would never call them out even though you know it’s significantly higher.
I hate to admit it. The increase in traffic around the island is as much our fault as it is the family from Greenwich, CT who owns a house on-island with three cars available to them when they arrive for the summer.
Now, we all know our “summer guests” don’t drive very well on the beach, routinely getting stuck and confused with the inside vs. the outside routes to Great Point. Plus, they panic on Gardner Street when they come face to face with a Ford F-250 from Don Allen. But if we are to address the traffic problem, we must look ourselves in the mirror too.
In a couple of weeks, the exodus will begin. Cars and trucks will be heading off-island and back to “their home.” We will start to get “our home” back because let’s face it, we don’t like to share. It will be time to take a deep breath knowing Nantucket’s treasured months of September and October are upon us.
Will the traffic be better?
Will there still be lots of cars and trucks on Nantucket?
Thankfully, we can give the topic a rest for about eight months. But that doesn’t mean it will go away.
Have no fear. At some point, it will raise its ugly head again next summer.
But in 2024, we will turn our attention to other familiar topics that will follow Nantucket’s cyclical tradition of looping back around roughly every 10 years. My guess is that we will be whining about the dangerous conditions on Nantucket’s bike paths or our inability to get a doctor’s appointment in a timely fashion.
But at least we’ll be able to bitch and moan about it from the comfort of our air-conditioned car while stuck in traffic on Old South Road.