By Sarah Swenson, Editor in Chief
“It’s like Nantucket in the summertime” a text from my friend reads. It is accompanied by an out-of-the-window shot of cars stacked up, bumper to bumper, sidewalks lined with polished white Jeeps and stylish, summer-y convertibles.
Even without the visual prompt, I would have understood what she meant. But, sitting on the couch at my aunt’s house, land bound and far from the idioms of the island, I realized that no one around me would.
By no means is Nantucket the only car-clogged town, and ours is not the only economy that runs on summertime tourists. But with a population that swells to four to five times its year-round size in the summer (estimates vary), every wealthy vacationer rolling off the steamship with their own car… or two… and a downtown stuck in the whaling days, our mass of one-way cobblestone streets are simply overfull. Additionally, as an island, we are uniquely situated to see the results of a world running on these gas-powered creatures. The effects of climate change are quite literally all around us, as every year the rising sea cuts away more and more of our land.
There are many factors that contribute to this phenomenon, not the least of which being the fact that we are a tourist-based economy, but the one I think is easiest and most effective to focus on is cars. Ideally—call me a radical if you may—we would live in a world without cars, or at least without gas-powered ones. An exception would be vehicles required for work, not just to get to work, like delivery vans, fire trucks, or construction vehicles. Public transport, bicycles, or simply walking can get most people where they need to go. Especially on our tiny island. According to the Town of Nantucket, it is 14 miles long, and 3.5 miles wide. Three and a half miles takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes to walk, 35 minutes or less to bike.
I understand that biking or walking is simply not feasible for some people, be it for physical reasons, or tight schedules—getting to school on time in particular would be a challenge for me—but that’s why we have public transport: school buses for kids like me and the Wave, open to anyone. Our tourists, prominently featured in this article, are often staying in or visiting places like the Wauwinet, Nantucket Hotel, or the White Elephant, which all have their own courtesy transport services. While the sustainability of these vehicles could still be improved—by utilizing electric or hybrid buses, for example—using group transport intrinsically cuts down carbon emissions, carpool style.
Still, the work required to get a car-free island would take a long time, and we need change now. I talked to islanders with a wide variety of opinions, and I came up with four steps that we, as a community, must take.
Firstly, we have to limit the number of cars non-resident households are allowed to park. This restriction is in line with a section of Article 90, which was proposed but struck down at the last town meeting, largely due to the heavy presence of real estate brokers and investors. This proposed bylaw was controversial, and I won’t comment on it in this editorial, except for section 7, which read “A Short-Term Renter shall be limited to parking one (1) vehicle per Short-Term Rental.”
I would suggest a bylaw limiting all non-resident households to parking one car per residency. Of course, they could get around this by parking cars in separate, private lots, but I believe it would cut down significantly on the number of cars brought to the island by tourists. The reality is, you don’t need four cars parked in the driveway of your summer house. Many of our visitors are only here for two weeks out of the year, and they can handle only having one car for their short vacation.
My second step would be to ban cars from the downtown area. I know, this one is definitely extreme. However, it would also have a greater impact on the island’s carbon footprint, as well as the sanity of anyone who wants to be downtown in the summer.
This restriction could be achieved in steps. Tobias Glidden, former Select Board member and owner and operator of two renewable energy based companies on-island, proposed shutting down vehicular access to downtown one street at a time when I talked to him. He explained the town could “just pick a street every year, and after 20 years, you’ve closed down 20 streets, and the downtown is much more enjoyable.” This plan would ease citizens into the future we need, avoiding the shock of an all-access ban all at once.
We have already had a sneak peek at what this might look like, with many side streets downtown blocked off to allow restaurants to have outdoor seating to deal with COVID. People have been frustrated with the way traffic backs up downtown with fewer streets open, but in my opinion, it’s a good thing. Cutting back on who can have cars so those who remain can drive more is not the goal. Ideally, everyone would drive less. As Glidden explained, “We as a community have made it too easy to drive, so people drive. We want to, in a positive, healthy way, encourage them to bike or walk… to take public transportation.” With fewer places to drive downtown, eventually, walking or biking would become the easiest thing to do, and that is when people would start doing it.
Driving would be replaced by walking and bicycling, as well as golf carts. Town-subsidized electric golf carts as an alternative form of transportation was the idea that came up the most in my conversations, unexpectedly. But, it makes sense; they run on renewable, non-polluting energy, they make little noise, and the HDC could even paint them to look like little buggies if they wanted. Best get on board, Nantucket, because electric golf carts are the future.
Even Nat Lowell, chair of the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commision, who scoffed when I suggested I wanted restrictions on cars to help combat climate change, saying “cars are as green as they’re ever gonna get, much greener than they used to be,” is a golf cart enthusiast. He suggested parking lots just out of town, where people going into town could trade their ride for an electric cart.
The trend of the summer is electric golf carts. Come on; you know you want one.
Beyond the climate related reasons, which are, admittedly, more important to me, are the aesthetic ones. I mentioned earlier that our streets are still layed out the way they were 200 years ago. I actually don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Our island is picturesque, with gray shingles and cobblestones and tiny crooked streets—they all add to our charm; a little whaling village, adrift at sea. But they are not compatible with the sheer volume of cars that buzz through the streets. They were built for horses and buggies, or to be traversed on foot. A law restricting cars’ access to downtown would appeal to members of the community who place great value on the island’s historic preservation.
The third and fourth steps we need to take are both financial, perhaps more boring, but essential to saving our planet. The third step is incentivizing car rental agencies to also rent bikes—electric or standard—and electric golf carts, or at least, electric cars along with their usual gas-powered vehicles. This could either be carried out with positive or negative reinforcement. The town could place extra taxes on any money brought in by renting a gas-powered car. I understand that Nantucket does not currently tax sales or rentals of motor vehicles, but that could be changed with a bylaw submitted to a town meeting. All money gathered from this “climate tax” would go to a fund for renewable transportation. Alternatively, the town could give money (perhaps from the climate tax fund) to organizations that provide renewable transportation, as well as public transportation.
The final step is incentivizing individuals to use non-polluting forms of transportation. This would be enforced similarly to the previous step. While the local government does not control taxes on gas—which should be increased, at least for those who can afford it—they could increase the excise tax on any vehicles powered by gas. Again, profits would go to a fund for renewable transportation. The positive enforcement for this step could look like decreases in excise tax for electric vehicles, or stipends to individuals who register their mode of transportation as anything besides a gas-powered vehicle.
These policies may seem radical, and I know my fiscal views lean towards socialism, but we need “radical” to survive climate change. The town spends 4 million dollars a year just paving roads. We need to be pouring that type of money into encouraging greener forms of transportation instead. Nantucket has thrown all of its financial weight into making it easier for cars to get around the island, but that’s not what we need. We need to make it harder to drive and easier to walk or bike.
Other suggestions from people I talked to, which I agree with, include restricting moped/motorcycle access to downtown—this could be a good first step to banning cars—, putting a toll on bringing a non-Nantucket-registered vehicle to the island, and creating town-subsidized bike rental agencies.
To summarize, we need a one-parked-car-per-residency limit for non-resident households, we need to ban cars from downtown, and we need to financially incentivize businesses and individuals to turn to renewable transportation.
We, as a town, and a planet, need to reduce our emissions to net zero by 2030, 2050 at most. We need to take action now, by giving up the corruptive actions and objects that have gotten us into this situation, and by taking up alternative, non-pollutive ones.
We have to act, and we have to act now.