A row of parked vehicles.
Vehicles parked at a Massachusetts beach this month. Credit: Sarah Shemkus / Energy News Network

As Cape Cod launches its first strategic plan to slash its greenhouse gas output, the need to rein in transportation emissions is emerging as a substantial challenge for the sprawling, car-centric region.

In April, the Cape Cod Commission regional planning authority released a draft climate action plan that finds transportation is responsible for more than 55% of greenhouse gas emissions in the region. That’s significantly higher than the statewide average of 42%. While the report recommends efforts to increase electric vehicle adoption, strengthen public transit, and shape land-use policies to reduce sprawl, the current development patterns and highly seasonal nature of the economy pose significant obstacles. 

“It’s obviously a big challenge,” said Steven Tupper, transportation program manager for the commission. “We have a unique seasonality and a unique geography.”

Cape Cod, a 15-town region covering nearly 400 square miles in southeastern Massachusetts, is an iconic tourist area notable for its beaches and as the summer destination for the Kennedy family. Roughly 213,000 people live on the Cape year-round, according to the United States Census Bureau, but that number nearly triples during the summer as vacationers and second-homeowners flock to the region. 

The heavy reliance on cars on Cape Cod has its roots in the historical development of the region. Until the late 1800s, Cape residents were largely clustered into small harborside villages that sprung up around maritime industries. The transformation into a tourist destination began around the turn of the century and accelerated from 1950 on. Neighborhoods full of detached homes with spacious yards began filling in space between formerly isolated village centers. 

Today, the result is a spread-out population that is dependent on cars to reach doctor’s appointments, shop for groceries, or visit friends.

“There’s going to be, without question, the need for automobiles in this region,” Tupper said.

Electric vehicles are essential

As in the rest of the state, getting more people on the Cape to drive electric vehicles is an essential part of the strategy for lowering transportation emissions. The regional climate plan calls for encouraging the development of new charging stations, but executing on those strategies is not entirely in the commission’s control: Utilities and property owners will need to execute the actual installations.

“We’ve been highlighting areas that could use additional charging infrastructure, but we’ll need a lot of partners to make that development actually happen,” Tupper said. 

At the same time, drivers need more education about charging and the actual capacities of electric vehicles, said Terry Gallagher, a Wellfleet resident who bought his first electric vehicle, a Volkswagen ID.4, earlier this year. 

Many potential electric vehicle owners cite fear of running out of power without a charging station nearby — a phenomenon known as range anxiety — as a reason not to buy. 

In Gallagher’s experience, this fear is overblown, he said. Gallagher plugs his vehicle into the exterior outlet on his home, though he intends to have a faster, 240-volt charger installed in the coming months, and has had no trouble keeping his vehicle sufficiently charged for all his local driving. There needs to be more education, he said, about the true capacities of electric vehicles. 

“Fear is often related to ignorance,” he said. “You’re afraid of things you don’t know or understand.”

Some private parties on the Cape are already taking independent action to increase electric vehicle adoption. Cape Air, a small airline that uses nine-seater planes to shuttle passengers between the Cape, Boston, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, offers employees a rebate of $1,000 when they buy an electric vehicle. In the two and a half years since the incentive started up, 12 employees have bought new electric cars, said sustainability director Jim Wolf.

In 2019, Wolf also organized an electric car show, at which dealers showed off their available electric models and offered test drives to more than 400 attendees. 

Wolf has been advocating for other major employers in the region to also find ways to promote electric vehicle use among their staffs, arguing that even getting most of the top 10 companies in the region to participate would make a significant difference. But he has run into some resistance from leaders who are unsure electric vehicles will make enough environmental impact to be worth the cost. And, on Cape Cod, where the vast majority of businesses are small and often seasonal operations, most employers just don’t have the budget for the kind of financial investment Cape Air has made. 

“A lot of the mom-and-pops on Cape Cod — they are not going to be able to do rebates,” Wolf said. 

Improving public transit

Another major strategy for decarbonizing transportation on the Cape is strengthening public transit, allowing more locals and visitors to move around without starting up their gas-powered cars. Such improvements have been underway for several years, said Thomas Cahir, administrator of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority. 

Bus lines now interconnect all 15 Cape towns with more direct service and more efficient transfers than in the past, he said. Two routes loop through Hyannis, the commercial center of the region. Five days a week, a shuttle transports locals to Boston hospitals.

Flexible service is also available on a route connecting the central Cape town of Harwich to Provincetown at the end of the Cape. With advanced reservations, riders can be dropped off or picked up anywhere within ¾ of a mile of the main route. And a new app is being piloted in two towns, Barnstable and Yarmouth, allowing riders to request a private ride, much like Uber or Lyft, but for a $3 flat fee. 

Ridership is up in recent years, Cahir said. Still, he acknowledges there is more work to be done to shift the behaviors of residents and visitors who have never used public transportation on the Cape. He is optimistic that the improvements to the system coupled with communication and outreach will draw more people onto buses and trolleys. 

“We have an ongoing campaign that public transportation is safe, accessible, affordable, and efficient,” he said. “You’re going to see that more and more people are taking it.”

Train travel is also under consideration. In 2013, the state launched the CapeFLYER, a seasonal weekend train service to Hyannis intended to get tourists to the region with fewer cars and lower emissions. Now the state transportation department is investigating the possibility of expanding train options to local commuters as well by extending commuter rail service to Boston onto Cape Cod.

Tupper calls the possibility of year-round weekday train service a “game-changer.” Historically, however, new train projects considered by the state take many years — sometimes decades — to get off the ground, so it is unclear how quickly a commuter rail extension could have an impact on traffic and emissions on Cape Cod. 

Bike lanes and rail trails

Encouraging people to ditch the car or bus and hop on a bike may be one of the thorniest challenges facing the region. There is little room for bike travel on the region’s major roads, such as the heavily developed Route 28, which runs more than 60 miles from the western edge of the region to Orleans at the elbow of the Cape.

“Route 28 is the single most challenging corridor,” Tupper said. “Certainly, accommodating bikes wasn’t something that was in mind when building the roads.”

Any effort to add bike lanes to major thoroughfares like Route 28 is complicated by the patchwork of jurisdictions and regulations that apply to these roads. Many are state highways, but some stretches are also under the control of the many towns they cross. 

Efforts have been underway for several years to create a bike option separate from the streets by creating a unified, 88-mile trail stretching from Bourne, the first town off the mainland, to Provincetown on the very tip of the Cape. Half of the planned system is built or funded, Tupper said. 

Much of this system will consist of existing rail trails now used mainly for recreational biking and walking. Expansions and connections between existing segments will bring the project to its full size, though it will be several years before it is completed. 

“Then we’ll be working on taking that spine and connecting it into the communities,” Tupper said.

Already, people are using some segments of the trail for practical travel, he said. He expects this sort of traffic to grow organically as the system connects to more locations. 

Even as all these plans come together, others expect the changes in work patterns brought about by the pandemic to have a lingering effect on emissions, as a newly Zoom-comfortable population spends more time working from home and less time on the road. Wolf is already pushing Cape Air to allow more employees to spend more time working from home, he said. 

“Any kind of policies you can institute that speeds along this solution, which is getting cars off the road or making them non-carbon-emitting, is a success,” he said.

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.