Ocracoke Island is the only place I’ve ever visited where nearly as many people use bicycles as cars to get around. Admittedly, this is a vacation community: People aren’t in a hurry, and they enjoy being in the outdoors. But I’ve visited many other resort communities where people’s posteriors seem super-glued to their car seats. Here in Ocracoke, bikes own the road. It can be downright intimidating at times to drive a car. You frequently find yourself picking your way through clots of cyclists, walkers, joggers, mothers pushing their baby carriages – even the occasional trail horse.
I take it as a given that we Americans need our cars – at least one per household — to enjoy the kind of mobility we crave. But I also recognize that it is desirable to reduce our dependence upon the automobile, with its attendant congestion, gasoline consumption and pollution. Surely, there must be something we can learn from the Ocracoke experience. Somehow, without the imposition of draconian controls, this island community has evolved a human settlement pattern that is hospitable to cars, pedestrians and cyclists alike.
Ocracoke refers to itself as a “village.” Because most of the island is wildlife preserve, all development is concentrated at one end. The village has a distinct center: a cluster of stores, restaurants and hotels lining Silver Lake (which, more accurately speaking, is a lagoon, where ferries land and sailing boats moor). Arrayed around this center is a historic neighborhood of charming cottages fronting winding, interconnected streets, and more recently developed areas where Nags Head-style beach houses line the roads. During tourist season, the village is occupied by up to 6,000 people.
This is crucial: The geometry of the village configuration reduces the distances that must be traveled between any two destinations. In other Outer Banks communities, by contrast, pod-like subdivisions and shopping centers are strung out along a trunk road. There is no connectivity between pods, which forces all traffic onto a single heavily traveled artery. (There may be two parallel arteries in Nags Head – I’m not as familiar with that part of the Outer Banks). Bottom line: If you want to get somewhere in Ocracoke, the distances are shorter. That alone makes bicycling a more viable transportation option.
The village pattern is conducive to bicycling in other ways. Ocracoke roads and lanes are narrow, and speed limits restrict driving to 20 miles per hour (although some speed demons zip along at 25 mph). As a consequence, people feel safer using the roads. Serious cyclists may not mind hugging the sides of arterial highway with cars zooming by at 55 mph, but you won’t find many families with children who would choose that way of getting around.
Finally, there is never a problem parking your bike. Bike racks are ubiquitous. I cycle from my cottage to the local coffee shop every morning where I buy a bagel and cup of java, hook up my laptop into the WiFi connection, and catch up with the Bacon’s Rebellion blog. There is a bicycle rack out front, loaded up with some 20 bicycles. The parking lot, at this moment, contains only seven cars.
Which brings up a related topic… parking. Because so many people travel by bicycle, and because bicycles take up so little room compared to automobiles, the village surface area is not consumed by acres of parking lots. Parking spaces are squeezed in here and there around the restaurants, stores and houses, and along the sides of the roads, and it all seems to work. There’s enough room for everyone — as long as half the population is walking or bikding. The need for less parking creates a virtuous feedback loop – Ocracoke’s ability to accommodate bicycles keeps the village looking like a village, not a shopping center where isolated buildings are surrounded by asphalt. That, in turn, makes walking and biking more inviting.
Let me assure readers who jump to ridiculous conclusions that I’m not arguing that every community in the United States should be organized like Ocracoke. I’m not calling for the wholesale transformation of our transportation infrastructure to accommodate bicycles at an Ocracoke level of intensity. I’m simply suggesting that we can learn from Ocracoke, where a bicycle culture has arisen naturally. Developers building new communities de novo particularly should pay attention.
(Photo credit: National Geographic.)