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Riding the Flex

Riding the Flex

Mystery solved. People really do ride The Flex on the Outer Cape.  The windows of the shuttle buses are tinted dark.  I couldn’t tell if the buses were Flying Dutchmen, empty ghost ships doomed to cruise Rte. 6. What’s an inquiring mind to do? Hop on.

I rode last Friday afternoon from Provincetown to Orleans and back. The trip took three hours. That’s roughly twice the amount of time it would have taken by car. If I’d driven, I wouldn’t have met any of the interesting characters I encountered on the bus. On the other hand, I would’ve missed the German couple snogging all the way and their humiliated teenage daughter…and that would’ve been OK with me. Really.

Of the more intriguing passengers: an elderly, wheelchair-bound Wellfleetian taking a painting class in P’town for the week; a car-free German mom and her son staying in Truro heading for supper in Wellfleet; college-aged Bulgarians spending the summer working at Ocean’s Edge Resort and touring about the Cape by bike and Flex; previously retired workers currently employed in Orleans who ride and socialize on The Flex year-round; a Wellfleet teen on The Flex to Orleans to buy wrist braces at the CVS; two outgoing developmentally disabled guys who ride the Flex between Wellfleet and Orleans during the week for their jobs; a Cuban staying in Truro on his way to Provincetown for the first time.

Riders seemed genuinely happy to have an air-conditioned, motorized mode of transport at their disposal.  They wished The Flex would run every half hour rather than every hour.  They would prefer the bus stuck to its schedule.  It’s often late by as much as 40 minutes.  They thought it would be best if The Flex kept to its early and late hours throughout the year, not just in the summer.  But, they said, it was hard to complain, given that they could ride the route as far as they wanted and get off wherever they chose for just $2 (75 cents for seniors).

The Europeans and elderly said they’d rather ride the bus than drive their own cars.  But the teenagers…they all wanted wheels.  One young guy said he’d only been riding for a week, since his car had died.  Would he keep riding The Flex once the car was fixed?  “No way,” he said.  “Are you kidding?”

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A friend visited last week from Martha’s Vineyard.  She has grown children and grandchildren in Texas and New York.  Her New Yorkers tell her it’s easier for them to fly to Europe than to get to her on the Vineyard.  The new ferry traversing Long Island Sound provoked seasickness and isn’t for them.  Transportation.  It’s an issue now for people on the Cape and Islands.  And it was an issue way back when the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth.  I’m thinking about transportation this week and have some fun facts to share:

White settlers talked about constructing a canal between the “mainland” and the Cape from first landfall in the 1620s.  Surveyors investigated the possibility of cutting a canal during the War of Independence.  Nineteenth-century financier August Belmont created the Cape Cod Canal Company to carry out the project.  Workers, mostly Nova Scotians from Off Cape, finished the job in 1914.  The federal government bought the canal in 1928, hired WPA workers to dig a deeper, safer waterway, and put them to work building  new bridges (Bourne and Sagamore in 1935) during the Great Depression.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains the canal today.

Early visitors to the Cape came overland by foot and by horse.  By the mid-nineteenth century, they also came on trains.  In 1854, tourists rode the Cape Cod Railroad as far as Yarmouthport and Hyannis.  They could get as far as Orleans by 1865, to Wellfleet by 1872, and then all the way to Provincetown in 1873.  Trains then went south along Buzzard’s Bay to Falmouth and from Dennis through Harwich and Chatham in 1887.  Tourist destinations clustered around these rail depots.  Wealthy summer residents came by train to stay in exclusive hotels, which offered elaborate meals and entertainment.

Everything changed in the 1920s with the advent of the car.  The Commonwealth started paving roads in the 1890s to accommodate bicyclists.  That’s when workers laid asphalt for the Old King’s Highway (running between Bourne and P’town) and what is now Rte. 28.  Routes 6 and 6A came into being in the first decade of the twentieth century. Once middle-class visitors could drive and venture off the beaten path, they rented cottages or built small houses away from the main Mid Cape tourist destinations.

The first traffic jams on the Cape were in the 1930s.  In 1909 but 75 cars were on Upper Cape roads on a single summer day.  By 1936, that number had increased to 55,000.  I’m guessing even more drivers are on the road this time of year on major Cape thruways.

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