Friday, September 21, 2012

Cars Make Ferry Terminals Poor Public Places

With a small group of friends, I take an annual minor league baseball tour.  Moving to a different region every year, we spend a week enjoying local breweries and minor league ballparks, plus whatever else we can squeeze into our itinerary.   This year, our destination was New England.

Late in the planning process, I realized that a short trip to Martha’s Vineyard was a possibility.  There was no minor league baseball there.  And there is only one brewery, which was on a part of the island that we didn’t visit.  But it was still a chance to see a well-known part of the country.  And it irritated our wives that we saw Martha’s Vineyard without them.

I mention Martha’s Vineyard because it offered an urbanism lesson about transportation facilities.

Although many visitors to Martha’s Vineyard arrive by ferry as pedestrians, the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal is an unfriendly place for pedestrians.  It’s such a fun place to visit that the unfriendliness might be overlooked.  But when I ceased being a tourist for a moment and donned my urbanist hat, the awkwardness struck me.

With cars queuing on one side of the terminal, disembarking vehicles streaming past the other side, idling buses, a terminal that, despite a quaint exterior, lacked much interior charm, and foot passengers being herded on a path between the motor vehicles, it wasn’t a great experience.  Certainly not as good as an arrival in a location as fabled as Martha’s Vineyard should have been.

And even as one leaves the immediate vicinity of the ferry terminal, the town isn’t configured to be welcoming.  Although Martha’s Vineyard is dependent on ferries for almost its entire economy, the village of Tisbury, which adjoins the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal, doesn’t align toward the ferry terminal.  Although cars have clear routes away from the terminal, pedestrians must feel their way toward the commercial area.

On deboarding, we headed for a diner near the terminal.  One of us noted a beach path that seemed to lead to the restaurant.  It did, although the route took us through the service yard for the restaurant, past the trash containers and rotting produce.  It was symbolic of the pedestrian ferry experience.  But at least we arrived at the diner ahead of the other ferry passengers. 

Thinking over my other experiences with ferry terminals, I realized that most have been pedestrian unfriendly, or at least unwelcoming.  The Puget Sound ferry system.  The Larkspur ferry terminal.  A few others.  All have accepted pedestrians, but without being comfortable for foot passengers.  About the only exceptions are the Ferry Building in San Francisco and, to a lesser extent, the terminals for the Staten Island Ferry.  And what is the commonality between the latter?  None of them accommodate cars.

Which is probably the reason that we have some grand old train stations and many more pedestrian friendly train stations around the country.  Trying to get cars on-board a ferry gets in the way of good pedestrian places.

It makes me happy that we’re getting new train stations and not ferry terminals along the SMART alignment.  The train stations will be far more consistent with the urbanist direction in which I think North Bay cities should be heading.


I recently shared some thoughts about urban diners in Seattle and Tacoma with the thought that some readers might be traveling to the Pacific Northwest.  In a similar vein, I have diners to recommend from our week in New England.

Breakfast was the key meal of our day.  (The rest of the day was pretty much appetizers and beer.  It’s remarkable how many buffalo wings and nachos four guys can consume in eight days.)  In reverse order, here are the top four urban diners from the trip:

#4 –Black Dog Tavern, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts: As a reward for wandering past garbage, we had a good breakfast.  Not great, but good.  The dishes have creative names (I had a The Dude Abides Omelette while another in the party had Ebony and Ivory Pancakes), but the food wasn’t superlative and the waitstaff unenthusiastic.  We tried to make our waitress smile with only limited success.  Plus Black Dog seems to be going for a mercantile dynasty, which detracts from what a good diner should be.

#3 – Owl Diner, Lowell, Massachusetts: A working class diner in a working class neighborhood in a working class town, the Owl Diner was a fine New England experience.  The restaurant is a converted dining railcar.  And you had the sense that waitstaff had all grown up in Lowell.  The menu included a couple of items that seemed unique and the food was unostentatiously good.

#2 – Red Arrow Diner, Manchester, New Hampshire: Without doubt, the Red Arrow was that highest energy diner of the trip.  As a frequent stop for candidates running in the New Hampshire primaries, the Red Owl waitstaff has learned to make dining an event.   As first-timers, we were all “de-virginized”, which involved a loud bell, an even louder announcement, and red stickers.  Two of us tried the pork pie (think of an apple pie with a pork meatloaf replacing the apples).  It was a fine meal that held us for a long drive through Vermont.

#1 – Kamp Dog, New London, Connecticut: A surprise winner, Kamp Dog wasn’t on the itinerary, but became a stop when we were nearing New London and feeling morning hunger pangs.  A quick internet check found Kamp Dog.  It couldn’t have worked out better.

It’s an oddly appointed diner.  Aging linoleum and chrome dinettes, with a griddle was at least 25 feet long for a single cook.  Perhaps the interior had an earlier use as something other than a diner.

But the cook used his long griddle to great effect.  Three of us had the Porker breakfast sandwich, with eggs, cheese, ham, sausage, and bacon on a bakery roll.  It was a great sandwich, although probably not for an everyday diet.  One of us texted a photo of the sandwiches to his former lineman son.  The son texted back that he was packing his suitcase.

Located in downtown New London, Kamp Dog seemed secure in its place, with numerous folks dropping in for their daily takeout.  Many of the customers were healthcare workers.  One assumes they weren’t having the Porker.

I don’t recommend a trip to New England solely to sample these urban diners, but if you’re going to be in New England anyway, I heartily suggest that you try at least one.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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