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2021
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As car-centric Cape Cod tries to cut emissions, transportation is a challenge



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