The little wooden pier at Fair Harbor, N.Y., is a mess of bicycles, strollers and bright red wagons when the ferry from "the other side" ties up. The gate slides back and there's an urgent scramble of hugs and kisses and hellos and goodbyes and coolers and duffel bags and straw hats and babies, along with cases of beer. Arrivers and leavers and hosts and onlookers sort themselves out, and then swiftly the ferry backs away, the lone deckhand using the bare fraction of a second he is afforded to lift the mooring line off the piling and set the vessel free.
That's it for internal combustion.
Kids, still feeding on the excitement of the public moment, wheel around on their bikes, but eventually the wagons are untangled and the summer villagers spread out through the little town, freight in tow. Most head down Broadway, a plank lane just broad enough for two wagons to pass, overhung by low-drooping willows. The laden wagons make a jum-jum-jum-jum sound as they roll across the boards.
This is Fire Island, a 32-mile-long barrier beach off the south shore of Long Island. Famous for being the site of one of the first unabashedly gay communities - in Cherry Grove, a few miles east of Fair Harbor - Fire Island is more remarkable for something else: In the summertime, there are no cars.
It would be misleading to call it a model for other places, because it is, after all, an island of vacationers. But it nonetheless offers a tantalizing glimpse of what could be - a way of life that works, and works pretty well, without cars. Not life without a car, because plenty of people everywhere manage that - but life without any cars.
The villages are connected to Long Island by a sufficiently frequent ferry service; every house is within walking distance of a ferry dock. You can buy groceries and other sundries on Fire Island, at eye-watering prices, or you can call in orders to a supermarket on Long Island, which will ship them over on the morning freight boat. All you have to do is come down to the dock with your wagon - or hire a kid to do it. Televisions, dryers, summer clothes all come the same way; you have to order them in advance, but anyone used to shopping online does that already.
"You always manage," says Kitty King, a rental agent who has summered in the village of Dunewood for 29 years. "You have to think ahead, but it's worth it."
What this creates is a community where people are out walking or biking all the time, where kids happily roam free, where there's no traffic and no asphalt, where pines stunted by the sandy soil and ocean winds shade the walkways, where the quiet is broken by the sound of the surf (and maybe by the kid practicing his trumpet two houses over), and where the ferry dock provides a natural, spontaneous public meeting place, half a dozen or so times a day.
It wouldn't have to be a ferry. The linear nature of the island naturally brings to mind a rail line. Something like this could work in any suburban setting, if people had a mind to make it work and the equivalent of the freight boat was available for bulky deliveries. (In fact, a new town has just been built in Germany, called Vauban, that does without cars.) Unlike Mackinac Island in Michigan, also car-free, Fire Island is well-connected to the bigger culture; it's 20 minutes on the ferry to Bayshore, and from there about an hour to Manhattan by train.
A few hundred people live out on Fire Island year-round. Some work on the mostly modest summer houses and some telecommute. Wendell Chu, superintendent of the Fire Island school district (enrollment: 42), notes that a strictly limited number of cars, one per household, is allowed in the off season because the ferry is cut way back. People drive along the beach, tide permitting, and then use a bridge at the western end. Still, he says, it's essentially a traffic-free community. "Every family has to get a sense of the limitations," he says. "But you know, there's a freedom there."
An inkling. That's what Fire Island gives you - an inkling of a life lived differently, and better.