Wiscasset calls itself "the prettiest village in Maine." The motto is emblazoned on a sign you encounter when entering the town along Route One. By the time you see it, however, you have already waited in stop-and-go traffic that stretches back along the highway three and a half miles. You're hot, bored, and annoyed as you creep down the hill through the two blocks of downtown.
And there you see it, the reason for your delay. Traffic immediately stops for every pedestrian who wants to cross the street. At high traffic times, there is one traffic cop at each of the two blocks, stopping miles of traffic to let a tourist walk twenty feet.
At least two thirds of these pedestrians are crossing the street to wait in line at Red's Eats, a lobster shack that has somehow acquired the reputation of having the best lobster rolls on the coast. The New York Times touts it for its lobster rolls and local color. People cross the street to wait in long lines at Red's even though there's another, somewhat larger lobster roll place on the other side.
What this demonstrates to me is that people who go to Red's Eats don't mind waiting in line. In fact, they seem to like it. Therefore, why not let them wait on the sidewalk until several groups have aggregated before stopping the traffic to let them pass?
When Route One was being constructed, the option was raised of having a bypass around Wiscasset. But according to the story I've heard, Wiscasset merchants didn't want a bypass. They wanted people to drive past their stores. And drive past they do, far too annoyed to stop. This is in contrast to the tactic followed by Damariscotta and Newcastle. The main highway bypasses them, but a loop called Business Route One passes through the two towns, which now have thriving businesses and crowded parking lots and restaurants. Local traffic passes through the towns, taking five minutes tops.
Sitting in traffic south of Wiscasset this afternoon, I had time to do a little math. Say that on average, for ten hours a day in high season, north-going traffic stretches back three miles from Wiscasset. I counted, and there are probably about 150 cars per mile. Because they're vacationers rather than commuters, let's conservatively assign two passengers per car. It takes half an hour for a car to move the three miles. That means that each day, Wiscasset annoys 18,000 people trying to drive north.
Ah, but what about the people who stop in the prettiest village and get to cross the street without ever having to wait for a WALK signal? How many of them are there each day?
Making a lobster roll probably takes thirty seconds, and Red's Eats isn't big enough to have too many sandwich makers. Plus there are drinks, making change, passing out napkins... So let's generously say 200 people per hour are delighted by the charm and deliciousness of the lobster roll experience. And let's double that for the fifty percent of visitors who may cross the street for other reasons. In a ten hour day, that means 4000 people are happy about Wiscasset's policy.
Now let's imagine that Wiscasset decides to implement a new policy, where traffic cops wait for three separate parties to gather on the sidewalk ready to cross the street before they raise their hands and stop the miles of traffic. A little thought convinces me that such a move would reduce the length of the traffic backup by two thirds. Instead of waiting thirty minutes to make it through the prettiest village in Maine, drivers would have to wait only ten minutes. 18,000 people a day would be twenty minutes happier, while 4000 people a day might be two minutes unhappier. The happiness advantage of the new policy comes out to 352,000 people-minutes. That's a lot of happiness.
Of course, maybe Wiscasset doesn't care about the happiness of those driving through. But it should care. Some of those drivers are people who stop and shop in places they like. Some are taxpayers. Some are philanthropists. Some are legislators. What village, no matter how pretty, can afford to annoy them all?