Friday, March 8, 2013

A Boston T Party

Awaiting the Green line at Park Street, 21 Jan 2013.

If you live in greater Boston, you're familiar with the T.

It's the pet name for the area's public transportation system, operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Association, or MBTA.

The system operates buses, trains, boats. It's ubiquitous. About 1.3 MILLION use the T each weekday. That's more people than live in the entire city of Dallas.

Growing up in Dallas, I didn't have a lot of experience with public transportation. When I was a child not many people rode the bus. And it wasn't encouraged. Gas was cheap and plentiful, as was parking. Why ride when you can drive?

As an adult, Dallas developed a decent light rail system, although at the time I used it, there were very limited lines. I lived near a station so I used it a little, but it was more of a novelty than a viable option.

For a while I lived in Los Angeles. Public transportation there is probably among the worst for a city that size. SoCal is definitely a car-centric place, with its mega-freeways and notorious traffic. As entertaining as it was, the movie "Speed" has a ridiculous premise: No bus could sustain an average 50 mph speed in LA for more than a few minutes. It would have been the world's worst, shortest and most unsatisfying thriller. The bus hits 50 mph on a freeway, traffic snarls, the bus blows up. The movie would have had 20 minutes of setup, three minutes of time on the bus, then a bunch of people picking up the remains of the passengers. However, that'd mean a lot less Keanu Reeves "dialogue" so maybe it has its merits.

Sorry. Tangent. "Speed" wouldn't work in Boston, either, FYI.

M is from Montreal, and the public transportation there is exceptional. The Metro system can get you pretty much anywhere on the island in no more than 45 minutes. The system is so affordable and efficient that M didn't learn to drive until she was 26.

Northwest Arkansas has a decent bus system, Razorback Transit, mainly because it's free. But, its schedule is entirely tied to the University academic year, so it doesn't run some times. A second bus line, Ozark Regional Transit (ORT),  was decent and affordable, but in an area that small, you didn't need public transportation that much.


In Boston, the streets have accurately been described as "tangled." As I like to point out, civic planning as a concept just didn't seem to exist in the New World of the early 17th century. Just a few days ago I was on a street that was more or less a straight line (a real rarity here) and the road changed names three times in about a five-mile stretch.


I've touched on the "Masshole" problem before, but the summation is this: people drive like dickheads here. I used to think the worst drivers in the world were in Oklahoma or Springdale.

To those people, I now apologize.

Some of the preferred road-sharing methods here include double parking, squeezing last-second into tight lanes or passing on too-narrow streets, parking on a sidewalk or curb or halfway out in a street, box-blocking... name any selfish road maneuver you can think of, and someone here routinely uses it. Wednesday, someone just kind of pulled somewhat close to another parked car, at a weird angle with their ass sticking out in traffic, and parked. YOLO!

My immediate feeling was to just stop right there, block the only remaining clear lane, abandon the car and wander off to get a donut or something. Because it doesn't seem like these parkers have any concept of a shared space whatsoever.

I can exaggerate, but in this case I am not. People drive as if the landscape includes only them and everyone and everything else is some random video-game obstacle, not human. I see it every day I am on the streets. A lot of drivers here are just irrationally selfish. It does a lot to cement the perception that the people in this part of the world are jerks. Box-blocking is particularly popular... people just decide to become the ass-end of a lane crossing an intersection when the light changes, preventing those crossing with a green light from getting through the intersection when it's their turn. A few weeks ago this guy did this to us at an intersection. I kid you not, he looked like Antonin Scalia in a white Mitsubishi SUV, angled in front of us as he turned left and blocked our lane. I laid on the horn, and he flipped me off. Because how dare I vent at someone doing something illegal and antisocial.

I am greatly surprised by two things that I would imagine should happen here more but apparently do not. For one, this place seems ripe as hell for daily serious road-rage incidents. This may explain the restrictive gun laws here. If people pulled this shit in Texas, there'd be no room for non-road-rage news on local broadcasts. You'd have all these shooting incidents, one minute for weather, one minute for sports, and now, Letterman!

And the risky driving maneuvers should have auto body shops working around the clock. My uncle George runs a body shop; he should move here. Not only is there a big Greek population, but he'd be a millionaire in a short time.

CONFESSION TIME: I want to state that since coming here, I've also engaged in some driving tactics that normally I would not. However, none of the things I've done have included anything that is like the transgressions described above. I'd say my biggest sin has been the impromptu U-turn. Sometimes there's just no choice. I pulled one the other day instead of being stuck crossing the Mass Ave. bridge. There wasn't a vehicle within 200 yards of me either way so I didn't put anyone at risk.


Clearly, there are strong arguments for public transportation. If you could get by without a car -- and many people here do -- you've saved some serious money. No car payment. No gasoline costs. No insurance payments. No risk of some ass hitting you. You can always get a Zipcar or a regular rental.

A lot of people ride bikes here. Curiously, I haven't seen a lot of scooter use; it would seem viable. But, it may be a theft-risk issue; people lock up their bikes here and remove a wheel, handlebars and the seat to discourage theft.

Thus, the huge ridership of the T.


Unfortunately, the T has money problems. T officials expect to lose at least $120 million in 2014. That's obviously not sustainable; authorities are scrambling to find a way to make the program solvent, and naturally, that means fare hikes. The governor, Deval Patrick, has a budget proposal that would provide about $150 million a year to fund the T's budget shortfall and allow for improvements and service expansion. But that $1.9 billion plan hasn't been approved yet.

The buses and trains are functional, but cruddy and old. Some of the trains look pretty beaten down.

And if your transportation program is losing money, improvements just aren't in the immediate future. The MBTA has to do everything it can just to keep costs down. Two days ago, a local news source said that one proposal would cut weekend schedules.

Right now it costs $1.50 to ride a bus, and $2 to get on a subway. The commuter lines connect outlying areas to the city, but you can pay as much as $11 per ticket. That can get expensive, plus, those routes don't run as frequently as those in the city.

A fare hike proposal of 33 percent wouldn't lift prices that much... bus rides would go to $2, and subway costs would increase to $2.60. The T had a fare hike just last year, and ridership actually increased. One source says that about a third of people in the area use the system, and 1.3 MILLION people a day ride.

I think the T should hike fares even higher... the times I've ridden, the vehicles have been packed. Other times when I see the trains or buses from the road, also packed. People use the T. If the fares doubled, it'd go a long way toward solving the system's funding problem.

In December I planned to go downtown for a meeting via the T. But the day of the event, it was pouring, and I didn't want to walk a few blocks in the rain. So I drove. My 90-minute parking, while conveniently located across the street from where I was headed, cost me $30. A T trip would have cost me $7. So it still would have been a bargain at $14.


Not long after arriving here, we took the bus to Harvard Square and then hoofed it the rest of the way to see "The Game." That crowded bus yielded an interesting experience with a crazy girl.

I first rode the actual subway in January as we decided to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. This Boston arts district is home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum within easy walking distance of one another, and near Northeastern University also. To get there, we took the 73 bus to Harvard Square, then caught the Red line to Park Street. There, we were able to access the Green line train that would take us to the Museum. Four stops on the red, seven on the green. The entire trip took less than an hour; I should have timed it.

The station at Harvard Square is gigantic. It's a bus/train hub that sees a lot of traffic. Although it's a bit grimy and dank, the novelty hasn't worn off for me at all so it's a wonder. I was lucky to have M as a guide because the place has so much going on that it would be easy to get a little confused as to where you need to be.

Once on the train, you will see things that are peculiar, and not just the people. One chair was unfilled on the crowded car; closer inspection revealed what (hopefully) was a small pool of spilled soda on the seat. Standing in a crowded car requires awareness... if you don't grab a support strap or rail, the lurching of the train will result in a forced introduction with a random stranger. For unfamiliar riders, establishing equilibrium is a crucial skill to develop.

You're almost certain to have awkward situations. When we shifted onto the Green train, it was packed. It may be better to be standing than sitting in those cases, because you never know who's ass you're going to get a face full of when you're sitting. If you get crop-dusted, you're not going to be happy.

Some of the ride is above ground; those are preferred, for me, because then I get to sight-see a bit.

The day we went, the Museum was offering free entry, so it was packed. Too packed, in fact, so we wound up going to the Gardner. More on that later.

But the transit experience, overall, was enjoyable. I'm ready to go again.

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