November 19, 2009
There’s a lively debate going on over at the Perpetual Post on Public Transit: NYC vs. DC vs. London vs. Boston. I hope I accurately represented Beantown in my portion of the discourse, below. Check out the others over on the Perpetual Post.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Boston. It’s like my second, not-as-good home away from home. There’s great history there, and lots of character, and the letter “R” is pronounced “AH” by natives, who like nothing more than to glare at you from under their Red Sox caps. What’s not to like? Oh, right. The cold. And the high cost of living. And all those college students. And the godforsaken T.
Having lived in Boston for 5 years without a car, I think I can say with authority that in when it comes to public transportation, Boston is like Toon Town. First of all, the subway lines don’t have names, or even letters or numbers—they have COLORS. Could they possibly simplify that any further? Except then, to complicate it, some of the trains of one color line (the green line) branch off and go into vastly different directions. So, on the green line, you have the B line, the C line, the D line, and the E line. Could they have possibly picked four letters that didn’t sound exactly the same when announced in a noisy T station during rush hour? There are other letters in the alphabet that have different tones—like H! Or M! There are also other letters that don’t look very similar when they’re displayed on what looks like a defunct Lite-Brite on the front of a rapidly moving train. (And don’t get me started on Lite-Brites and Boston for that matter, thanks to a little show called Aqua Teen Hunger Force.) In any event, so you’re standing at Park Street (or PAHK Street) waiting for the E line, and here it comes along—but wait, is that an E or a B? And it’s on the C tracks?! And the doors on the side where you’re standing don’t seem to be opening! AND you paid $2 for this lousy T ride! What the hell!?
Still, you are given something of a sporting chance, particularly at Park Street, because the trains don’t move ALL that quickly. In fact, there was a recent incident in which a drunk girl fell onto the T tracks in Boston, right in the path of an oncoming train, and she was saved by heroic bystanders who waved at the oncoming train to get it to slow down and stop in time. And it did stop in time. So, we’re not talking about super fast transport here either.
Also, way the T system is set up, is like spokes radiating from a hub in the center (more or less) of the city. As a result, there are many situations in which you need to take the T all the way into that center hub in order to take it all the way out in another direction, to get not that far away from where you started from. So there are places that take 15 minutes to drive between, but they take an hour to take the T between. I lived in Somerville at one point, and my younger sister lived in Jamaica Plain, and it took us about an hour and a half to get to one another’s houses on the T. And Boston, don’t flatter yourself; you’re not that big.
There are also situations in which you could conceivably transfer between different 3 trains in order to go exactly two aboveground city blocks. Ridiculous!
And don’t forget the bus! Boston is also home to a fabulous bus network that has become more easily navigable in recent years, but at one point there was practically no way to find out where buses stopped without taking them. Bus schedules consisted of random-looking online .pdfs which were never shown in relation to actual streets. Since those early days, Boston wised up and began printing up actual bus schedules, and sometimes if you are lucky, you will actually find the schedule you are looking for in the display tree at your local T station. I don’t think they have ever managed to print them in a way that corresponds with demand—there were always nine thousand schedules available for the ubiquitous #1 bus, and I have NEVER seen a living schedule for the elusive #94.
So, the bus system in Boston has improved—but so has the price increased. When last I lived there a year ago, I regularly took an express bus that took me from outer Medford to Downtown Boston in about 20 minutes, and cost $3.50. That’s right, per ride. And no, this bus did not offer door-to-door service, free coffee, a complimentary newspaper or a lapdance. Sometimes it didn’t even offer a seat. And yet, $3.50?! I ask you. For three times that price, I could take a bus to NYC.
Lastly, let’s talk about hours of operation. Boston is a well-known college town with a fairly young demographic and a pretty active nightlife—and yet it’s stuck with a transportation system that keeps cranky old people hours. Trying to catch a T or a bus any time after midnight, you have about a 50% chance of being SOL and having to take a cab or walk. And in a city known for a negative wind chill factor in winter, walking is kind of risky sometimes. You could end up dead in a snowdrift between two parked cars.
Also, it is almost impossible to get a cab in many areas, because either a) there are NO cabs, b) no cabs will stop, or c) a drunken frat boy elbows you out of the way and takes your cab. And few things are more frustrating than stumbling out of the club after a night (well, half a night, since it’s only 1am) of dancing, wearing a miniskirt in fifteen degree weather, and stumbling to the curb to catch a quick taxi—only to be passed by dozens of empty cabs who refuse to even look at you because presumably they are off-duty. Why cabs choose to go off-duty late at night when they have become the only game in town, I will never know. In fact, I once hailed a cab and watched the cabbie stop his cab, light a cigarette, glance up at me, and then speed away. It was enough to make me weep and gnash my teeth with rage. And I’m no shrinking violet.
Boston, you’re a tough town. But I’ll always have a soft, angry place in my heart for you.