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Massachusetts Transportation in General

A PLEA TO THE MASSACHUSETTS DOT, THE CITY OF BOSTON AND BOSTON UNIVERSITY: Please build a pedestrian over/underpass at University Road and Commonwealth Ave.

Having traveled a bit and yet being fiercely loyal to Boston, I can honestly say that Greater Boston and Massachusetts have some of the worst transportation options in the world. Read my recent opinions on TOLL HIGHWAYS AND BRIDGES IN MASSACHUSETTS or on one dangerous intersection near Boston University which is an accident waiting to happen.

One first concept that seems to have been almost completely missed, is studies of efficiency which are very typical in Western Europe, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire (to name a few) and which govern the design of roads and transportation systems. Studying and understanding traffic patterns, driving patterns and human decision making should all play into the design of roads.

Such logic does not exist in Massachusetts. Mark Snyder Waltham Burlington Cambridge Framingham Boston

Roads, bridges, exit signs, street signs and such all seem to be haphazardly placed in whatever manner seems the easiest (cheapest, perhaps) at the moment. EXIT ONLY lanes are rare (though they have grown a bit in the past 2 years) and efficient design seems to be all but ignored.

State roads tend to meander through towns, often making several complete and unpredictable turns, which in the absence of good signage could send an out of towner in the completely wrong direction. So watch for signage and if your route number seems to have disappeared, consider that you might have missed a turn.

Want to know more about poor road and intersection design in Massachusetts? Click here.

So, getting around is easy if you are local and is very difficult if you are not. Expect to get lost, to get stuck, to miss your turn or to get stuck in traffic. A GPS will help get you there eventually but just don't expect anything to happen on time.

Additionally, Boston area road quality is notoriously horrendous. Towns such as Belmont, Watertown and Cambridge, have especially poor road conditions, with massive potholes, band-aide fixes and frost heaves that haven't been addressed in decades. The towns blame the problem on money, which makes sense. Lack of funding results in repairs rather than actually rebuilding roads to last. This short-sightedness of course results in never fixing the problems, never having good roads, always having some sort of construction issues going on and leaving lots of hub caps along the road side. My personal opinion is that these excuses are unacceptable for a modern society. I have seen better roads in third world countries. If you are not collecting enough money to maintain your infrastructure, then you are not doing basic parts of your job. There should be no tolerance for huge potholes that persist for a decade, especially in a state which relatively speaking is affluent and modern. Yet Bostonians are so used to it, we cannot see the forest through the trees. We persist on just tolerating poor infrastructure and complaining that we don't want to pay to fix the problem. Why would you pay to fix problems with your car and not pay to fix problems with the roads that they drive on? It makes no sense to me!

Construction in Massachusetts is notoriously poorly done (though I will acknowledge that very few places do it right). Keeping traffic moving during construction means understanding traffic patterns. Studying driving speeds and the first point of notice for a construction site, should help in the planning of road signs and flaggers. The more 'last minute' a lane merge is, the more likely a bottleneck. For this reason, advance notice to slow down and start merging, can really alleviate a crunch at the last minute to move to the correct lane. Connecticut does this particularly poorly, but Massachusetts is right behind. Investments in good signage and cones along with strategic placement would really improve the flow of traffic during construction (which often lasts for years in Mass).

Public Transportation - MBTA aka the "T" - Charlie Cards

The MBTA stands for the Mass Bay Transit Authority. It operates the bus system and the subway, commonly know as the "T". The buses around Boston are about as good as anywhere else, but since they must travel the same inefficient roads as all other cars, they are bound by the same limitations. One quirk of the MBTA buses is that many are electric, and must be connected to wires strung above the street. This oddity forces the buses to sometimes ride in the wrong lane in order to maintain power. Several parts of Cambridge and Watertown have bus routes where a bus in the right lane must take a left turn, directly cutting in front of traffic (and the drivers have long since learned to ignore cars when they make these turns). So, be aware that if you are riding behind a yellow and white MBTA bus, it could cut you off at any time and you are expected to know what to do.

The "T", which is the underground subway, has been upgraded a bit over the past few years. Although it is not a model for efficiency, it is not all bad. There are 5 lines:

Green Line - Running from Lechmere (Cambridge) out to Newton. There are actually five westbound branches, each ending in a different part of Newton.

Red Line - Alewife (in north Cambridge) to Braintree (a suburb south of Boston)

Silver Line - Not actually a train but a bus on dedicated roads, running from South Station out to South Boston (including the new Convention center) and to the Airport.

Orange Line - From Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain (south of the city center) to Oak Grove near Malden (an inner suburb north of the city)

Blue Line - From Wonderland in Revere (which happens to be the nations only subway line that actually ends at the beach) to Bowdoin which is basically downtown Boston (Bowdoin station is currently closed for renovations). The Blue Line also stops at the airport, but unlike the Silver Line, you have to then take a shuttle bus to the Terminals. I do recommend the BLUE LINE to the airport though, as the arrival station is modern, trains are more frequent than the Silver Line and the shuttle buses are quick and frequent. From any airport Terminal to Government Center is about 30 minutes.

The "T" is fairly safe and many of the stations have been updated to be modern and interesting. Most trains are also modern and air conditioned, but you always run the risk of an exception. Trains can get massively crowded at certain peak points, such as during Red Sox games, but this is the same in any city.  

The benefit to public transportation is that it does go where it says it will go and so you won't get lost or have to deal with road issues. But like all Greater Boston Transportation, you cannot depend on accurate timing so leave plenty of buffer if you must be on time.

To pay for rides, you purchase a CHARLIE* CARD which can be refilled anytime at an automatic machine or a mannned MBTA station. You can either purchase a flimsy paper card (a Charlie TICKET) if you are just visiting and want to ride once or twice, or you can get a stiff plastic card which can be refilled whenever you want. There are also monthly passes for commuters. If you enter trains at street level (which occurs out in the suburbs of Newton and Brookline for instance) you can pay by cash in the front of the car as well. The price of a ride varies, depending on how many rides you buy at a time. Generally a ride costs $1.70 on a Charlie Card, $2.00 if you pay in cash, and $59 for unlimited usage for a month. You can also transfer to buses on the same ride if the subway does not take you to your final destination.

Well so who is Charlie?

Charlie was a legendary character invented in the 40s when the Massachusetts Transit Authority hiked the travel fare another nickel. A protest song was written about a man named Charlie who got on the train the day of the fare hike and wasn't allowed off because he didn't have the extra nickel to complete the fare before exiting.

The song was recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1959 and became a hit, telling of Charlie's life living on the trains and riding the under streets of Boston. Charlie's wife even handed him a sandwich through the window every day to keep him fed. Nobody quite understood why she didn't just hand him another nickel, but that may well speak to Charlie's wifes interests lying beyond actually living with Charlie! And since Charlie was made up anyway, it was more fun just to keep guessing forever.

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