You Can’t Get There From Here

One of the fascinating things about the T is how it shapes riders’ views of the world.  If you rely on the T to get around, you know that many of the stops on the T are places that you can travel without much effort.  And there is a netherworld of gauzy space that is beyond.  Having browsed to this blog, you may be someone who understands what I’m talking about.

Travel times for walking and riding the T

Red is fast; blue is not.

Let’s say you live near Porter Square, Cambridge.  From Porter Square, destinations in Cambridge, Somerville, and downtown Boston are close — less than a half-hour by T. Almost by default, practically speaking that becomes the entirety of your city.  You might plan a shopping trip to Harvard Square, a movie at Kendall or Boylston, or you might schedule a bus out of South Station. You’d think carefully before you would put the time into visiting places like Chestnut Hill, Roxbury, or Mattapan — even if you needed to be there — because those all are basically day-long excursions on the T.  The ride one way on the T is at least an hour, including a bunch of connections.  (By contrast, in an hour of driving in a car, you could be at least a state away.)  And places like most of Needham, Westwood, or parts of Dedham?  Fuhgettaboutit.  Two hours or more, on average.

Well, finally we have an interactive graphical representation of what this looks like, on a map.  Software guru Dan Tillberg has done a fabulous job illustrating the world traveling by T, in color.  Using the T service information database posted by developers at MassDOT (kudos to the government folks for posting the extensive dataset), the map shows in red and yellow the places that are relatively close by T (and walking).  The places that are further away are in greens and blues.  Dan’s map is interactive, and it is pictured above.  Click the image to browse through to his site, and check T connectivity of other locations.

Of course, there are some assumptions behind the map that would change the way it looks depending on, for example how far or fast you were willing to walk, and whether you were willing or able to time your trip precisely to meet a particular bus or train.  Transit diagramming is tricky.  And this map probably is something like a best-average case … the dataset of delayed or dropped MBTA routes isn’t presently available and so Dan was left to assume that, for example, the Number 1 bus midday from Harvard St. was right on time.  Even though we all can guess is was late and overcrowded.  That will be another project ….

Crowded Platform


South Station Red Line, Evening Rush Hour

What does a crowded platform mean?  Is it a sign of success or a sign of failure?  When the MBTA compiles its ridership statistics, do they record the situation in the picture to the right as a roaring success?  Do they simply say “there were like a thousand people who boarded that train at South Station during the evening rush hour; hooray?”

There isn’t really any question in my mind how the patrons standing on the platform would have answered the question.  When you get down to it, there really isn’t much difference between sucking tailpipe emissions on Storrow Drive and becoming better-acquainted than you’d like with strangers on the subway.  Probably the main difference is scenery; there’s no advertising on Storrow Drive.

The T doesn’t usually give live feedback, but on the day of the picture the train driver gave passengers who boarded from the very crowded platform an unusually syrupy-sweet send off.  She knew the crowded platform was trouble.  But when the transit scribes meticulously record the events of the day, how will they see it?  I wonder.

Dude, where’s my bus driver?

Bus No. 1131.  Silver Line, inbound.  Logan Airport, Terminal E.  8:35 a.m.

Bus stops, one passenger boards, and then the dozen or so riders watch the bus driver … turn off the bus and walk away.  Says nothing.  Just walks away.  Dude!  Where’s my bus driver?!

One rider picks up his cell phone.  “I’m hoping to make the 9 a.m. train at South Station, but our bus driver just got up and walked off the bus! I guess I’ll be stuck at South Station for two hours.”  A second Silver Line bus drives by without stopping.

Six minutes later.  The driver returns, still without comment, turns on the bus and resumes the route…

Perhaps it’s understood that if you’re on the T your time isn’t as important.  That you expect to endure a hassle, a delay.  There’s no hurry.  And maybe the driver had an emergency.  She did wait until the end of the airport dropoffs.  Not nearly as much urgency to get back to the city, right?  Well, not necessarily ….

Bus #1131 pulls into South Station at 9:01 a.m.  No hope of catching that 9 a.m. train.