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 ….

Google Maps Adds Boston Transit Routes

It just became a little little easier to figure out if you can get there from here on the MBTA. Google Maps rolled out a new service that allows users to map directions on buses and trains operated by the MBTA.  The visual aspects of the Google service are a little easier to use; the map is easier to see and to manipulate.  On the other hand, there still are some quirks to work out … fares aren’t listed, which is an important consideration for many trips … the system doesn’t seamlessly recognize the names of transit stations the way the MBTA’s system does … and Google is more tolerant of transfers and plodding travel times than is the MBTA.  And some of Google’s selections clearly are not the best routes.  For example, for directions from South Station to Needham Center station (just west of Route 128) departing at 2 pm today, Google’s first choice is an hour-long, two-transfer odyssey; if instead you set the clock to arrive at 3:06pm (the time that leisurely trip is scheduled to arrive), Google’s first choice becomes more sensible 40 minute railroad trip.  Hmmmm…. 40 minutes and no transfers in a reasonably comfortable railcar or 1 hour and two transfers on the subway, trolley, and bus … not a tough choice, at least when the fare is unknown.  On the other hand I guess all of the routes are in the list.  And, of course, it would help if the route data was cleaned up a bit.

Kudos to Luke Bornheimer and the “Put the MBTA on Google Maps” Facebook group for influencing the T and Google to make this happen.

[eds. note:  After this was posted, Google adjusted the way that it selects routes; the original post contained another link that now is outdated]