Category Archives: transportation

Where’s the Bus? The Bus is On its Way

Tonight, I went to the MassDOT DevelopersWhere’s the Bus? 2.0: The Wait is Over” event, where the MBTA announced the next phase of its real-time data project.

Starting today, the MBTA released real-time data for bus routes 1, 4, 15, 22, 23, 28, 32, 57, 66, 71, 73 and 77. With these routes, on top of the previously released data for routes 39, 111, 114, 116, and 117, data for routes handling one-third of the MBTA’s bus passenger load has been made public. By the end of the summer, the MBTA plans to release real-time data for every bus route in the system and launch a marketing campaign around the availability of real-time bus data.

“We need to be more open and frank,” said recently hired MBTA General Manager Rich Davey, who today began tweeting as @MBTAGM. He stated his focus on “investing and working in the guts of the system.”

All of the MassDOT and MBTA personnel on hand emphasized the need for innovation and creativity to propel the transit agency.

“We’re going to revolutionize riding the bus in Boston,” said project mastermind Joshua Robin, whose hope is that buses become cool enough for people to make t-shirts pimping out their favorite routes.

Larry Rosenshein of NextBus, the company that the MBTA works with to crunch its real-time data and make it feed-ready, referenced this NPR commentary declaring that “practical tech is the sexiest tech,” because of the way it improves our essential quality of life.

Rick Borovoy from the Center for Future Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab talked about community media and art projects that can benefit from this data, including Lost in Boston, which blends public and private spaces to build community, and John Ewing’s Virtual Street Corners, which bridges the gap between spots in the city that are geographically close but worlds apart.

As a huge fan of public transit and a longtime nerd, I am beyond excited about this initiative. I wish I were a programmer just so I could hack together an app this weekend.

Next up after the bus system? The commuter rail.

Photo by Dan4th/Flickr Creative Commons


Why I Love Riding the Bus

Jonathan Richman has a great song called “You’re Crazy for Taking the Bus.”

It’s more of an ode to long-distance bus travel (which I do love), but it also comes to mind when I think of my affection for public transit, which centers around the bus. I feel like a lot of people utter that song title when considering my transportation habits. In fact, I only have a bus pass, not a subway pass, since my office is just one short bus ride away. This means that often, even when traveling between two locations along the same subway line, I will take the bus if I have the time to spare. I not only save $1.70 by doing so, but I get the pleasure of a bus ride.

But why do I like the bus so much? This question — and its answer — came to mind on Wednesday evening. I was attending a friend’s performance at 10PM, and I had a couple of hours to kill between dinner and then. I bummed around Harvard Square for a while but eventually decided just to get on the No. 1 bus, which would take me to the establishment in question. But as I approached the bar, I just stayed on the bus. In fact, I rode through Cambridge, past MIT, across the Mass. Ave. bridge, all the way to the Christian Science center.

In this instance, the bus served two purposes: one, I got to take advantage of some free time to ride one of the MBTA’s better bus routes into the city and back to visit one of my favorite spots (on a listless evening, seeing the Christian Science Center and the Boston skyline at night will perk you right up); two, I got to enjoy being ferried through Boston and Cambridge, taking in the people around me and the sights along the way.

The bus lets me down, it’s true. Like Saturday, when I stood outside in the cold and bracing wind waiting 30 minutes for a late bus to Davis Square. Or when humanity’s quirks and eccentricities extend beyond good people-watching fodder and either begin to annoy or cause discomfort. Or when it inevitably speeds past juuuuuust as I get to the stop. It’s for those reasons that I can understand why many people dismiss the bus as weird, dirty, not dependable, inconvenient, etc.

So, why does my love of the bus persist?

1. The aforementioned people- and city-watching. Sure, you can observe characters and assess people’s reading material and peer at your neighbor’s iPod and speculate wildly about the backstories of the people around you on any mode of transit. But the bus trumps the subway in my book mainly because you can see what’s happening beyond the vessel. No matter how familiar the route, I can still lose myself in gazing at storefronts and intersections and landmarks. Dark tunnels have nothing on the outside world.

2. Making the city bigger. One of my favorite routes is the No. 8, which I used to ride nearly its entire length from my workplace at JFK-UMass to Kenmore Square, because as a 22-23 year old, it provided a great look at the city beyond the Copleys and Faneuils. The bus also empowers me to go on epic urban adventures where, moreso than driving on the highway or riding the subway, it’s about the journey as much as it’s about the destination. I like having to do nothing more than pay attention to where I need to get off, and I can extend my reach beyond the spokes of the subway and get to some pretty cool places. And it’s not just about the MBTA. I take a certain amount of pride in conquering the above-ground public transit options of any city I visit. This year, I’ve done it in both Brussels and San Francisco. In the latter, I took the bus all the way from the Castro to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was almost as much fun as visiting the bridge itself.

3. The bus is my mobile office. It’s where I do a significant amount of my reading, music listening, web browsing (hooray for the Blackberry) and social planning. It’s amazing how much I can get done on the 10 minute bus ride to work.

4. A sociological exercise. If you get on the bus by yourself, you’re likely going to immerse yourself in some activity for the duration of your ride, whether it’s reading, reading e-mail, chatting on the phone or simply gazing out the window or getting lost in thought. Riding the bus is a very solitary experience. But at the same time, it’s also extremely communal. Yes, you’re having a private experience, but so are the 20 other people sharing this small confided space on wheels. Whether in passing or in greater depth, chances are you have sized one another up or at the very least taken note of each other’s presence. Think about “Lost.” That series addresses the question of what would happen if you somehow became inextricably bound up in the lives of the people with whom, by chance, you are sharing a transportation experience. It’s a fascinating idea. I admit to having thought, while riding the bus, about what would happen if I was suddenly thrust into a shared experience with my fellow passengers, a la “Speed.” Though hopefully with less Keanu Reeves.

5. A feeling of peace. Call me weird, but when I get on the bus — particularly when I am settling in for a ride of some duration — I am filled with a sense of calm. I feel fortunate for having an accessible, affordable means of crosstown transit, not to mention one that (most of the time) affords me a seat with a view and the time to catchup, daydream or nap. It feels like a luxury. Perhaps for someone like me, who sees public transit as more of a right than a privilege, it is dangerous to admit that. But spaces where we are allowed to be quiet and left to our own devices feel few and far between nowadays, and they should be treasured.

I was having dinner with a friend the other evening and was telling her about this post. (It was this same friend who found the above pin at a local vintage shop a couple of years ago and gave it to me as a gift.) She recalled how when she moved to Boston 15+ years ago, she liked it fine, but it was on the bus — watching the city unfold around her as she advanced toward her destination — that she fell in love with it.  And that sums it up more perfectly than I ever could.

Immersion Learning

The only thing I knew about yesterday is where I would begin. I had no idea where I would end up.

IMG00461-20091022-1254Lately, I’ve had a bit of wanderlust combined with an urge to drive. I’ve been missing the open road, which I gained a fine appreciation for while road-tripping around the South with my brother this summer. So I took a day off of work, booked a Zipcar, and set out from Somerville with only a loose set of destinations in mind.

After breakfast with a friend in Peabody, I hit Brooksby Farm to get some cider donuts. I had been told that my New England citizenship was in danger of being revoked since I had never had one, and sure enough, they are good enough that it is a crime I hadn’t had one earlier. From there, I found my way onto 127, headed toward Gloucester and Rockport. I’ve been to those towns before, so I wasn’t particularly interested in getting out of my car and exploring the towns. I was more interested in seeing what would happen behind the wheel.

At several points, I lost track of where I was. But I didn’t really care. As long as I was on a main road (or something resembling a main road), even if I hadn’t seen a 127 sign in miles, I was OK.

DSCN6707I pulled into a random park at one point that had a stunning harbor view. Turns out it was Stage Fort Park, where Tablet Rock designates the first settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at that spot in 1623.  I drove past Good Harbor Beach, taking in dazzling views of the beach, the ocean and the rocky shoreline — at one point, I pulled into the Elks parking lot just to sit back and take it in. I drove past the Fisherman’s Monument, downtown Gloucester and all the little shops and homes.

IMG00464-20091022-1424I continued through Rockport, stumbling into the kitschy, narrow lanes of Bearskin Neck. I continued down 127, hooking back west until I reconnected with 128. By this time, I had my fill of quiet scenery and was ready for some acceleration. I proceeded to cut over onto 133 to hit Woodman’s in Essex for the last crab roll (my weakness) of the season. So tasty — and relatively empty. I can’t imagine that place in July.

With nothing else on my agenda, I decided that a couple of hours of driving and singing sounded pretty good. So I got on 93-North and decided to drive to Derry, New Hampshire, with the iPod tuned to my Favorites playlist. In truth, I just wanted to cross state lines — it sounds like a silly wish, but for someone who doesn’t have a car, it is kind of a rare treat. Luckily, in New England, if you have a car (or, heck, even a commuter rail ticket) it’s easy enough to do. I had a loose goal of finding Robert Frost’s farm, but with no clear directions and time running out on my Zipcar reservation, I didn’t look too hard.

After I made it back to Somerville and dropped off my car, I headed downtown for Boston Blogtoberfest. I’m trying to hit more of these events (call it a fall resolution). I saw Brad, finally met Steve Garfield and the Whalehead King and chatted with some new folks like Jaclyn the Bar Warrior.  It was a good time, though I haven’t checked my credit card yet to see how much that gin and tonic cost me. Around 8PM, though, I got the itch. Not that the company and conversation wasn’t good, but I realized that it was unseasonably warm outside, and I had nothing but time and a city at my disposal.

IMG00471-20091022-2050I proceeded to take a rambling walk up Berkeley Street to Marlborough Street, walking up to the Common, past Cheers, around Beacon Hill, past Louisburg Square (and John Kerry’s brownstone) and ultimately, to the street I lived on when I was a baby. That’s right, the first two years of my life were spent in one of Boston’s toniest neighborhoods. Eventually, I reached 36 So. Russell Street, at which point I called my mom to chat. It was weird, but pretty awesome. I then headed to Charles/MGH, where I boarded a train for Davis Square and headed home.


I hated to turn away from the balmy night air, but the need to rest overruled my urge to explore. It had been a day spent immersed in the poles of the New England experience, from Bearskin Neck to Beacon Hill, from sitting behind the wheel to hitting the pavement. Notably, while I loved driving around Massachusetts, taking in the foliage and the ocean views, the landmark sites and the interesting roadside scenes, my favorite moment of the day was when I was walking to Blogtoberfest, on Tremont Street where it crosses over the Mass Pike. The sun had set, but there was still a splash of light on the western horizon. The Pru and the Hancock tower were lit up against a deep blue dusk, and the rush of traffic below soundtracked the scene perfectly. The day had given me an appreciation for New England, affirming it as the place where I belong. But right then, between the highway, the sunset, the city lights and the tens of thousands of people around me, I felt the most at home.

Open Source on the Open Road

Since I am a transit geek, I follow MassDOT on Twitter. It has proven to be a useful, though not entirely captivating, source of traffic/MBTA alerts and MassDOT news (new bridges opening, RMV branches closing, Fast Lane transponder sales, etc.) Today, though, they posted a link to something pretty cool on their blog:

Using the data the MBTA recent released for the Google Transit Planner, Monkey At Large created an animation of a day’s worth of subway traffic, using resources provided by the Executive Office of Transportation Developers Page.

Now, first of all, maybe I hadn’t been clicking through the Twitter updates a whole bunch, but I didn’t know MassDOT had a blog, too — a frequently updated one, at that. What more, they’re finding cool content that other people are creating and linking to it, in addition to posting their own information (and videos).

They’re also building community — not just through their Twitter presence and blog, but for the developers who will find new, cool ways to manipulate the raw stuff of transit data into something riders can not only use, but perhaps be entertained by.

We all complain about the Big Dig and the MBTA fare hikes and late buses, but I think that just shows how deeply we all care about transportation. We’re all invested in it, one way or another, whether we like it or not. We can’t help but care. Tapping into that investment and getting people excited by some aspect of it can only serve the agency well. Who knows, if agencies like MassDOT can keep finding ways to inform, engage and entertain us on the web, maybe we’ll look more kindly on them the next time our train breaks down or Pike tolls go up. Maybe.

Can the MBTA Avert #mbtafail?

I love the MBTA.

Wait, no, let me start over.

I love public transit. I love living in a city that is so conducive to public transit — compact, diverse, populous. I love the big pile of bus schedules I carry in my bag, because while I can look up transit schedules via my Blackberry, it’s so much more fun to thumb through my big stack, pull out the schedule in question and study it, like a navigator charting my course. I love people-watching. I appreciate (though I may not always love) the inherent serendipity. Ages ago, I actually started a Facebook fan page for the MBTA.

I am also lucky. I love public transit, but I don’t necessarily need it. I live close to work, friends, grocery stores and Zipcars. If the bus drivers went on strike for a week, I would get by.

It is not me that I am worried about.

The MBTA is in crisis. It seems like the powers that be will whine and moan about how the MBTA’s real crisis is its budget shortfall, but the real crisis does not belong to the state. It belongs to the ridership, who consistently get a raw deal from the folks at the top — fare hikes and service cuts are always the first solution trumpeted whenever the going gets tough at the MBTA.

Sure, Gov. Deval Patrick is making noise about a top to bottom review of management at the MBTA, but I have my doubts about whether or not that really means anything. In the wake of the messy exit of Dan Grabauskas (who is still making noise himself), how can I help but think that this call is simply in response to the need to put a positive spin on the latest T drama? Why is such a review only a bright idea now, amid texting drivers (and the debatable response thereto), fatal accidents, chronic power issues and “signal delays,” embezzling employees, Charlie Card machines that inconsistently accept debit cards and other issues large and small, not the least of which is a $160 million FY10 budget shortfall and $2.2 billion in long-term debt? (Note: Nearly one-tenth of this year’s shortfall is the amount the T has lost each year to fare evaders. Charlie Cards help curb fare evaders, but it’s still a huge problem on the commuter rail.) Why has the MBTA always been allowed to procrastinate facing up to its big, hairy problems, and why has the rider always been the fall guy? Why will this time be any different?

In my mind, public transit is like a utility, like water or electricity. It is not an option; it is a requirement, an obligation of the municipal authority to provide to its population.

In turn, that is why I am not worried about me. I am worried about the folks I used to ride the first 89 bus of the day with to Sullivan Station, who were heading to less glamorous jobs than mine at the Boston Globe. I am worried about the hordes of people I see crowding at Sullivan around 9 or 10PM for a 104 or 109 bus back to Everett. I am worried about the domino effect of lack of evening commuter rail service on sporting and entertainment events in the city, both on the promoters and the individuals who will be unable to come in from out of town to attend. I am worried about kids who attend school across town and may either have to leave early and miss out on after-school activities or stay late, and maybe alone, until the next bus or a ride comes. I am worried about the environment, as commuters may hop back in their cars if inconvenienced by slashed schedules. I am worried that fare hikes or service cuts will not have any demonstrable benefit to the ridership and that even with the earnings/savings they would bring, the financial problems will not be allayed due to incompetence, mismanagement or all of the above.

As I was discussing some of these possibilities with a co-worker on Monday, the concern I’ve carried around since service cuts were first breached a few months ago began to heighten. Yes, I believe public transit should be provided to citizens just like any other utility. Which is why fare hikes without a plan for how they would be used to reduce debt AND improve service — and service cuts especially — would be a major disservice to the people of eastern Massachusetts. I understand that the agency has a tremendous amount of debt that hamstrings some of what they can do, but I’ve seen businesses manage debt in creative ways. I have to think it’s possible here. It can’t be an excuse anymore. I think the state needs to find a way to support public transit that treats it like a utility — after all, you wouldn’t limit the hours per day someone had access to hot water or electricity. If we’re serious about supporting the needs and aspirations of an urban population, and about shifting to a green way of life, we have to fundamentally change the way we look at public transit.

The MBTA is currently holding public workshops and hearings on the proposed fare and service changes, and I was fascinated on Monday by the Universal Hub live-tweeting of the first of these meetings. Will what gets said in these forums be heard? It’s hard to tell. But it’s important to keep talking. And you’ve got to hope that someone is listening — really listening. Because the real solution can’t be found in the rider’s pocket. That idea can’t cut it anymore.

Road Trip Radio

My brother and I are geniuses, obviously, which explains why we didn’t realize that our rental car had XM radio until, oh, two days into our trip. Clearly, we were distracted from this discovery by our other rigorous intellectual pursuits. Or, maybe, we’re just that clueless.

Either way, the discovery delighted us. One of my favorite memories with my brother is tooling around Providence in a Zipcar, back when they had XM radio, and surfing through the various stations. We stumbled across some sort of public information channel, which was full of unintentionally hilarious items that left us cracking up. This time around, we quickly found our favorite stations — 1st Wave (new wave), Boneyard (metal), Lithium (grunge/90s), Classic Rewind, Classic Vinyl,  Underground Garage, 90s on 9 and 80s on 8. Occasionally, we found something on the Loft, Spectrum, Alt Nation or Coffeehouse, but believe it or not, Sirius XM U was a bit too hip for even us to bear.

All was well for the first couple of days. But by midweek, we noticed something that surprised us. I think we had expected satellite radio to be some haven of repeat-free playlists, where DJs took advantage of practically infinite archives within their genres to craft programs that were unique and diverse. But by the 8th time of hearing New Order’s “True Faith” on 1st wave and our 50th Stone Temple Pilots song on Lithium, we sensed something was amiss.

Apparently, while satellite radio has the benefit of allowing you to hone in on stations that focus on your favorite genres  — thus rescuing you from an adult contemporary wasteland that can cruelly juxtapose a pretty good Guster song with something wretch-worthy by Kenny Loggins — within those stations, the same unfortunate rotations seem to apply. This doesn’t make sense to me for a station like 1st Wave, which could easily find other New Order songs to play or bust out something by Depeche Mode other than “Enjoy the Silence.” By the end of our trip, we’d be turning the dial away from songs we had previously been excited to hear not three days previously, because we’d already heard them ten times.

Still, I really enjoyed having XM Radio on our roadtrip. It helped diffuse any potential iPod wars by presenting a highly desirable alternative, and we had a lot of fun mishearing song lyrics, hearing new songs, singing along to old favorites and generally talking about what is a passion for both of us. For my brother and I, music is a huge common thread, so we particularly enjoyed having something over which we could share our enjoyment — and our mockery.

Of note: I was in a store Saturday and they started playing New Order’s “True Faith.” I didn’t know whether to feel nostalgic or like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.”

A Non-Judgmental Bike Shop Comes to Somerville

When I emerged from the basement digs of Open Bicycle on Friday evening, the day’s grey and rain had dissipated, replaced by blue skies. I had a souped-up bike and a warm, fuzzy glow that had nothing to do with the recently reappeared sun. The only thing missing was a helmet, so I could have taken in the evening from the seat of my bike, zipping down the road back home.

susanxx-R1-052-24AI came late to bike riding. It wasn’t until 2005 (the same summer I learned to drive and, well, tried to learn how to swim) that I pursued bike-riding lessons. Luckily, a lovely woman in Somerville, Susan McLucas, specializes in adult bike-riding lessons. . (See picture at left of me during a bike-riding lesson.) I remember being astonished the first time I was on a bike, feet off the ground, and not falling over. In time, I was zipping down the bike path, riding between my house and Davis Square and enjoying the feeling of transportation independence — no bus schedules, no engine maintenance, just me and two wheels.

Those two wheels, however, were purchased somewhat ill-advisedly. I found a good deal on Craigslist of some guy looking to get rid of a bike, helmet and lock. The bike was in fine shape, but I bought it not knowing anything about different kinds of bikes, what kind I needed, what size was right for me.

Over the past couple of years, as I’ve ridden my bike around, I’ve always felt like I’ve been slower and more sluggish than other riders I see on the road, and I knew it wasn’t me. I figured there were probably some changes — whether simple adjustments or more comprehensive work — that could be made to my bike to make it more adaptable to my needs and my body. Failing that, it would probably be time to buy a new bike, this time in a proper manner.

I’ve been taking my bike to Paramount in Powderhouse (now Ball Square) as long as I’ve had it — in fact, I wheeled it over there directly after buying it — and I’ve never gotten anything but quality work done there. But this year, as I looked to give my bike its annual tune-up, I also felt it was time to confront all these existential questions I had about my bike. And, well, I didn’t feel like I could go to Paramount for that. The work’s always been good there, but I somehow felt like I wasn’t “bike-y” enough to be there. Like since I wasn’t some hardcore, calves-of-steel, all-season biker, I was a bit of a pretender. And I didn’t feel like having my ignorance thrown back at me or being subject to someone’s judgment. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened, but based on previous vibes, that was my fear.

I first saw flyers for Open Bicycle a few months ago, a few blocks from their Union Square location. Then I began to hear a bit of a buzz. And the buzz was… they’re nice. Some nice young men running a bicycle shop. Isn’t that lovely? And Yelp backed up the buzz. I did some more research and saw they were very into art and coffee and community. This seemed like it might be my kind of place.

So, two Saturdays ago, I rode to the Union Square Farmer’s Market and then brought my bike over to Open. They’re located on Washington Street, just two blocks from the Square, in a basement next to a beauty supply wholesaler. The exterior belies the funky little shop and gallery space they’ve created inside. Once inside, I talked to Zack and explained my situation. He and one of his co-workers examined my bike and talked through what might be causing it to feel so heavy and slow. Wrong fork. Knobby tires. The energy I put into it, they said, gets sucked right out by those things.

So, I left my faithful bike with these nice young men, to get a new basket and a tune-up on top of the other changes. To my shock, they told me they would have it ready on Wednesday. Wednesday. That’s just four days after drop-off.

Wednesday night, however, I was at the Freedy Johnston show, and Thursday brought downpours. So after work on Friday, I took the bus over to Open.

When they wheeled out my bike… it turns out they had installed a rack and not a basket. I had been afraid of this, actually. During our conversation on Saturday, I had asked for a rack, but one of the guys said a basket might be better for my needs, and I agreed. When I got the call on Wednesday that the bike was ready, there was still some lack of clarity about whether I wanted a rack or a basket, but eventually it was decided that I would pick out a basket when I got there for the pickup and they would install it while I wait.

When I saw the rack and no basket, I explained my Wednesday phone conversation. It seeemed like there had been a miscommunication between the guys at the shop. They told me they would take off the rack and install the basket.

With the new fork, however, getting the basket on proved to be a tricky proposition. They had to shave some metal and do other bike-magic things that ended up taking about an hour. I was slightly annoyed, but I also felt bad that a confusing conversation had given them all this unexpected work to do. Because even in just the hour, hour and a half that I was there — between 6 and 8PM on a Friday, mind you — a bunch of people came in: some picking up, some who had just gotten flats, some who had other problems. In just a few months, Open has built up quite a following for themselves.

When the work was finally done and Zack and I exchanged apologies, he rang me up. To my shock, for the trouble, they dropped all the labor charges off the whole bill. The final total for all of that work? $105. I had been quoted $160. I was floored, and impressed. While they could probably stand to come up with a better system for confirming orders, the service was still high quality, and they were more than willing to account for any problems that came up.

I told Zack why I’d come to Open: that I’d had all these bike questions I wanted to ask in a non-judgmental environment, and I had heard they were nice guys. He smiled and shook his head, lamenting that there seemed to be a lot of bike snobbery in the area. He said it didn’t make sense to judge people for not knowing everything about their bikes.

“If they did, they’d probably work in a bike shop,” Zack said.

“And wear a cool hat,” I said, referring to his short-billed bike cap. He laughed. “I don’t know if I’d say cool hat.”

Zack said that if I wanted a city that was the opposite, where bike-riders were not expected to be two-wheeled geniuses, I shold try Portland, Ore. I think I’ll pass. If Open Bicycle sticks around, I think Somerville will be good enough for me.