Tag Archives: bus

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.

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.

Beware of the Warm Fuzzies

Herein lies a cautionary tale relating to social media and a phenomenon I like to refer to as the “warm fuzzies.”

This weekend, I decided to take a rather last-minute trip to New York City to visit my brother and help him tape a scene for an episode of his web series. On Friday evening, I sat down to buy my bus ticket. Though I am a loyal Greyhound rider (and a veteran of the Boston<->NYC route) I had the idea of taking BoltBus, lured by the promise of outlets and cheap prices. But when I checked it out, the only Sunday return trips available on BoltBus were at 11AM or 8:45PM. So, I went with Greyhound. I tweeted about my decision:

Turns out BoltBus is sold out for NYC->Boston on Sunday except for 11AM & 8PM trips. Greyhound RT for $40? Not bad. No outlets, but not bad.

Who responded to me but GreyhoundBus, the company’s Twitter presence?

Actually…we have power outlets and Wi-Fi on Greyhound between NY and Boston. You’re in luck! http://tinyurl.com/crr2st

The link goes to a New York Times article from a couple weeks ago about overhauls to the Greyhound fleet. I noticed at the time the discrepancy between the company tweet and the article: the former made me think that all the Boston<->NYC buses did have outlets and wi-fi, while the article said that only the first of these buses were being rolled out this month. Still, I was really impressed. I had a clinical case of the warm fuzzies about Greyhound. In my mind, perhaps foolishly, the wifi and outlets were a done deal — the company said so! I briefly pondered bringing my laptop, though in the end I didn’t.

And I would be glad I left it at home. I had a 1PM bus, but I got there pretty early. I settled in at Gate 3 and waited. And waited. The line grew. 12:45, still no bus. 12:55, still no bus. The warm fuzzies began to wore off, and reality set in.

I began recalling what Greyhound is like in reality. They never have attendants at the gate to inform you of delays. Signage does not reflect schedule changes in real-time. You wait, and eventually (hopefully) a bus shows up and takes you where you want to go. Usually, in my experience, they are fairly on time while not making any extra efforts at customer service. This is the experience I was used to.

But coming down from a warm fuzzy high, I began to feel pretty frustrated and vented a little bit to Twitter. I remembered a story that Boston Mike told at an American Marketing Association event on social media I attended last week about how when encountering difficulties with JetBlue, he tweeted about it and the problems were resolved in almost real-time. So yeah, I was sort of hoping in vain for that sort of intervention, even though I maintain an organization Twitter account and know that would be pretty unlikely on a Saturday afternoon. 

Then, I see one of the fancy new Greyhound buses mentioned in the NYT article coming around the bend. The warm fuzzies almost return until it rolls right past our gate and parks at the other side. Shortly thereafter, by 1:10 or 1:15 at this point, a Vermont Transit bus pulls up at Gate 3. Some folks get off, but others are still on board. Some Greyhound staff are milling around, going in and out of the bus. No one has told us anything. Everyone is eyeing the bus impatiently, wondering if it’s ours. 

The driver finally opens the door and begins taking our tickets. I have to presume the dozen-plus people already on board are from Vermont? One couple is eating tuna, which is an unfortunate smell to encounter in an enclosed vehicle. Soon, the bus is full, the fate of the rest of the people who had been in line unclear; one would think another bus is en route, since Greyhound (wisely) tends to stock its routes with extra buses. As we pull out, I see the slick new Greyhound bus pull out as well, perhaps heading to pick up the others at Gate 3? Soon, I was on the Mass Pike, Brooklyn-bound and leaving South Station behind.

So, what did I learn from this experience? Greyhound gave me a delightful case of the warm fuzzies with its Twitter presence — friendly, engaging, helpful, informative. Perhaps too informative, as the 140 chars. of information I received was potentially misleading. What if I *had* brought my laptop? That would have been a huge pain. 

That was the online experience, but the offline experience — the actual experience — was not all that friendly, engaging, helpful or informative. And in all honesty, it was more or less the same caliber of experience I typically have on Greyhound, but it was thrown into sharp relief by the warm, fuzzy experience I had with @GreyhoundBus the previous day.

I applaud Greyhound for the way they run GreyhoundBus, and I remain a huge fan of them and bus travel in general, but I feel they would be better served by bringing their entire customer service apparatus — online and off — up to the same level of quality and accuracy.  This experience exposed not only the potentially annoying aspects of taking Greyhound, but the pitfalls of making promises you can’t keep and have two customer service experiences that don’t match up. And as for me? Next time, I’ll try to take the warm fuzzies with a grain of salt. There’s the virtual world, and then there’s the real world, and while the distinction grows increasingly blurry, there are some areas in which the two are very much apart.

I PAID MONEY

From Superpoop

This is funny, but it wasn’t so funny when I was stranded at Davis Square for an hour and a half last night waiting for two buses that never came. Bus make me has a sad.

Recently, the 89 bus switched the outbound end of its evening service to start from Davis Square instead of Clarendon Hill, a nod to the need for people to get to and from the T and various nightlife. This is a good move, but as it turns out, apparently, I leave the area from closer to old Clarendon Hill route (Teele Square, specifically) more often than I leave from Davis. And apparently when I try to leave from Davis, the bus just won’t come. 

To add insult to injury, when I try to fill out the form on MBTA.com for the On-Time Service Guarantee, I keep getting error messages. I bet if I try to Write to the Top, I’ll get a Return to Sender notice.

Me and the MBTA are usually on good terms, but today? I’m walking to work.*

* OK, I was going to walk to work anyways, but still. When the bus passes me, I plan on sticking out my tongue.