Urban greenhorn

Recently I took some visitors from Europe on a tour of Boston. I shouldn’t say that I took them on a tour as I was just as much a tourist myself. I’m not a city person. Given a choice between New York City and a one bedroom cottage on a quiet lake in Vermont, I’d take the latter.  I figured though that my friends should at least get a taste of the “Hub of the Universe.” Rather than try and negotiate getting into the city myself, I enlisted my cousin who knows his way around Boston. He agreed to set everything up. I was along for the ride.

He agreed to pick up a one-day MBTA pass for each of the four of us. To do that, he had to find an outlet that would sell him the $12.00 “Charlie card.” The first place he went, a convenience store in Weymouth, the clerk said he couldn’t buy one because the computer was down. These ticket outlets aren’t just on every corner.  My cousin had to travel to Milton to find a 7/11 where he bought the four tickets. Strange as it may seem (and it certainly seemed strange to my European friends) when you buy the 24 hour ticket, the clock starts running when you give the money to the store outlet. Our tickets were stamped good from 6:36 p.m. twenty four hours later to 6:37 p.m. Think about this. If we had wanted to stay in the city for supper, our ticket would have expired before we got on the train home.  In Europe, you buy a day ticket from any one of hundreds of outlets and when you get to the station, you have it validated when you board so you get a true 24 hours to ride subways, busses, and trolleys.  In our case, we effectively got about 12 hours of use.  Yes I suppose we could have purchased our tickets on the day we were going into the city but that involved some logistics that made that option less attractive.  If the lottery can sell scratch tickets on every block, why can’t the MBTA do the same to make it more convenient?  As it was, when we got to the North Quincy T station, our tickets wouldn’t work. There was no MBTA worker or official to ask why the tickets wouldn’t work. After repeated tries to get the ticket to open the gates, (There are not any gates in European cities my friends commented. You have your ticket on you and if asked you must produce it or there is a big fine.) we did what a lot of people apparently do all the time. We “jumped” the gate. (Actually we went though on the coat tails of another passenger who held it open for us.)  My cousin had a Xeroxed copy of his transaction showing that our tickets were purchased for the day we were to travel so we were actually hoping that some T official would stop us so we could show it to him. But we saw no one. There was no one in charge.

Once the Red Line train rumbled into the station, it was like deja vu. I think the cars were the same ones that were new when I was a college student in Boston during the 1960s. The stations we passed through looked dingy and dirty. About a half hour later we were in the city.

The day in Boston was actually a good time. We did the Duck Boats, the Freedom Trail, the Public Gardens, Faneuil Hall marketplace, the old statehouse, etc.  We ate lots of food and enjoyed the crowds while watching some good street performers .  We got out of the city before our no-good tickets expired. I guess it didn’t matter. My friends really enjoyed the day.

The experience left me wondering what the purposes of public mass transit should be. Encouraging people to leave their cars at home should be one of them. Route 93 into the city was crawling along at about 5 mph with usually a single person in each of the thousands of cars. Wouldn’t these people prefer a clean, reliable and reasonably priced alternative to sitting in traffic jams every day? Would not a better transit system free up roadways so that we don’t have to build more highways every year that will, in a short time, become overcrowded themselves?  How much pollution and waste of resources not to mention time is wasted trying to get from one place to another? It seemed so obvious that moving people into the city could be done so much better. I can attest that when in Europe I constantly marvel at how good city and travel between major urban areas is. And yet, here we continue to pursue transit policies that actually discourage people from using public transportation. Just from the difficulty of purchasing a transit card to the old and dirty equipment on the different lines and the expense of parking, I had to conclude that people just don’t care enough to change the system.  I won’t be going into Boston again soon. It’s a shame.




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