Riding Big Red

Last month, Boston’s transit authority the MBTA introduced a new “high-capacity car” on the Red Line which they call Big Red. Basically during rush hours a couple of car without any seats are placed at the center of the train. As an experienced commuter, I’ve long become accustomed to the limited circulation within MBTA subway cars. This is especially true for people in wheelchairs, people with bikes, luggage, or other bulky items, and people like myself who travel with children in strollers. Even when it’s just human bodies, it can get pretty tight in the subway car. So I found this an excellent idea and having recently had a chance to ride the Big Red (with my son in his stroller) found it much more convenient to board, get into the center of the car, and find a place to ride in peace without getting in anyone else’s way.

While Big Red is promoted as a high-capacity car, I think it’s real advantage is in improving the circulation of passengers within the cars which will contribute greatly to speeding up boarding times at the station. In a normal subway car, the ride is often slowed down by:

  • People who start boarding while other people are trying to get out of the train
  • Passengers who stand in front of the door while other people are trying to board and unload.
  • Passengers who completely block the aisle w/ their bodies and/or accouterments.
  • Passengers who refuse to move into the center of the car (of course w/ other passengers blocking the aisles can often be blamed for this)
  • People who insist on squishing into an already crowded train even when it’s been announced that another train is approaching.

I’ve only had a chance to ride a Big Red car once, but I did find that a lot of these problems were alleviated by the more spacious interior of the seatless cars. The MBTA has received a lot of harsh criticism for Big Red – most noticeably from that bastion of fair & balanced journalism the Boston Herald which pictured a subway car full of heifers under the headline CATTLE CAR. I personally applaud the MBTA for thinking creatively, and even if Big Red flops, I hope they continue to try out new ideas that may improve the rider experience on the T.

I’ve travelled on transit systems in other cities that have spring-loaded seats that can be flipped down when needed by the riders.  I think this is something the MBTA should consider to make the interiors of the subway cars more flexible.  On the U-Bahn in Munich, I was also impressed that at the stations in the center city all the passengers would exit out one side of the train while boarding passengers would enter from the other side of the train, greatly decreasing the amount of time the train has to spend at the station.  I think the MBTA should try this at Park Street station by having passengers board the train from the side platforms and exit onto the center platform (although since the elevator is on the center platform, anyone needing the elevator would still have to board from the center platform).

I’ve submitted my comments to the MBTA through their Big Red survey on their website.  Let’s hope they keep trying things out to make getting around our great city all the more pleasurable

South Station & Greenway Inaugural

Today, my son Peter & I took a tour of South Station, a continuing education for members of Boston By Foot (one of the reasons why you should become a member).  I love railroad stations so it was fun to poke around and see old artifacts, granite pilings, and even the exclusive Acela waiting room.

Unfortunately, railway stations are crowded, noisy places so I didn’t learn much to report back.  South Station is also difficult to photograph.  There are so many people and iPod ads in the way. The highlight of the tour for me was a story from a BBF docent who remembers riding in his friend’s aunt’s private train to go to New York for Mets’ games (the aunt of course was Joan Payson).  There’s a good history of the building online at the South Station website.

I thought about catching the commuter train to Forest Hills, but just missed it.  Instead we walked along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and enjoyed the Greenway’s ignagural event.  It strikes me that the Greenway makes an excellent location for a street fair, so I hope other events like this will be held in the future.  Peter enjoyed boogieing in the grass to the Jewish-Cuban sounds of Odessa Havana.  After that we went home for a nap.


Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Trolley Line

I arrived early for a tour in Ashmont and with nothing better to do, I got my geek on and rode the Mattapan-Ashmont High Speed Trolley Line. I’ve lived in Boston for nearly ten years and have wanted to ride this special trolley line for almost as long.  Granted, the previous time I tried the line was closed for the day, and it was closed completely for renovation for a couple of years, but I’ve been delinquent regardless.

What makes the line special to transit geeks like myself is that it uses PCC Streetcars, a sturdy design manufactured from the 1920’s-1950’s.  It also has an exclusive right-of-way, hence the “high speed” designation.

The ride was a joy.  The PCC Streetcars seem to have a more spacious interior and run more smoothly than the Green Line light-rail vehicles (although a couple of time the car jerked violently from side-to-side). The ride is scenic passing through a cemetery, along a Neponset River wetlands, past old warehouses in Milton and through many backyards (I’d love to have a trolley line in my backyard).  The trolley drivers don’t come to a full-stop at the stations unless someone requests it, but they do a kind of rolling stop.  I was amused when the trolley operator stopped to talk with the driver of the car coming from the opposite direction.

The viaduct turn-around at Ashmont reminds me of a roller coaster at an amusement park.

I thought the MBTA logo looked old-fashioned but the route maps are pretty much up-to-date.

The trolley at the Mattapan terminus

Two off-duty trolleys at the Mattapan yard.

More on the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Trolley Line at NYC Subways.

Previously: Mattapan Trolley Returns

Panorama of the Mountains Fashion Report

I don’t usually report on fashion, and any of you who have ever seen me know that I lack anything fashionable in my wardrobe and usually look like a rumpled mess (and thanks to Peter, usually covered in spitup as well!). Today however I want to pay tribute to a style that has persevered while many other fads and fashions have come and gone: teenage boys in baggy pants. This is inspired by the large group of teenagers on the Orange Line this morning, mostly boys, wearing jeans the ubiquitous overly large garments. It’s almost as if it’s a contest to see how much extra fabric one can have miraculously hanging down below one’s knees.

It occurs to me that teenage boys started dressing like this when I was in high school, and I graduated in 1991! Granted I went to Catholic school so I would never be able to dress like this for school as a teen, nor was I hip enough (or had enough hip?) to wear jeans this baggy on my own time. Still it’s quite fascinating to think that the teens of today playing with their cellphone cameras and sidekicks are connected with the teens of nearly 20 years ago who only had Gameboys and Walkmans. The connection crosses cultural divides as well from the black and Hispanic urban young men I saw today to the privileged suburbanite frat boys at our nation’s colleges.

So, I have to give credit to the baggy pants which although they often look ridiculous and even uncomfortable, have stood the test of time. At least they’re better than the acid wash and pre-torn jean styles that preceded them in the late 80’s.

No Kicks on Route 66

This morning while riding the MBTA 66 bus, a stylish woman boarded the bus in Coolidge Corner pushing an extremely large stroller, kind of a hybrid between a Victorian-era pram and a monster truck.  She didn’t get far though as passengers standing in the aisle would not budge even though there was plenty room for them for them to stand further back in the bus.  They seemed to be acting as if they wanted her to somehow get around them and go to the back of the bus herself.  So she and her stroller were stuck at the front of the bus next to the driver for a few stops and people getting on and off just squeezed by her (even though it may have been easier for a lot off the passengers getting off to use the rear door).

I wavered between who I found more annoying:  the woman who brought a ginormous stroller on public transportation or the passengers who steadfastly refused to let her in thus creating a dangerous bottleneck.  Luckily, after a few stops things cleared up and the woman with the stroller moved over to the handicap seats, flipped them up and stood with the stroller out of the way.  This was a good thing because as we passed through Allston we picked up more and more passengers until people were squished in like sardines.  Altogether and ugly and unpleasant ride.

I came to the following conclusions on how various individuals could improve the bus-riding experience for everyone:

  • Parents: Babies are small, so they don’t need SUV-sized strollers.  A small stroller or sling is more appropriate if you plan to use public transportation.
  • Passengers: Move to the rear of the bus and exit the rear door whenever possible.  It really does make things more comfortable and efficient for everyone.  Really! Oh, and if you’re one of those people who sits on the aisle with an empty space by the window, knock it off already, that’s totally selfish!
  • The MBTA: In my experience, more often than not the 66 bus gets packed with passengers, forcing people to stand in the stairwells and otherwise having no room to breathe. This should be a clue that perhaps buses should run more frequently and/or double-length buses (like the ones used on route 39) should be used on this route.  In my dreams, I’d actually like to see this bus replaced by a trolley or rapid transit, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

America’s First Subway

The first subway in the United States headed underground (or “off the earth” as newspaper headlines of the time exclaimed) 110 years ago right here in beautiful Boston, Massachusetts. A lot of people at this point would quip something about how the subway hasn’t been upgraded since 1897, but I won’t, because deep inside, I really love the T.

Speaking of public transportation, I recently cleaned out my wallet which was becoming a museum for rapid transit passes.


Here you can see my Charlie Card along with an MTA MetroCard from New York, and a Washington, DC Metro pass, plus day passes for the San Diego MTS trolley and the Los Angeles Metro. I got rid of the day passes, but kept all the ones that still have money on them. They might just work.

If I ruled the world (part 1)

I love this post on Universal Hub called Shut Storrow Drive! I’ve long thought that the Esplanade and the Paul Dudley White Bikepath are shining stars in the galaxy of beautiful sites in Boston. And yet they are pressed into a small piece of riverfront by the glaring eyesore of Storrow Drive. I’m all for getting rid of Storrow and reclaiming the riverfront. After all, that was James J. Storrow’s vision and civic authorities added the highway after his death despite his widow’s protests.

Better yet, it would provide an opportunity to improve public transit by restoring the A Branch of the MBTA Green Line. This line to Watertown was disbanded in 1969 although tracks were still on the streets until a few years ago. My new A Branch would start at North Station, follow the riverfront where Storrow Drive is now and after passing the BU Bridge would use air-rights on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The trolley would either be elevated over the highway, run down the median, and/or run alongside the highway as far as Newton Corner. Then the last leg of the A Branch would go down Galen Street to Watertown Square. There could also be a spur go through the Harvard’s new Allston development and connect to the Red Line and buses at Harvard Square.

And while I’m at it, I’d think an F Branch running from North Station to South Station along the Greenway would be a great idea. This would be similar to what they did in San Francisco to replace an elevated highway with trolley lines. Instead of having these new parks surrounded by 2-3 lanes of cars on each side how about dedicating one side to trolley tracks (and a bike path)? This trolley would be useful for tourists wanting to visit the North End, Fanueil Hall, Aquarium, Rowe’s Wharf, and the Children’s Museum. Business people taking commuter trains into North and South Stations can be whisked to their offices. And while not replacing a much needed North/South rail link, it would provide a useful shuttle between the two stations.

That’s my dream anyway.

Walking Washington Street

A few years back, I read Snowshoeing through Sewers by Michael Aaron Rockland where the author participates in several urban outdoor adventures in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. This includes walking the length of Broadway in Manhattan which I duplicated in 2005. I wanted to conduct a similar outing in Boston and could think of no better road than Washington Street. This historic corridor was the only street connecting colonial Boston to the mainland in Roxbury via the narrow Neck. In 1788 the road was renamed in honor of George Washington. In tribute to the general and president, streets that cross Washington Street tend to change their names as they cross, with a few exceptions such as Massachusetts Avenue. I believe it is the longest street in Boston’s city limits or at least the longest street without a name change. Beyond Boston, Washington Street continues onwards to Providence, RI. In colonial times it served as part of the Boston Post Road and in the early twentieth century it was part of Massachusetts’ first state highway.

More photos from the walk online at Othemts.com!

It turns out that in my life I’ve actually walked most of Washington Street at some point with the exception of two sections. The first leg from the Dedham border to Roslindale was entirely new to me as I’ve never even been to West Roxbury. The section between Egleston Square and Dudley Square was also new territory to me and not coincidentally this was the most run down and desolate section of Washington Street. It’s great to follow a street like this for its entire length and experience the disparate and historic neighborhoods it passes through. A walk on Washington Street takes one through West Roxbury, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, the South End, Chinatown, the Theater District, and downtown Boston’s historic core.

Independence Day seemed as good a day as any to walk the length of a road named for an American patriot. Susan and I took the Orange Line to Forest Hills and the 34 bus down Washington Street from there to the Dedham line. The bus actually said “Dedham Line” as it’s destination, but the bus driver didn’t kick everyone off where we got off so maybe it actually goes on to the other end of Dedham. So we got off the bus and walked back the way we came. Not too long into our journey we passed one of the famed Boston landmarks, a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. We counted 9 Dunkin’ Donuts along the 8.8 mile walk which seems actually surprisingly few for Boston, especially since 2 or 3 of them while visible from Washington did not actually front the street itself. The first leg of the walk featured auto repair shops and car dealerships with a sprinkling of strip malls. Yet parts of the walk felt surprisingly rural. Off Washington were some barely-paved dead end streets with rustic wood frame houses and part of the street is framed by the wilds of Stony Brook State Reservation.

Entering Roslindale we passed children playing on a large inflatable water slide on their driveway. A friendly neighbor greeted us and asked about our plans for the Fourth. Many Bostonians seemed to spend the day doing home repairs such as painting and bricklaying as opposed to the traditional Independence Day grilling. Descending a hill we had our first view of Boston’s skyline in the distance. At Roslindale Square we stopped for very satisfying slices of pizza, properly spiced with a crispy crust. The pizza joint mysteriously has an autographed photo of Ty Cobb. Further along we came upon the Puritan Ice Cream factory but could not figure out where to buy some ice cream, if the general public can actually get some there.

The next leg of the journey begins at Forest Hills, where we boarded a bus about an hour or so earlier. Washington Street is actually split here and we walked along a stretch of road called New Washington Street under the Arborway overpass where the old terminus of the Green Line E Branch still seems to wait for a trolley to roll in. A large MBTA bus yard dominates when we rejoin Washington Street, but eventually we pass it and enter into the mix residential and commercial neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. We’ve been here a lot lately since we’ve been looking to buy a home here so it’s feels like familiar territory. Jamaica Plain haunts like Doyle’s Cafe and Canto 6 are quickly becoming my favorite pub and bakery. Jamaica Plain historically served as the center of brewing in Boston. One massive building on our walk that houses a personal storage rental place, and looked to me like a former armory, was marked as the home of Franklin Brewing Co., 1894.

Entering Roxbury, we walked along a stretch of road with low-income housing, abandoned buildings, rusty chain-link fences and most eerily of all, very few people in site. It was a pleasure to arrive at the bustle of Dudley Square, the commercial and social hub of Roxbury. We took in the landmarks such as the Haley House Bakery Cafe, an old furniture department store with faded advertisements painted on its exterior, and the building where Susan’s co-worker lives over a tattoo parlor (cool pictures in the window of the tats). We took a break in the box seats at Jim Rice Field, a recreational baseball field modeled after Fenway Park. A man on the field asked us how far we thought a mile would be if he ran around the entire field. We all agreed that about five times would do it and he set off to chug around the grounds in the summer sun and dust.

Things became decidedly more upscale as we entered the South End. We were impressed by the large brownstone mansion known as the Allen House. I was also pleased that the TV repair shop with it’s gaudy signs is still in business across the street. I remember reading in the Boston Globe several years back that haughty South End newcomers wanted to close this old store because it didn’t fit in their Yuppified plans for the neighborhood. On a side street we saw a small park with a lot of sprinklers, but sadly we could not run through as it was gated and locked. We were reminded of the date by the frequent lighting of firecrackers in the Franklin Park area. They echoed off the stone and brick in a cacophony of explosions. To Susan’s delight, we also passed a large cookout, so at least some people realize that you don’t spend the holiday repairing your house.

The last part of the walk was less remarkable, probably because we walk around downtown quite often. I took photos of a lot of the landmarks in the area but they were less of a revelation than the rest of the walk. We did find a nice tiered park by Tufts-New England Medicine Center to rest our dogs a bit and watch pigeons do their mating dance. One nice thing to think of as we walked through the throngs of shoppers and tourists is that likely none of these people had walked from Dedham nor did they know that we came that way by foot. We spent the last few blocks trying to find a restroom and a place to get refreshment with no success, so our walk ended rather anti-climatically at the toilets in the National Park Service Visitors Center. We weren’t up to continuing past City Hall to North Washington Street, but instead had a nice lunch at the Kinsale while listening to the rock and roll performances at the Cape Verde Independence Day celebrations across the street.

Next up: walking Massachusetts Avenue from Lexington to Dorchester!

An Assemblage of Assorted Articles

Once again I’ve read and collected news articles and blog posts that are worth sharing but have absolutely nothing to connect them together except maybe that they teach us something interesting. Enjoy!

11 Reasons to ride underground…and one reason not to

Virgin Vacations has named the 11 Top Underground Transit Systems Throughout the World. The T, of course, is # 12. Meanwhile, On The Road With Cindy & Jeff shows evidence that driving through Boston’s new Central Artery tunnels has changed a lot but not all for the better.

In my life, I’ve had the pleasure of riding four of these systems: London, Paris, New York, and Montreal. Some other rapid transit systems I like include Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco, Munich, and Dublin.

In other transit news, Charlie on the MBTA reports that Mayor Menino wants to combine my loves of public transit and libraries by renaming the Copley Square stop after the Boston Public Library.