Should We Walk, or Is There Time to Take the "T"?
I first heard this phrase in connection with the 'B' branch of Boston, MA
's infamous Green line light rail
train. It was at a party. I'd just finished bragging that I'd been able to bike faster than the 'B' train during rush hour
The 'B' train for most of its length is really not a subway at all, its a surface trolley that runs down the median strip of the road. So not only does it have to stop to load and unload, it has to obey all traffic lights on the roads, and deal with motorists blocking the tracks while trying to make a left turn or a U-turn. Unlike traditional trolleys, which in my experience will let you get on and off wherever they stop, on this trolley you can only get off at a designated stop, not at a light. There are stops every 3-4 blocks, but between them and the lights the train just seems to NEVER GET THERE.
Because this branch is popular (it runs on a major artery and links Boston College, Boston University (the later with 30,000 students!), and other things to the rest of the subway system) a lot of people get on and off. Because its a trolley, the driver can only let people on through the front door of the train, and has to collect the fare (including explaining the rules and occasionally making change for tourists and idiots, respectively) from every single person. Its not uncommon to spend 5 minutes (in rush hour!) waiting at a stop for folks to load and unload. To try and deal with this, the Transit Authority's official (but unpublished) policy is to allow people to board for free during rush hour. Sure, it feels good to get a free ride, but imagine a system so poorly designed that it sometimes can't collect a fare during the most profitable part of the day!
I suppose a train is more romantic than a bus, and the median strip with shelters and benches is more people-friendly than 6 lanes of traffic. So there's that.
But I have to wonder, if instead of expensive tracks and the visual clutter of overhead wires, they had built an extra lane in each direction, perhaps even a dedicated bus lane, and instead of custom-built trolley/subway cars from Japan (and later, Canada) (which to this day still aren't completely handicap-accessible), bought twice as many standard city buses (which are), wouldn't it have cut commute times and transit department budgets in half?
In fact that's essentially what happened elsewhere in the system. On the Green line there's a 'B', 'C', 'D', and 'E' branch. Incidentally, all of them are painfully slow except for the 'E' line which doesn't run on the roads. After it emerges from the tunnels it turns into a very pleasant commuter rail with stops about every 3/4 mile or so. The 'E' train through suburban Newton to Riverside on the high-tech Rt. 128 corridor, is a gorgeous ride in the fall when the leaves turn.
But I digress. Ever wonder why there's no 'A' branch? Turns out, they were going to build it, but they ran out of money, or in to community opposition, or something. So they made a bus line where the 'A' train was supposed to run, with free transfers from the subway. Works for me!
Besides the Green flavor, Boston's "T" also comes in Red, Blue, and Orange. These other colors run in tunnels, trenches, or are otherwise isolated from vehicle traffic, in other words, they are normal subways. The Blue and Orange lines have a reputation of being slow, but nowhere near as slow as the Green line, and to be fair, I have not noticed them to be particularly slow. There are some delays built into the system that are irritating if you're anxious and in a rush, but objectively only add five or so minutes to the trip.
The Red line, linking Cambridge, Boston, and points south, is the most popular, and the best managed. It rocks! during rush hour. Recently the T initiated a customer "Bill of Rights" program where they take feedback and promise to improve. When I emailed them that the lights at one terminus of the Red line that indicate which side of the platform will depart first were broken, they fixed them less than a week later. They had been broken for months before that.
Picking up on the cool but senseless free ride theme...I've noticed that my expired monthly T-pass from February, 2001 still works today on about a third of the turnstiles. Sure its great for me, but I'm pretty sure it isn't intentional. I sometimes pay anyway after testing to see if my pass still works. I haven't had the heart to report this problem to the authorities...
Also, unlike many US subway systems, Boston's "T" links up seamlessly with Logan Airports free shuttle bus, which is very convenient. For that short moment one can almost believe one is in Europe (without the strikes).