Once upon a time, by which I mean a few years ago, you could beat the traffic by keeping odd hours. But now it’s pretty much constant gridlock all day, from way early till way late in every direction, your Google map a bright-red tangle of clogged arteries. What to do? Moving to a cabin in Maine and becoming a hermit is always a viable option, especially if you look good in a beard. But you probably need to stay in the city and navigate it somehow, so I endeavored to explore Boston via every means of alternative transportation I could find. If you can’t go off the grid, maybe you can at least escape the gridlock.
I begin my journey at the Boston Landing commuter rail stop. I get started a little later than I planned, so it’s 10 am and traffic is actually moving on the Mass Pike, which is really hurting my thesis. But it’s summer and everyone is on vacation and anyway I-93 is a parking lot, I’m sure.
The nice thing about getting on the train near the end of the line is that you just might escape the conductor thanks to the brevity of the trip. So you’re not only getting somewhere, you’re gambling, too.
Will I be forced to pay my one-way Zone 1A fare of $2.25? I savor the suspense while gazing out the window as we approach the stunning urban tableau that is South Station. How did an oscillating fan end up under an overpass? Did someone throw it out the window of their car? Maybe they were stuck in traffic and just said, “That’s it. I’m hucking this fan at the train.”
We pull into South Station, and I escape to the platform humming the Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride.” Inside, I decide to hit the men’s room but it’s out of order, so I’m directed to a secret unknown secondary bathroom. I’d tell you where it is, but I don’t want it to get too popular. Then I go to the ticket kiosk, which, like the bathroom, is out of order. This is going great! But another kiosk works, so I buy a $12 all-day MBTA pass. Which then doesn’t work on the first two turnstiles I try. But the third one is a go, and I’m on my way to the Silver Line to head to Logan on the SL1 bus. Imagine all the suckers sitting in traffic while I’m zipping to the airport in my own dedicated tunnel. If you’ve never taken the Silver Line, it’s like a hybrid of the T and a bus. It starts out in a tunnel, running on electricity from overhead catenary wires, then switches over to diesel when it needs to use regular roads. It also induces panicky claustrophobia—at least in me—because unlike a train you can see straight out through the windshield at the narrow-ass tunnel you’re trapped inside. Thankfully, that part of the trip is short, and we soon emerge into daylight. Where we park for a while. A sign outside advises everyone to sit tight because this is where the bus switches from electric to diesel. The driver, for his part, wanders off while we all sit in silence. Is he up on the roof disconnecting the wires? Is he having a smoke? The guy in front of me has no luggage and is wearing a sweet plaid suit. I wonder what his deal is. Seems like everyone on the bus is either a tourist heading to the airport or someone who works at the airport, and neither of those scenarios fit a plaid suit. Anyway, it takes maybe 10 minutes to get to the airport, which seems pretty reasonable.
Now I want to take the ferry back to Long Wharf, but first I need to get on another bus. The ferry terminal is practically at the end of one of the runways, but as the old saying goes, you can’t get there from here without riding a shuttle bus through half of Eastie. The ride on the bus definitely takes at least as long as the ride from South Station to Logan and is more confusing. I almost get off at the wrong stop when I see a sign for “Ferry Dock,” but it turns out to mean that this is the bus to the ferry dock. (You know, probably all that land right outside should’ve been the giveaway that this isn’t where the boats are.) Some tourists from Sweden or somewhere don’t flinch, which annoys me. I should be the one coolly watching them almost get off at the wrong stop, if there was any justice in the world.
After touring all the sights of Logan’s perimeter, the bus reaches Harborside Drive and the ferry terminal, where everyone disembarks and looks around in confusion. The ferry is on a schedule, and we all just missed it. The next one isn’t for an hour. Are we all stranded? No, we are not. Just as I’m bemoaning my ferry-missing fate, a veritable fleet of cheery water taxis materializes. Maybe someone called them from the dock, maybe some water-taxi dispatcher across the harbor gazed through his spyglass and saw us all standing there, but within minutes I’m standing on a jaunty tender, my wallet another $12 lighter. Which seems like a pretty good price to get from Logan to Long Wharf, especially when you’re getting a boat ride in the deal. I stand in front and chat up the captain, who is tuned in to the absurdities of the harbor. “Nice fishing boat,” he comments, gesturing to a fishing pole mounted on the second deck of an 80-foot mega-yacht. “Yeah,” I reply, “You’d need a pretty long net.” Stupid billionaires, trying to go fishing.
All this non-car-based travel has given me a powerful thirst, so I walk over to The Landing and have a beer while I contemplate my next move. There’s a Blue Bikes dock next to the Marriott, so I unlock one of those and set out for the North End. I ride over a splash-pad fountain just as some kid hits the button to turn it on, soaking my shorts. No matter, I’m in good spirits because I’m riding a bike on a nice day in the North End and I’m not even worried about getting doored by a car because I’m on the North End Cycle Track, the protected bike path that runs along the waterfront. Now this is an agreeable way to travel: Sun on my back, breeze on my wet shorts, getting some light exercise on a bike that is probably plastered with some novel micro-organisms—but I’m not going to think about that.
I head across the bridge to Charlestown and drop the bike at a dock there. Then I walk to the Community College T stop on the pedestrian path that runs under the highway. I’m astonished to see, in the fetid drainage ditch along the path (official name: the Millers River Basin), sizable fish cruising around and nibbling at whatever detritus is floating on the surface. We’re on the Charles River side, so they’re freshwater fish. I dub them Boston Ditch Fish and congratulate myself on my ichthyologic discovery.
Over at the Orange Line stop, I arrive just in time to watch the train pull away in front of my face, per standard MBTA guidelines. A woman walks up and asks which side of the platform heads toward downtown, and I tell her. She politely thanks me and remarks how wonderful it is to encounter a helpful stranger in this standoffish city, and we agree that people should be nicer. Then she jumps right into complaining about immigrants, and I straight-up walk away as she’s talking. Rule No. 1 on the T: Don’t talk to anyone.
I ride into Downtown Crossing and emerge to look for some kind of dockless transportation—a Bird scooter or maybe a LimeBike. Thus begins a lengthy unplanned sojourn on foot that takes me from the Common down Comm. Ave. and over to St. Botolph Street and into the South End. I’m on the lookout but never see any kind of dockless anything—just people’s personal bikes, securely locked to racks and lampposts. It occurs to me that I could cover more territory if I weren’t on foot, so I stop by Boston Pedicab’s South End headquarters to make the patently ridiculous request that they ride me around to look for dockless scooters that are probably all in the harbor. Nick Bancroft, the general manager, is nice enough to humor me, even though they’re busy getting ready for a concert at Fenway Park. I ask him how the fare system works for pedicabs, and he explains that it’s all voluntary but somehow works out. “It’s all tip-based,” he says. “Maybe some people come in under what you expected, but other people will be more generous. And I’ve only been outright stiffed once.” Eventually, his pedicabs will switch to electric assist, allowing them to cover more territory. It’s a great way to travel, with the exception that I feel guilty and lazy with him pedaling while I laze in my seat like an indulgent nobleman surveying my kingdom from my sedan chair. But we’re canvassing the neighborhood much quicker than I could on foot, and sure enough I strike gold: A dockless Ant bike leaning against a fence next to a park. Here’s my next ride.
I download the app, surrender my credit card info and scan the code on the bike to unlock it. I’m thinking my next ride will be a cab back to Boston Landing, so I cruise toward the hospital to look for a cab stand. Along the way I see another Ant bike leaning up against a building, its basket filled with cans, discarded food wrappers and, as it turns out, a whole bunch of needles. My thoughts immediately return to who might’ve been riding this Ant bike and how it might be covered with Ebola and, you know, maybe I don’t want to ride it all the way to a cab stand. I stop next to a brownstone, park the bike next to the steps and slide the orange lock lever before calling a Lyft. How much did my ride cost? I don’t know. The app doesn’t seem to be working quite right, since the bikes have GPS trackers and this one refuses to reappear on the map. I’ll need to check my credit card statement to be sure I didn’t just buy an Ant bike.
The Lyft car appears within a couple minutes, an oasis of air-conditioned luxury materializing out of the urban desert. It’s a Volvo S80 driven by a man named Tom who offers me a bottle of water, which I gratefully accept. It takes us 17 minutes to complete the 6.6-mile trip to Boston Landing, a speedy drive by Boston standards. The ride costs $16.96 and I throw on a $5.00 tip, making it by far my most expensive journey of the day. But what a treat: I’m in a car—a Volvo, no less. And I’m not agonizing that I ended up in the left lane and someone ahead is turning left except they can’t and now I need to either get in the right lane or punch out my own windshield in frustration. It’s my most-appreciated Lyft ride ever.
I step out at Boston Landing about four hours after I departed, having scribed a path from Brighton to the waterfront, to East Boston and back around through the South End without touching a steering wheel. I heretofore present my conclusions.
The commuter rail is better than the subway because the trains are nicer and sometimes it’s free. The water taxi is the sexiest way to get to or from Logan, but the Silver Line is probably the easiest. Docked bikes are superior to dockless, and Bird scooters might be a myth. Tip your pedicab driver. And don’t be afraid to try new ways to get around. Maybe you have no choice but to sit in traffic, marinating in despair, to get where you’re going. But maybe you have options that you haven’t considered. Maybe you can hop a boat or grab a bike or hoof it on foot to connect the dots. From here, I’m heading to a friend’s house in Needham. I’m painfully aware that, if I didn’t have this car, I could take the commuter rail right there. Instead, the gate goes up at the garage, and I head out to sit in traffic. ◆