Tagged: public transportation

The law of Boston infrastructure: build five to keep four

Staring at the MBTA map and letting my mind wander while waiting for the train, I noticed a repeated pattern of 4/5.

There were five Green line branches, but only four survive today with the obvious gap at the start of the sequence B, C, D, E.  I guess if the E line had been cut, it wouldn’t have been so obvious.  OK, the E line has been cut back, but not cut out.

More recently, there were five terminals at Logan, but Terminal D was absorbed into C and E in 2006 leaving A, B, C, E.  It was decided that renaming Terminal E to Terminal D overnight to close the gap would cause too much confusion.

Also in more recent memory, the Silver Line now has only four line but numbering for five.  It acquired a gap with the demise of the SL3 in 2008 and the appearance of SL4 and the renaming of the SL5 in 2009 making the list of Silver Lines a gappy SL1, SL2, SL4, SL5.  The fact that the Silver Line still exists as two unconnected parts (SL1/SL2 and SL4/SL5) makes it a little less odd that there’s a gap in numbering. Although there were never five Silver Line routes in operation at the same time, we still have the 4/5 gap in numbering.

You can witness the changes of the Green and Silver lines in Andrew Lynch’s estimable Animated History of the MBTA, with a hearty hat tip to Universal Hub.  If you squint real hard at the airport loop in the last two slides you might or might not see the end of Terminal D.

What’s going on here?  Do the planners have spooky Mickey Mouse hands? Does Boston overbuild then scale back? Shrinkage?  I have no idea, I’m probably just making connections because there’s no bubble wrap to keep me busy while I wait for the T.  In any case, it’s interesting to think of the transit system as organic and changing, even if that means both growth and decay.

For extra credit, check out Cameron Booth’s upgrade to the official MBTA map.

Annals of almost greatness: commuter rail tickets by mobile

Thanks to the alert folks at Universahub, I found out yesterday that you can buy Mass Bay Commuter Rail tickets with a mobile app on your iPhone or Android thingus, at least for the North side lines for now.  Naturally, I had to try it.  After all, I’ve got $6.44 left in my transit FSA and it’s use it or lose it.  I downloaded the app and bought myself a shiny new one-way pass to zone 1a.

It’s a pretty good experience.  You download the app – it’s a nice app, with schedules and maps too – put in your credit card info and buy tickets or passes.  Receipts are e-mailed to you, but you get no physical ticket.  Instead, when you board the train, you’re supposed to “activate” your ticket.  When the conductor asks to see your ticket, you produce your smartphone and show the activated ticket on the screen.  Easy and/or peasy.

I once worked with a guy who liked to say, ”congratulations, you’ve solved a problem that didn’t exist.” I think this might be one of those.  I figure the typical commuter rail rider is a monthly pass holder for whom the on-the-spot convenience of mobile payment is of little concern.

For the T there are a few benefits, chief among them a nice crop of data since the app collects your stations and time of use, not only your choice of zone and time of purchase. There might be a small uptick in fare collection since those inclined to pay can do so a little more easily and there might be a little less congestion at the ticket machines, especially on the first of the month. Conductors might have to spend less time selling on-board tickets, but they save no time glancing at a phone screen compared to glancing at a paper ticker.  Mobile tickets, like the paper ones, are good for months from purchase. Collection efficiency is still an issue, and crooked conductors can still let their friends ride free. I’ll bet you a venti grande right now that nobody will activate a ticket a second sooner than the conductor says “tickets please” beyond their first time.

On the downside, there’s mainly disappointment it’s not integrated.  If you buy a regular commuter rail pass, it also works as a bus/subway pass – after all, how many commuters actually work right near North or South stations?  Your mobile monthly pass for the Commuter Rail does not include any bus/subway service, but costs $10 less than a regular pass.  That’s a lousy deal if you have to buy a $70 bus/subway pass, and a needless discount if you don’t.

If you’re a Charlie card user, you can’t use your Charlie card on the commuter rail. (even though a Zone 1a pass is the same price as a bus/subway pass, but that’s a story for another day)  Adding mobile ticketing like this makes the gaps more apparent and raises questions: Wouldn’t bus riders benefit even more from mobile tickets?  If you can use your Charlie card on a bus, why can’t that technology work on a Commuter Rail car?  Heck, the Commuter Rail cars all have wifi – why is the fare collecting conductor the only one on the train not connected to the network?

I get it, it’s the first version, maybe even a nice beta.  Improvements are on the way.  Mobile ticketing won’t connect North Station and South Station, it won’t cut or save conductor jobs, it won’t hasten the Green Line Extension, it won’t prop up collapsing tunnels, but it was a nice payday for some app developers, who by the way, are in England, not local boys like the developers of Catch The T, a fine MBTA data consuming app.

One final snark, in the app there’s a section for “offers” – I was offered $20 off my first Uber car service ride. What does that say about the Bay State of public transportation?

Atheists put their faith in outdoor advertising

The folks who think the bible is a fairy tale have come up with their own stranger than fiction scenario.  The British Humanist Association has raised over 100,000 pounds (far in excess of their original goal of 5,500) to fund something called the Atheist Bus Campaign which will buy ad space on London buses proclaiming,

Ok, disclaimer and attempt at flame prevention time.  This is an incredible feat of online fundraising.  The comments and discussion generated are pretty entertaining.  Props to the humanists and atheists for asserting themselves in the marketplace of ideas.  It’s their money, they can do what they want with it.

So…  what in the holy name of Richard Dawkins are they thinking?  If you had a $200,000 media budget (or even $20,000) to get your ideas out there, would you spend it on bus ads?   For people claiming the high ground of logic, reason and science, these atheists are putting a lot of faith in some of the least effective and most unquantifiable of marketing methods and a self-congratulatory message that’s hardly going to win anybody over.

I know lots of smart marketeers read limeduck. What would you do with a wad of cash to promote atheism?  Viral social media campaigns?  Street teams?  Direct mail?  I’m off to London next week and maybe I’ll catch one of these buses and get some good ideas.

Boston Blogs + Unmapped Boston = The Map With Two Backs?

Let me call to your attention two excellent maps that in my humble opinion should make sweet cartographic love and spawn a mashup of some sort. This confluence of maps, blogs and public transportation has got the limeduck quacking loudly.

First up, Boston Blogs’ map of Boston blog by T stop.

Still in beta, this excellent map is simply the MBTA’s official subway (and Silver line) map with a link at each station to blogs tagged with that T stop. It looks like Davis square is the belle of the ball with 25 blogs as of this writing, and my own dear Central has a respectable showing at 15 blogs. The Red line is not surprisingly the bloggiest MBTA line.

My second nominee is Unmapped Boston from Unmapped Cities.

This is a completely new view of the Boston area. It combines major streets, subway routes, and most importantly, a pretty comprehensive list of the squares that define Boston neighborhoods, all while remaining substantially but not literally true to geography. The map is available on paper ($20, get one today, I just did!) and is a beautiful work of design.

Here’s my immodest proposal: Unmapped Boston should hook up with Boston Blogs to create a cartographic listing of Boston area blogs by square, and not just the squares that have T stops. Sure, there’s lots of geotagging going on and you can find blogs by longitude and latitude, but I think I prefer a neighborhood-centric blog geography. It’s not so specific that it sets off privacy alarms, and it lets neighbor blogs self-identify their location to the area that suits them best.

So don’t forget, list your blog at Boston Blogs and check out Unmapped Boston, and if you like them, maybe encourage them to get together sometime for a coffee. No pressure.

Notes from the Underground: the answer is 15.65, and there is hope for expired metrocards


There it is, proof that my crackpot calculations work. If you are irritated by particulars of the new MetroCard pricing scheme, you can still buy a card with an integral number of rides. But make sure you use plastic or have exact change, lest you end up with a handful of golden dollar coins featuring Paul Giamatti’s John Adams’ bug-eyed visage.

I like the vaguely mystical overtone that you have to know the secret code and apply it in exactly the right way in order to receive the magic number 18, for life. (חי)

In not entirely unrelated news, if you don’t visit New York City often enough, or worse, don’t ride the subway often enough, you might occasionally find that one of your MetroCards has expired while still holding value. Horrors.

If your card is less than a year expired, you can trade it in for a new one using one of the handy machines around the stations. If your card is older than a year, you’ll have to get one of these claim forms and mail in your ancient card. Ask at any friendly former token booth.


Notes from the Underground: the answer should be 17.39, but it's not

As you may know, the MTA in New York recently restructured fares.  They raised the price of monthly and weekly passes and altered the discount structure for buying stored-value cards, but kept the base fare the same at $2.00.

It used to be that if you put at least $10 on a metrocard, you’d get a 20% bonus – buy five rides, get one free.  Now, the deal is that you get only a 15% bonus but you get it for spending as little as $7.  Spend $7 and get a bonus of $1.05 for $8.05 which is four rides and a nickel.  Buy three and a half rides, get half a ride free and a nickel?

This nickel is driving some people nutty. 

I’m not sure why it would bother you if you keep refilling the same metrocard, but I guess some people like to throw away empty metrocards and don’t want to waste a nickel, or they’re just picky about those things.  (Hey, I shouldn’t throw stones, I like to sort my M&Ms by color before eating them.) (I like to, I don’t have to.)

I imagine this might be seen as a conspiracy by the MTA to retain nickels from millions of commuters and thereby pay off the ex-governor’s ho tab balance the budget.  But there’s a not too difficult solution:


That’s the magic number.  Buy a $17.39 metrocard and you’ll get a 15% bonus up to an even $20.  Having trouble remembering that?  Here’s a list of some stuff that happened in 1739.  If that’s too much, and you’re a heavy user, try spending $40 on and getting bonused up to $46, an even 23 rides.

Or maybe the MTA should give you the option to donate all those nickels to charity.  But you can bet that if they ever reduced the discount to eliminate the annoying nickel, people would complain about losing it.  Now its just another odd bit of city living.


I should have checked my facts. I should have checked my facts. I should have checked my facts.   On the way back from writing this post at a cafe, I tried it.  And you know what?  It did not work.  Why not?  Well, it turns out that you can’t buy a metrocard for an amount that’s not a multiple of $0.05 – the same annoying nickel.  If you up your bid to $17.40, you’ll end up with $20.01, a smaller excess, but excess nonetheless.

Here is an updated table of metrocard amounts that you can purchase that should result in integral numbers of $2 rides.  Note that I have not tested these yet.  (You’d think I would have learned, but I was too eager to get to redacting to check them all.)

Buy    - Get    - Rides
$15.65 - $18.00 -  9
$24.35 - $28.00 - 14
$31.30 - $36.00 - 18
$40.00 - $46.00 - 23

Perhaps I’ll make up stickers like the above and plaster them on the metrocard machines.  Power to the riders.

Attention public transit riders

I am back on the system. Please clean up your act.
But seriously folks, I took a bus to work and a train back today, and despite all the petty annoyances, it felt great. I’m sure I’ll fall back into rail rage sooner or later, but if I can find that article I once read that indicated that a big part of transit system delays could be traced to passengers on the platform crowding the doors before people could get off, and people in the train not clearing the doors for people to get on, I’ll be sure to blog about that here.

The Magical Global Subway Connection

It was my first semester away at college in a small Connecticut town. A group of other freshmen were talking about going down the hill into town and I heard the word “subway” in the conversation. “There’s a subway in this town?” I asked incredulous and at the same time hopeful – I had no car (or drivers license for that matter) and the prospect of public transportation was exciting and home-sick-making all at the same time. Of course, they were talking about Subway, the chain sandwich shop. Still, the fantasy of widely interconnected subway systems set up camp in my head to stay.

Some years later I was joking around with N and we developed the idea that all subway stations with the same name are connected. For example, if you took the Boston MBTA Orange line to Forest Hills (Jamaica Plain), you could go through some kind of wormhole there and transfer to the F train on New York City’s MTA at Forest Hills (Queens). The fact that the F train is orange on the MTA map just adds credence to this goofy concept, plus the bonus synchronicity that there’s a Jamaica stop at the end of the F train. More exciting still, there’s the possibilty of an interchange between my current home stop, Central on the MBTA Red line with Central on the Tsuen Wan line of Hong Kong’s MTR, which is also colored… red.

Imagine my carto-geeky joy at finding this fantasy global subway map on the Strange Maps blog.


It’s clearly based on the London map with little regard for the realities of politics or geography or the relative importance of the stations – for example, Newark and Rotterdam are interchange points but New York and Amsterdam are not (and how cool would it be to take a train from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam?) – but it’s an awesome work nonetheless, and it provides a checklist of major metro systems to visit and ride

I also like that the line connecting New York and Boston is red, the color of the MTA 1-2-3 trains and MBTA Red line which run past my childhood home in New York City and my current home in Cambridge – and which also connect those homes with the cities’ respective train stations, Penn and South stations, which define the endpoints of the Amtrak and Acela route from New York to Boston.  Wow.

Check out the book, Transit Maps of the World, by Mark Ovenden, for which this fantasy map was a promotion. It’s too bad they didn’t use this promo as the actual cover of the book.

The Star Ferry

I’m a big fan of public transportation, and one of my favorite examples is the Star Ferry that links Hong Kong island with the Kowloon Peninsula. For a fare of HK$2.20 (about 20 US cents!) you get fast transportation and amazing views. I take it every chance I get. I shot mostly film on my last couple of trips across, but here are some digital shots in and around the ferry to tide you over.