October 15, 2004

Where Public Transportation Works

Where? New York City!

So says Atlanta photographer Charles Lyon, who marveled that for 10 days in New York, he "left the driving to professionals — cabbies, subway motormen, train engineers, bus drivers and ferry captains. . . . Instead of sitting in traffic, stressing out, I sat in the train, relaxing and reading the newspaper. "

Having spent several summers commuting from Long Island to Manhattan as he did -- but by bus to subway, not the Long Island Railroad -- I'm not necessarily eager to go back to three hours each day of enjoying public transport. However, I agree that public transportation works a lot better in New York than most American cities.

It would never have occurred to me to drive a car into Manhattan -- not when there were so many cheaper and convenient alternatives: bus-to-subway, LIRR, express bus.... And once in Manhattan, you could count on a subway line or bus, or often both, to be heading where you needed to go from where you were. You don't even really need to know the bus routes, since buses generally run north-south and east-west along a grid for most of Manhattan. Walk a block or two, and it's pretty easy to find a north-south bus going where you need to.

Contrast that with the Boston area, where "commuter rail" from the western suburbs is just that -- pretty much for rush hour only. On Saturdays, trains run every two hours at their most frequent, which makes them all but useless if you've got any kind of structured plans (dinner in town, a show, a concert). Weekdays offpeak, if you want to stay in town later than 7:15, there's 8:20 or 10:05 or 11:25. Period. And who would expect to hop a bus in Boston without knowing the exact route first, and still get where they need to go?

It's not just the availability of public transportation; it's the convenience and pervasiveness. Atlanta, Lyon notes, "runs a clean and efficient rail system, but it is so limited that it has little or no effect on our growing transportation problem. "

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