Thoughts on what makes a good transportation system

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2011


This essay was inspired by some blogging on the Linked-In MIT alumni group. The original post was complaining about campus parking. To my surprise many of the posters were waxing on about how comfy and ecologically responsible the transportation net around the Cambridge area was.


I endured that "neatness and comfiness" for four long years. One of the happiest moments in my transporting experiences was waving good-bye to The 'Tute after my graduation in the summer of 1975. One of my unpleasant shocks was to revisit in 2006, forty years later, to interview for an MBA program and discover... THINGS WERE WORSE! To me it was just jaw-dropping: The brightest minds in the nation had had forty years to work on this problem and come up with... nada! And to make that frustrating feeling even worse, when I mentioned how bad things were to the host student I was lunching with his reply was, "You drove here? Why didn't you take the T?"

I didn't for many reasons:

o I had just driven from Michigan.

o The nearest T stop was seven blocks away, a long walk for my aging legs.

o Where was I supposed to park my car to get on the T?

o I was supposed to know about this great parking place before I arrived?

In sum, my visit was an eye-opener of the sort I didn't want. (And, no, I didn't apply for that MBA program.)

Transportation is something I'm sensitive to. It's a day-to-day activity, so I watch my expenditures of time, money and attention on it carefully. I currently live in Utah in part because the transportation net causes me the least grief of anywhere I have experienced in the US. It is, in fact, an enjoyable experience.

So I started reflecting on this divergence of expectation between me and some of the other bloggers and current residents of the Boston metro area. I started asking myself, "What are the qualities of a good transportation net?"

Note that in this discussion "transportation net" is all the possible ways of moving people and stuff from Point A to Point B. It's roads for cars, buses, trucks and bikes. It's paths, planes, trains... whatever.

The Best Tool: The Transparent One

The transportation net is a tool. It's like a keyboard. A keyboard is a tool to let you put words into a computer, a transportation net is a tool to let you move yourself and stuff you care about from Point A to Point B.

When does a tool work best? It works best when the user doesn't think about it, when the user thinks about the task to be accomplished, and the tool becomes simply an unthought-about extension of the user's body. The tool becomes "transparent". The beginning keyboarder thinks about typing, but with steady use that fades. The transportation net should have the same characteristic -- a person can get from Point A to Point B without much thought. (And that "person" includes first-time visitors. This is something the Boston area is particularly poor at recognizing.)

In the Boston Metro area the transportation net is far, far from transparent. It is something that has to be constantly thought about. It constrains, it surprises, it... sucks eggs! (pardon my French)

The goal of the Boston metro transportation net should be, "To become invisible to our users."

Here are some examples of thoughts that indicate the transportation net isn't being transparent:

o How do I get there?

o Should I take a job there? How long is the commute time?

o Should I put a business in this location? Can I get people and raw materials moved in a timely manner?

o Should I go now? It's rush hour.

o Should I go now? Will transport still be running when I'm finished?

o Where am I going to park when I get there?

o How close is the nearest station? How do I get from where I am now to that station?

o How am I going to move this box/bag along with me?

When these kinds of questions are big issues, the transportation network needs to be improved.

Why does this matter?

Beyond the substantial economic considerations, there are community attitude considerations. The Boston metro area transportation net is so bad it poisons other community relations. It does so by enflaming the Us versus Them instinct. Boston area's strong identification with neighborhoods is sustained by the difficulty of moving around.

And there's even more poison produced. Here's a personal experience.

I remember one night walking out of a movie downtown. I was on a first date. As we walked down the street to the "T" the car traffic beside us was gridlocked and a car had a constantly honking horn -- I thought it was stuck. It turned out my date and I walked by the car. I thought to be helpful, so I knocked on the driver's window and shouted,

"Hey! Can I help you get that turned off?"

The driver ignored me, but the horn stopped. I was satisfied, so I resumed walking with my new date. I'd hoped I'd impressed her with my generosity and courtesy.

A few steps into my walk, I felt a tap on my arm. I turned around... The driver of the car had gotten out and now grabbed me by the lapels and started yelling something.

It was half scary and half comical. This guy was fifty/sixty years old and a full head shorter than me. I was twenty four at the time, only a year out of the army, and wearing a loose fitting coat -- all he could lift were my lapels, none of me.

I... I... I didn't know what to do! Laugh out loud or worry!

The good news was, in spite of all you hear about how unfeeling people are in the big city, some men gathered around and pulled us apart before anything more happened. He went back to his car, and I walked on with my date.

... It sure made a memorable evening.

This was neither my first nor last brush with "crazy" in Boston -- Boston easily tops my list for crazy density. It could be the air, it could be the water, it could be the accent, it could be the transportation net.

This is big

And, yes, I'm talking about a lot of scraping off and putting up something radically different. For instance, I envision the entire metro area road network being transformed from its current spoke-and-hub configuration into a rectilinear one. That change alone would eliminate mountains of congestion.

I'm thinking big change, it's true, but humans are tool users. Let's use our tools. When Bostonians are at their best they are prolific tool users.

Thinking back... When I was at the Tute I used all sorts of transport systems -- T, car, bicycle, bus, walking. (Never got into crew or sailing. <grin>) No matter what I used, I'd end the day, or begin it, gritting my teeth over how much time and effort I had to spend on planning how to get from here to there.

Fixing this is going to take a lot of work. It's also going to take a huge attitude change. Currently the people of Boston area are insensitive to what they are missing out on. (In that sense the current system is approaching ideal, it is transparent for Boston area users -- they don't think about how much better it could be.) Until that sensitivity changes, until these people realize how much they are missing out on, the Big Dig will be an average result for Bostonians attempting to make their transportation net better.

And I'll be very, very happy I'm living in Utah.


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