Living in the sprawling swamp that is Houston, there’s little chance to take advantage of public transportation, mostly because we’re so big and hopping routes takes too much time. Years ago when I lived and worked inside and near the downtown loop, I occasionally took the Metro buses to work, thinking I would be doing my part to help pollution, ease the traffic, etc. Unfortunately, since it took three times as long to get to the office as by car, it proved highly impractical. It was interesting, however, to go downtown on a bus filled with fellow office workers only to transfer to an outgoing bus filled with white-uniformed maids and caretakers on their way to their “offices” in the affluent neighborhoods outside the loop.
Visits to the Northeast provide an excellent chance to experience effective mass transportation, namely the subways of New York and Boston. We bopped about New York fairly freely by using the subway system, although it takes some time to get the hang of how it works and how to connect several lines to make as straight a line as possible to where you’re going. I’m sure some people make an art out of figuring out the best connections. A recent fire (originally reported to take five to six years to repair) shows to how dependent New Yorkers are on their subway and what happens when a major line goes down. We rode both the A and C lines mentioned in the article, and had we visited The Cloisters after this fire our trek out to see the Medieval goodies would have been tough, if not almost impractical, to pull off. No doubt we would have gotten lost trying to change buses and would have ended up somewhere we shouldn’t have.
Even though we spent only a day in Boston, we used the T there a couple of times to quicken the journeys (translation: give Gary’s legs a break) and it brought back memories of years ago when I spent a week in Boston and used the T extensively, even making my way into the city from the airport on the subway (not the best place to first try the T from, but I had no choice). While Boston’s subway system is not as extensive as New Yorks, it makes up for size by being a little easier to understand and navigate. Using colors instead of letters and numbers makes some sense, but then, any system works well once you adapt and the two systems are more similar than they are unique.
A lot of people’s (translation: folks who live outside the east coast) first impression of subways is one of danger. Sure, the stories abound from years ago when it wasn’t as safe, and I suspect there are still parts of the NY and Boston subterranean trains that even locals avoid. But in both trips I found the subways to be as safe as the streets (some would argue that’s not necessarily a comforting thought), and once one gets the hang of how they work, amazingly efficient.
There is a whole culture defined by the subways from the vendors selling trinkets/pirated software and movies (on one connector tunnel we hurried along, my eyes spotted a DVD for Lemony Snicket, which was just released that week…hmmm…authentic?), to the for-a-donation entertainers, the subways become a city under the city. I can imagine in winter there are frequent riders who do so merely for the chance to stay warm or deal with boredom. And of course, people watching is exquisite (provided you’re carefully about avoiding eye contact). The subways move a wide range of people from the down-and-out to the well-to-do and all the druggies, free spirits, and poor souls who aren’t quite right in between. But that’s part of what makes subway rides interesting. Consider it your on-board entertainment and you’ll enjoy the ride.
I’ve always held to a dream of living somewhere without the need for a car. That dream usually takes the form of working in a small town and walking to everything, but I could easily see myself living/working in Beacon Hill in Boston or the Upper West Side in NYC (yeah, right…how’d you do in the Lotto last night, Gar?). The subway systems make this a real possibility (excluding the obvious need for lots of money, but we’re focusing on the conceptual here, right?).
Anytime I visit a city I try to take in what’s unique about the place, eat local food, take in places the locals haunt, etc. And part of learning about any big city is to get in sync with the energy that flows from people moving about. The subways are, to both cities but probably more so to NYC, the real conduits of energy running beneath the obvious but whose existence is so vital to that city’s well being. Nothing will remove the feeling that “TOURIST” is tattooed on one’s forehead more than conquering the subway system. At any rate, it beats walking, especially this time of year.