The Secret Geography of Bus Riders

By Adena Schutzberg

It’s no secret to many of my friends that I’m a fan of public transportation. Unlike some people, it’s not because I don’t drive or don’t have a car or don’t have a bike. I do drive and I have a car and two bikes. I’m just not a fan of driving or parking, and while I love to ride my bikes, I give them a break in the Boston winter.

Last December, I began a “public transportation only pilot project,” involuntarily. I got into a car accident (the people and car both came through okay) and my Subaru was out of commission for a full month. During that time my dad graciously offered the use of his car, but I turned him down. I wanted to see if I could operate 100% using public transportation.

I’m lucky, I live in a very dense city with bus, subway and commuter rail stops all within walking distance of my house. I work out of my house, so I don’t use a car for commuting. Most of the bus transportation I took during that month I’d taken before. I knew the #83 bus (which goes to my dad’s) and the #90 bus (which goes to Casey’s Bar, from which my running club runs). I knew that the Red Line subway stops at Porter and Davis. The transportation “challenges” during that time numbered exactly two.

For my first challenge, I had to get out to a suburb for band rehearsal one night a week. Lucky for me, the commuter rail ran at the right time and got me within a mile of our building. I could have waited for a late train home, but band members who live near me generously gave me a ride home for the month. The second challenge was grocery shopping. The “good” store is about a mile from home and for “little shops” I’m happy to walk or run there, even in winter. But I had a holiday party coming up and needed to do a “big shop.” It required a transfer to get the five bags of groceries home, but it was possible. I piled onto the 87 with the little old ladies with grocery carts, and filed off at Davis. Then I waited, with them, for the 88.

This winter, my schedule included a few new locations I needed to visit nearly every day. I became a regular on the 69, 77, 71 and 73 buses. Then, I began to realize I could do just about everything I needed to do on my frequented bus routes. I had to send a rather large box via FedEx. Where was the FedEx place? On the 69 route. To my great amusement, as I sat at the bus stop to get the 69, a FedEx truck drove up. “Can you take this?” I asked. After confirming the label was complete, the driver happily took it! I also had a number of year-end bank tasks to complete. My local bank, so far as I can tell, has branches only where public transportation goes! I could visit the bank when changing from the 77 to the 71. And, I could get free coffee. And I could wait at the window to see when the bus was coming to stay out of the cold!

One other great find - my gym. I joined one of those “no frills,” inexpensive gyms in the fall. It’s got at least five bus routes nearby, as well as the subway. Equally valuable: It provided a locker I could use to store my stuff during the day. I could work out and leave my gym bag there until I returned in the evening to pick it up. I’d often leave a change of clothes there so I could shower after a long run with my friends, then go directly to one of my obligations on one of the bus routes. Having a locker in the center of the action made me feel like I was in college again. I didn’t have a car there, either, come to think of it.

Over the summer, I rode my bike quite a bit and explored taking it on public transportation. I took it on the train a few times to meet riders out in the suburbs. I gamely joined some triathlon friends who were riding their bikes to a long run some 15 miles away. They planned to ride back home, as well, but that was too much for me, so I loaded my bike on the front bike rack of the 62 bus and enjoyed the hour-long ride home after 15 miles on the bike and 10 miles on foot.

What I didn’t realize until this winter was how much those public transportation routes can underlie your mental map. I grew up in this area and learned to drive here. I have a pretty good "driving" base map because of all those hours as a child in the back seat, as well as the years in the front seat driving my friends around before I left for college and after I returned from grad school. I now overlay my newly expanded Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) map on top of my older “driving” map. That makes for a surprisingly good base map, especially for someone not known for my sense of direction.

I had a chance recently to compare my mental map to my friend Victor’s. He grew up in New York City and has been in Boston for 23 years. He doesn’t drive. His only map of the city is from his use of public transportation and use of his bike. While we were running this weekend with some friends he asked if we were heading toward Malden. The group laughed. I explained that no, we were heading to Route 38, toward Winchester. He laughed, “I have no idea of route numbers; I don’t drive. What bus route is it?” Sadly, no one knew, though I did know the bus ran down that street; I’d seen the bus stop signs. He maintains his map is built up from studying the public transit maps. I’m sure that’s part of it; the rest is simply traveling those routes and linking them together in his head. The one downside, he noted: “I don’t know what’s off the bus routes.” That, I pointed out, is information he can pick up when we run. This is really the first time I’ve thought of my own mental maps in the GIS vernacular of layers. In reality I probably have several transit layers: driving, public transit, bike, running and walking. Now I’m even more curious about what’s inside everyone else’s transportation map of Boston and perhaps more importantly, how we can update that to have more layers.

Published Friday, March 5th, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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