Friday, August 20, 2004


Why does the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority have schedules? I notice on my “Axonometric Projections of Harvard Square, Central Cambridge, Central Square, Cambridge Center & M.I.T. Areas” map -- if it isn’t redundant to say “map” after saying “axonometric projections” -- that someone has humorously given creator Tom Kane frequencies for buses and the T.

If you take the red line toward either Ashmont or Braintree, it says, you can expect a T to come along every eight minutes during rush hour, every 12 minutes during other weekday times, every 13 minutes on Saturday and every 15 minutes on Sunday.

Very interesting, and completely meaningless. The T can come much more frequently during any time of the day, or two can come almost immediately, or three, and then others can lurk elsewhere for 20 or 25 minutes at a time. Every once in a while the drivers announce, no doubt holding back chuckles, that they must keep a train frozen on the tracks for a couple of minutes for “a schedule adjustment.” Schedule? If the T is on a schedule, why isn’t the schedule posted? Why aren’t even these map figures posted somewhere? Why must one spend $4.95 at the travel bookstore in Harvard Square to discover them?

Bus times are posted, but it’s a mystery why, as the MBTA can’t keep to them. Bus consistency is about equal to T consistency, but the disappointment is more acute because there is a schedule, painstakingly broken down by minute of arrival and departure at stops along a route -- passengers can consult it, MBTA officials create it, and it bears little relation to reality.

The map is dated 1998, so the frequencies given for the T’s red line may have been abandoned. If so, the bus schedules should be abandoned, too, perhaps in favor of a T-style frequency chart, perhaps in favor of big signs saying merely that “A bus is coming.” The advantage is that, instead of breaking promises dozens of times a day, the phrase promises very little; a bus is coming, even if you’ve missed the last one for the day and you must wait six or so hours for the next day’s first bus to arrive.

Finally, I must mention how disconcerting it is to have lived here for so many years and still be put off and confused by the map referring to “Central Cambridge, Central Square and Cambridge Center” as three different things.


Anonymous said...

I've worked with the T on schedule-related activities (I'm trying to be vague here to avoid any problems with that relationship)... I've heard from folks at MIT who were trying to set up real-time train notifications ("the next Red Line train will arrive in 5 minutes") that the T has been worried about "security" -- all this before 9/11. I don't see how making train arrival times might invite terrorism, but who knows? The fact is that train dispatchers DO know where all the trains are, and that theoretically this information could be made public. As for buses, the problem inheres in traffic. A system like NextBus would be VERY cool, but, apparently, prohibitively expensive.

Anonymous said...

The London Underground is older than the MBTA and has been attacked by IRA bombs in the past, yet neither age nor security has stopped them from having signs on the platforms that tell you when the next three trains will arrive, and what their destinations are.

Gary McGath said...

As I've noticed in my own blog, drivers insist on keeping on "schedule," even if they're running earlier than usual and they're leaving behind people who are racing to get to the bus.

Speaking of posting the destinations of trains, isn't it great how often Green Line trains with a North Station destination sign dump everyone out at Government Center? I wonder if that's done for "security" as well. It seems like the catch-all excuse these days.

Anonymous said...

The frequency is simply an average. For instance, the #39 bus comes, on avearge, every 5 minutes. What this means in Boston is that you will wait 30 minutes. At this point 6 buses will drive down the street in a pack. However, only the first bus, already jammed packed with riders, will stop to pick up the angry mob waiting at the bus stop. The next five empty buses will bypass the stop altogether.