Sunday, February 04, 2007

The MBTA's "service optional" service strikes again.

It was Saturday night, and I was having a hard time mashing potatoes with a meat tenderizer. So I decided to go to the shiny Kmart in Assembly Sqaure and get a real masher.

Now, I work from home and choose not to to own a car. That shouldn't be a problem, because the MBTA's No. 90 bus literally runs door to door, from my home to the shops at Assembly Square. The beleaguered agency's $466,000 new website announce that on this Saturday evening, the 90 bus would pick me up outside my home at about 7:35pm and then retrieve me from Kmart at about 9:05.

Nope. Even though the 90 runs across Somerville (the most densely populated city in New England, with almost 80,000 residents on four square miles), to the Sullivan Square transit hub, to the shops at Assembly Sqaure, to the Wellington transit hub, it only runs once an hour on Saturdays. It doesn't run at all on Sunday. And even when it's supposed to run, it doesn't run. So whether you're one of the hundreds who work in the big boxes or a normal person who works on weekdays and shops on weekends, you can't get there from here. Sorry, buy a car.

When I saw the schedule last night, I thought I was experiencing a rare case of luck. I went outside at 7:30. The bus came by, at 7:43, going the wrong direction. I waited another twelve minutes for the bus to go to Davis Square, turn around, and come back. It was about 20 minutes late, but I could live with that. Sure, it was 30 degrees out, but like a first-class citizen of America, I was basking in the glow from a Dunkin Donuts and reading American Psycho.

The bus driver was a friendly, young woman who admitted she was running really late. Since there were only a half-dozen patrons for the time I was on board, I got to the store quickly. I found all the junk I needed at Kmart. Bike pump, sheets, picture frames, and even a potato masher. I went outside at 9:10, just in time to see the bus going by in the other direction. By the bus driver's own admission, the bus should have been back through in ten minutes--after turning at Wellington. The temperature was dropping fast, and naturally, I was the only person at the bus stop.

After a half-hour of waiting for the bus to come back, I called a cab. The bus should have been there at 9:05. The cab came at 9:45. Just before it arrived, the parking lot security guy who had passed me a half-dozen times stopped his SUV to tell me that he didn't think any more buses would be coming.

The MBTA likes to suggest that low demand is the reason why buses run so infrequently on weekends. However, in my home neighborhood in New York City, the MTA proved the opposite case: if you build it, they will come. Retailers learned this decades ago, but the MBTA can't understand it.

When the College Point Retail Complex opened in eastern Queens, there were no nearby bus routes, just parking lots. The MTA created a new bus route, the Q20A, offering service every 10-20 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays as well as a direct connection to the Number 7 train. For those not living on the subway, the MTA also extended the extant Q76 bus to terminate at the retail center. Now, two buses provide seven-day service to both workers and shoppers. They are always packed to the gills, providing the MTA with even more operating revenue.

By comparison, Somerville's shops at Assembly Square have hourly bus service from 7a-10p on Saturdays (theoretically), but no service at all on Sundays.

Just about a mile away in Everett, the Gateway Center, which closely resembles the College Point development, receives hourly service from the No. 97 bus from 10a-7p on weekends. How could any working stiff depend on that?

The MBTA doesn't even claim to offer frequent or sufficient weekend service. But the truly sad part is that it can't even deliver the paltry services it promises. There is plenty of evidence about weekend bus problems plaguing shoppers south of downtown Boston, too.

It really bothers me how much a potentially great city (or collection of cities) is held back by its inferior transit system. I can buy a car or get out, and I think I'm going to get out.

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