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Transit, trains, and no automobiles: notes from a carless vacation (Part 2 of 2)

Richey Piiparinen  |  08/31/10 @ 12:15pm

My wife, Laura, and I are taking a carless vacation to the Boston area. We are giving rail and public trans a good work through, and below you will find some musings and images detailing what it is we are up against and what it is we will find?(Part 1 can be found here.)

Sunday August 15 4:55 p.m.-Marblehead, MA

Marblehead is a city north of Boston made in 1629. It smacks of a mix of Robert Frost and Moby Dick-ness: the old cottages and rock shores, and the weathering on the homes' faces conjuring up images of force being pushed in from the sea. And its design: it still drips with genuineness-with its narrow, curved streets, and the changing sightlines wherein structures rest in accordance with the hills and rock formations that hem what was god- and man-built. Even away from the harbor there's semblance of integrity. As the obligatory strip mall was made less as an ugly modern body beside the old as opposed to an appendage of the old with a modestly modern touch?

Physically, then, you can see the town respects its past, and this is most evident by the fact the Old Town houses have placards time-stamping the who, what, and why of each structure. And how they kept track who knows, but such is the physical byproduct of historical respect-like wearing ancestral jewelry. Because just as the jewelry-wearer is made constantly reminded of the blood given that came before them, such physical lineages serve to tattoo in the minds of the observer about a prior-ness present. In all, it leads to a strong preservationist culture here. And you can feel it when walking.

Monday August 16 6:45 p.m.-on bus leaving Salem, MA

This isn't so in nearby Salem. Not sure what happened to the waterfront-was it the site of industry made dispensable then turned into a Crocker Park-like "historical" waterfront district?-but it is the antithesis to Marblehead. Wife asked if a fire hit, and that's why nothing remotely 17th century is still standing along downtown's waters. I told her it was probably from volition and not accidental rampage. See, though, the effort to recreate the past out of demolition. See failure, then?

Felt like a waste of time, too. You see-though Marblehead is about three miles due east of Salem-we had to take the 441 south and then transfer at Vinnin Square to take the 459 up north. Again, bus stops around here show there is less bus rider action in these northernmost, metro parts-and this is evidenced by the lack of amenities, direct routes, and bodies at the stops.

Tuesday August 17 8:43 p.m.-Bleachers in Fenway Park.

Rocking Tribe gear here. We aren't good, so no one seems to care that I am rocking it. Anyway, getting to Boston really emphasizes the bad of this car-less vacation, as it took a ridiculously long time to get to Fenway from Marblehead on transit. And though there are options, none are easy, as you can: (1) take the 441 or 442 to Haymarket (an hour and ten minute ride), and then a subway; or (2) take the 441 or 442 to a commuter rail stop in Swampscott or Lynn, and then a subway (we would've, but our 7-day passes don't include commuter trips); or (3) take the 441 or 442 to the blue line at Wonderland, which is a part of Boston that reeks aesthetically of Brookpark Rd.-both in adult entertainment respects and in overall ugliness-and then a subway. Today we did option 1, and then took a packed green line train into the ballpark. And though the energy of the ballpark is good-and the sunset gave way to a moon-and the iconic Coca-Cola sign is bleeding nostalgic red into the night, it's hard to not think of the long transit ride ahead of us.

Wednesday August 18 1:38 p.m.-multimodal path on old rail line in Marblehead

Boston metro is full of public places. They get it, then. They get the fact that public places and paths are not a zero sum game-i.e., no ODOT screaming: "you got a path there, so no path for you", and no development vision of: "here is a monstrosity of a structure, and in case you want to sit: here is a cement indentation near the front".

Marblehead-in particular-is full of public spots, and many are along the water (I am not going to get into the Cleveland waterfront thing. Neither time nor energy). There is Crocker Park near the harbor, tons of little nook and cranny public beaches (not private!), bird sanctuaries and wildlife habitats, and this: a simple but effective pedestrian path cut across the town's middle. As for the path, it's not rocket science Cleveland: you take an old rail line and thus a stretch of contiguous unused land, and you clear it, throw some dirt or stones on it, put a small bridge here and there, and then connect two places together that people come and go to anyway, and then voila: an asset-not only recreationally, and access-wise, but developmentally as well?

Speaking to the last asset, perhaps the best thing about this small little corridor of clear is that planners use it as a kind of pedestrian opportunity corridor. Look here, this little, duck-haven wetland is just off the path, and so is a totally ridiculous school complete with rock-walled soccer field. See. It's not that hard, C-town. Even in a place with a dearth of non-demand. Let's just create simple paths already, then. Let them slice us up into connectedness like they were meant to.

Wednesday August 18 1:47 p.m.-at intersection of multimodal path and busy street

There is one issue, though. And it deals with the various intersections that the path has you come to. This in itself would not be bad-but the drivers in New England are nuts: they go fast, and they go big, and they go a lot. In fact-generally speaking-there is a problem in Marblehead with this, because while the city is well known as a walkable place, the sidewalks are narrow and inconsistent-or disrupted with tree roots-or just end, randomly. In other words, there are too many opportunities for people and cars to tragically meet. And this was confirmed while walking. This is a memorial site for a 15-year old killed while in a crosswalk. There are stickers on cars and signs on posts to "Slow down for Allie". And while commendable, this in itself will not keep the various bottlenecks of people and cars from ending badly. (Bonus coverage: I ask a biking grandfather with a grandson how easy it is to cross at one of the said intersections going along the multimodal path. Here is his reply.)

Thursday August 19 12:21 p.m.-on bus # 441 near Lynn, MA

Part of this car-less vacation was to not have to drive in a place with a lot of traffic and no cheap parking. Part of it was to test the system of another locale. And so in some respects we took the fight to MBTA to give it a test run, but now (at least with the 441/442 bus line), it fought back, and our vacationing, tranquil-wanting minds are left wanting the comforts of a car?

To wit: this is the third time we took the bus in or out of the city, and this is the third stupid, nerve-fraying, anti-tranquil experience. This time, a near fight just broke out between two men. The bus is too packed (again). So one guy was bumped into and then asked for an "excuse me", and then the other screamed "Shut up!" Other guy stood up, then. They got in each other's faces. Small children were around them. F-bombs and I- will-beat-your-blank were exchanged. Small kids made small uncertain faces?

If this was it, I'd be like, whatever. I live and lived in various cities-take transit-so I know how things go. But it wasn't, this was the third incident in three trips, with the other involving drunks getting on with mixed drinks in hand and sitting behind us swearing, sleeping (overheard the one say he hadn't slept all night), etc.-and the other involving two Latin girls and another drunk Russian guy verbally abusing each other. And besides, the bus is always packed. It's a single and they seem to need more supply for the demand on this route. And there are always strollers bottle-necking the front, and on and on?No more for this trip. I surrender. The 441/442 has won. (I will never look at the RTA 26 that way again. Sorry 26.)

Thursday August 19 12:26 p.m.-on bus # 441 in Revere

One of the kids that happened to be between the two near-fighting dudes is making everyone smile by just being a kid-or by not (yet?) having the weight of a stress coloring our world divisively.

Thursday August 19 1:45 p.m.-in Downtown Boston somewhere

Architecturally, the city lacks the history of Philly-at least in regards to the density of original stone and brick structures. But public space-wise, they rock. Here is the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which is a stretch of green on top of the buried highway complete with paths and plazas (Dear ODOT: put a cap above the Innerbelt trench so we can have breathable minds, too). Check out my favorite: the Post Office Square. The energy, the feet cooled in the fountain, the wood frame creating an outdoor corridor of pleasantness. See for yourself.

(Bonus coverage: Earlier we saw a sweet, old bridge being used as a pedestrian connect between the harbor and an area housing the Museum of Contemporary Art. Again, so simple. So sweet.)

Friday August 20 12:45 p.m.-Devereux Beach in Marblehead

Last day of vacation. Resting and the water in the Ocean is cold.

Saturday August 21 11:59 a.m.-Back Bay Station

Waiting to leave. I miss home. Here comes the train.

Sunday August 22 3:35 a.m.-On Amtrak just outside Cleveland

No rest for the weary. We have seats near one of permanent lights in the rail car. I wear aviators and Laura has on a blindfold to soften the hard light. The steel door and the machine sounds don't help. The poetics of car-lessness has been subsumed by the reality of our complete disinterest in the legitimacy of rail.

Sunday August 22 4:15 a.m. - Cleveland Amtrak Station

Home. It's dark in Cleveland. But it will get light again soon.

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