Regionals

SUBURBAN HANDBOOK: COMMUTING

Who can claim the worst Boston commute of all?

Traffic heads from the Tobin Bridge into Boston during the morning commute.
Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff
Traffic heads from the Tobin Bridge into Boston during the morning commute.

There’s the infamous Braintree Split. The dreaded Allston/Brighton tolls. The tantalizing Tobin Bridge — so near to the Boston skyline and yet, during morning rush hour, so far.

Commuters from across the suburbs trade stories every day about their miserable travels into Boston for work, and the particular pain points along the way. But who can claim the worst commute of all?

It depends on the day, of course — the weather, the breakdowns, the construction projects. But we conducted our own not-so-scientific experiment.

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Starting roughly 30 miles away — north, west, and south of the city — six Globe reporters set out by car and train on the Wednesday morning after Labor Day to see how long it would take to reach the Hub during rush hour.

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There were three starting points for both cars and trains — the MBTA commuter rail stations at Rowley, Ashland, and Scituate — all departing for Boston at around 8 a.m. And with no blizzards to disrupt them, all three trains arrived in just an hour.

But the cars ... well, that’s another story. It took 97 minutes to drive 28 miles to South Station from Scituate, and 91 minutes the same distance from Ashland. The 35-mile drive from Rowley to North Station took 76 minutes.

Here are our dispatches from The Great Commuter Race:

Leaving from Ashland

Emily Sweeney behind the wheel of her car:

8:09 a.m. I pull out of the Ashland MBTA station parking lot just as the train is departing for Boston. Using Google Maps for directions, I start driving toward Route 9. Amazingly enough, there are no cars in front of me. So far, this ride is a breeze. Imagine if it’s like this the whole way? I listen to the GPS lady’s voice on my phone. “You are on the fastest route possible,” she assures me.

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I turn to get on the Mass. Pike and cruise through the Framingham toll plaza. Then, as I’m making the turn onto the ramp, I encounter my nemesis.

Standstill traffic....

8:34 a.m. The only thing I seem to be pressing is my brake pedal. My trusty 2004 Toyota Corolla is rolling along the Pike slowly. The GPS lady interrupts my thoughts. Her voice is getting on my nerves. “Slowdown ahead,” she says. “You are still on the fastest route.” Ha. It sure doesn’t feel like it....

Ellen Ishkanian on board the train:

The ride is quiet. There’s very little chatter, some people are snoozing, a few have on headphones, most are looking at laptops, phones, or tablets. I check Twitter and the latest headlines.

We pull into Wellesley Farms. I check the time on my phone against the posted schedule. Exactly on time. Remarkable.

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8:58 a.m. As we pull into Yawkey Station I see cars inching along the Pike. After being a skeptical T traveler, I have to admit to a bit of smugness as I casually text a couple of friends from my cushioned seat....

(Read more about the commute from Ashland here.)

Leaving from Scituate

Johanna Seltz behind the wheel of her car:

After a short drive on Route 53, I slip onto Route 3 and get the big van up to 60. The temperature outside is heating up, but my air conditioner is working and victory seems assured.

Until I get to Hingham.

Just past Exit 14, at 8:07 a.m., traffic grinds to a crawl. I’m in the middle lane going 10 miles per hour.

As we creep along, I notice a white Jeep sporting the motto “Life is Good.” I’m not so sure. The traffic is clogging all three lanes (including the breakdown lane, in use during peak hours), and we aren’t going anywhere, good or bad.

Since there’s not much driving to do, I look at my fellow commuters. Every car, including an eco-friendly Toyota Prius, has only one person in it. So much for carpooling...

L. Kim Tan on board the train:

The upper level of the carriage I chose was near-empty when I hopped on; by 7:49, fewer than 10 passengers had settled in, including a determined-looking man carrying a 20-ounce cup of coffee.

7:50 a.m. The train left on schedule, picking up speed as it sliced through a long, blurry curtain of trees.

7:56 a.m. The helpful conductor asked whether I’d like to pay for a single or round trip to South Station. It’s $9.25 one way, and double that for a return; he explained there would be a $3 surcharge if I did not buy the outbound ticket at South Station and had to pay onboard later...

8:05 a.m. An older gentleman in a dark suit and blue shirt got on at Cohasset and sat next to me. He had a copy of The New York Times, and I thought if I took the same train as him every day and we sat together again, I might have asked to borrow his paper...

(Read more about the commute from Scituate here.)

Leaving from Rowley

Kathy Shiels Tully on board the train:

Half the passengers are facing Boston, the rest ride backward in the comfortable, dark blue and deep red pleather seats. The AC works. Heads bow, into books, magazines, and laptops. Others listen to music, wires hanging from their ears. Or sleep. One man charges his phone under the seat across from him as he reads. Many passengers seem familiar with each other, yet there’s an unspoken courtesy of space, leaving a seat empty next to passengers. That changes as the ride progresses closer to Boston.

8:28 a.m. The horn blows as we pull into . . . “SALEM!” Crowds — much larger than in Rowley — pour into the cars. The noise level bubbles up higher as people start talking more loudly. “Is someone sitting here?” a woman asks. The seats, once empty, are filling up fast. ....

Kathy McCabe behind the wheel of her car:

8:55 a.m. On the Tobin Bridge. Cars and trucks of all sizes idle in long lines in each of the three inbound lanes. A big truck spews black exhaust smoke ahead of me. A motorcycle revs on my left. An MBTA bus idles to my right. (Bus! Stay in your lane. I’m in a race!) A flat bed has the name “Death Wish” written on its side. (I think I’ll steer clear . . .)

9:01 a.m. I admit defeat. The train was due into North Station at 9:01. But I am in the middle lane of the Tobin Bridge crawling toward the tolls (“I think I can, I think I can” is giving way to, “I know I can’t, I know I can’t”). I do not sulk. I will enjoy the benefits of my slow roll toward the electronic toll. I admire the Charlestown Navy Yard to my left, and the Bunker Hill Monument to my right. The Boston skyline sparkles on an unusually warm day.

9:18 a.m. I arrive at North Station. My colleague, Kathy Shiels Tully, who rode the train from Rowley, stands at the Bobby Orr statue on Causeway Street, looking like a champ.

(Read more about the commute from Rowley here.)

So, were the long drives into Boston that sunny morning a fluke? Boston-bound travelers typically take that long to get into the city during rush hour — especially in the week after Labor Day, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

The state doesn’t keep track of commuting time on the exact routes taken by the intrepid Globe reporters from Rowley to North Station and from Scituate and Ashland to South Station, said department spokesman Michael Verseckes, but it comes close.

“Starting in June and early July, traffic numbers drop off because people tend to take time off during the summer,” he said. “We see it pick back up directly after Labor Day.”

Related:

The commute from Ashland, by car and train

The commute from Scituate, by car and train

The commute from Rowley, by car and train

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff
A train headed for Boston approaches the Rowley station just before 8 a.m.

L. Kim Tan, Kathy McCabe and Emily Sweeney of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondents Johanna Seltz, Kathy Shiels Tully, Ellen Ishkanian, and Johanna Seltz contributed to this story. It was compiled by Leslie Anderson of the Globe Staff. She can be reached at leslie.anderson@globe.com.