Is the T ready for me to be a daily commuter?
By now, you must have read that The Boston Globe has moved downtown from our longtime home in Dorchester, where most employees drove to work and enjoyed free parking.
No such perk exists at the new space, which means hundreds of journalists, myself included, have joined the ranks of the T’s 1.3 million daily commuters.
Could this possibly be transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack’s worst nightmare?
If it is, Pollack isn’t tossing and turning — yet. Rather she relishes the chance to pleasantly surprise notoriously cynical journos.
“If you are almost never on the T, you don’t have that sense that things are better and we are trying harder,” said Pollack.
Here’s how: Most of the bus fleet is new. (It’s true because I happened to ride on one during Sail Boston.) The commuter rail over the past month has a shockingly high 88 percent on-time rate,and the subway during the same period has been reliable 89 percent of the time.
Many of my colleagues and I tend to experience the T as headline-making news: How the commuter rail can’t function when it’s too cold or too hot; how Orange Line passengers endured a harrowing escape from a smoke-filled train; and who can possibly forget the runaway Red Line train?
While Pollack isn’t declaring that she has fixed the T, she reminds me that the boring stuff her boss Charlie Baker pushed for, including creating a fiscal control board and emphasizing basic maintenance, is starting to pay off. Improving service on the core system can be just as critical as a major expansion or buying a new fleet of trains.
But to ensure her new crop of persnickety riders have the smoothest rides, Pollack offered some advice. Here, with apologies to experienced T riders, are the highlights.
1. Technology is your friend. The first thing Pollack told me to do is to go to mbta.com and sign up for T-alerts, where riders can receive text messages about delays and disruptions. You can even program it by line and by time of day (i.e., peak or off peak).
She also recommends downloading a few apps, which can be found on the MBTA website under Rider Tools and then clicking on App Showcase. There are about 80 options!
“As a person who has been riding the system since the ’80s, this makes a big difference,” Pollack said of technology.
I am trying out Transit App and CityMapper, both of which display nearby public transportation choices and departure times. For example, I live in Milton, and in the morning I was given a choice of taking the Mattapan trolley to Ashmont Station to catch the Red Line into Downtown Crossing, or I could hop the 240 bus to Ashmont Station to the Red line.
2. Got complaints? Tweet. Seriously. Pollack said the T has three people working shifts to monitor @MBTA (bus and subway), @MBTA_CR (commuter rail) and #MBTA. They respond to reader tweets, gather information that shapes service changes, and issue the T alerts.
“Twitter has opened a whole new world for riders to be very honest with us about their opinion,” said Pollack.
Indeed, for better or for worse, the T hears about problems instantly on Twitter, which may have finally found a useful purpose. Because seeing is believing, I met one of the T staffers whose job it is to manage rider tweets. Her name is Gregory Flanigan, and she works in the T’s command center in downtown Boston, where she sits with the operations chief and supervisor to alert them quickly of issues.
The MBTA gets on average 50 to 100 complaints a day; that number can soar to 200 to 300 during a major service disruption.
Flanigan can’t respond to them all, but she can help with issues like weak air conditioning on a train. If you are going to complain, she said it helps to provide details. Her most common response is: “Can you tell us more?”
So here’s the proper way to report a problem. Remember to tweet your subway car number (which can be found on the front and back of every car), the line, the closest station, and which direction you’re going in.
Looks like riders are well trained, judging by this tweet from @ryanthomas80: “@MBTA No AC, inbound redline approaching Davis. Car 01506. Gonna be hot today. Not good for little ones and the elderly riding it.”
3. Wear comfortable shoes. I walked into Pollack’s office on Wednesday wearing black patent heels. She just shook her head. Clearly, I had already committed a rookie T commuter mistake.
Pollack, who lives in Newton, rides the T at least twice a week, alternating between the Green Line and the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail. She does it to keep a watchful eye on service.
“Believe me, the conductors know me,” she said.
Pollack proceeded to show me several pairs of comfortable black flats piled up in the corner of her office in the state transportation building. You’re likely to do a good amount of walking because you may find yourself between bus and rail stops. And on a nice day, you may just want to walk more.
Becoming a public transit rider, she said, “will help your step count.”
My new commute is much longer than my old one: 45 minutes door-to-door compared with a 15-minute drive to Morrissey Boulevard.
On my first day, the bus and train were both on time — and the AC worked. But the best part was watching all the cars stuck on the Southeast Expressway as my Red Line train zipped by.
And when there is the inevitable snarl, I know who to tweet at, or better yet, write a column about it. MBTA, consider yourself warned.