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Perspective | Magazine

Could private buses be the answer to Boston’s nightmarish commutes?

What I learned from riding the Plymouth & Brockton line.

The view inside a Plymouth & Brockton bus on a recent commute.
The view inside a Plymouth & Brockton bus on a recent commute.(mark pothier/Globe staff)

I’ve spent most of two decades conducting unpaid research on traffic between the South Shore and Boston. It’s been a time-consuming grind without gratification. I’ve missed milestone family events, important medical appointments, and work meetings with unsympathetic higher-ups. Yes, I’m a commuter.

In 2003, I started driving from Plymouth to The Boston Globe office on Morrissey Boulevard, 37.6 miles each way along Route 3 and the Southeast Expressway. The merge, the split, the dreaded Hingham “lane drop” — I came to know the route like the back of my hands (which spent most trips clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckled death grip).

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When the Globe decamped for downtown two years ago, I faced a longer trek, with a $40 daily parking fee tacked on as punishment at the end. So I ditched my Honda Civic for a Plymouth & Brockton bus. At $73 for a 10-ride package and free parking, the private company’s service made more sense than paying $363 a month — plus $70 for a parking space — to ride the MBTA Commuter Rail.

I soon discovered that bus travel is widely considered only slightly more modern than the horse and buggy. Some colleagues offered consoling glances, others half-hearted support, as in “Hang in there, pal.” One made repeated references to Ratso Rizzo, the decaying con man played by Dustin Hoffman in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. Ratso died on a bus.

Yes, there were glitches. An adjustment period, if you will. Sometimes the bus was very late, sometimes it didn’t show up, and on a few occasions every seat was filled by the time it reached my stop. Once, a man nodded off on my shoulder. Another day, a distressed Plymouth & Brockton official climbed aboard with a proposition: If passengers were willing to be trained to drive the bus, they could get paid to drive to and from their day job. “I know it sounds crazy, folks, but I’m desperate here,” he confessed. (The company was having a tough time recruiting and retaining drivers, a problem endemic to the industry.)

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Still, the bus was clean, the Wi-Fi worked, and I wasn’t driving anymore. I wasn’t driving anymore. I could read a book. Or not worry about being rear-ended. Over time, I adapted to the herky-jerky rhythm of the schedule — which to a large degree is dependent on traffic — and came to appreciate the drivers who got me to my destination each day.

Buses, I’ll concede, aren’t cool, but a few tweaks could increase their appeal, especially to younger commuters who eschew cars. Start with technology to speed boarding (P&B drivers now scan bar codes using a finicky phone app), allow customers to reserve seats, and let them know when their bus is coming. Commuters dislike uncertainty as much as Wall Street traders do. Routes that bring people directly to T stations also would help. So would expanded hours for HOV lanes — rush “hour” doesn’t end at 10 a.m. These are the kind of changes Winthrop Sargent envisions. Sargent, principal of the Pembroke investment firm Winthrop Capital Advisors, is buying the Plymouth & Brockton Street Railway Co. from the family that has owned it since 1948. One of his two partners in the deal — which includes Brush Hill Transportation Co. and McGinn Bus Co. — is John Cogliano, former state transportation secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

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“Government and society want to cut down on traffic and we can help do that,” Sargent tells me. Among other things, he wants to beef up charter and tourist operations to subsidize commuter routes, get nicer buses, and improve its technology. I hope he offers better pay and benefits for drivers. P&B dates to the 1880s, but Sargent doesn’t consider it antiquated — more like neglected. He senses opportunity in an antique. “Sometimes the best industries are mature industries that everybody just overlooked,” he says.

Brian Antolin, a Philadelphia-based bus consultant, says Sargent has major hurdles to clear, including the industry’s “huge driver shortage,” but he’s rooting for him to succeed. He sees plenty of potential to refresh a business that still mostly runs like it did when I was a kid. “Technology has really changed the way we live, why can’t it trickle down to commuting by bus?” Antolin says.

Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan, who as a state representative spent six years as chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, says P&B could grow ridership if it runs more consistently on time.

We’re not building new roads, the T is a rusting mess, the commuter rail is limited, there’s little enthusiasm for congestion toll pricing, and the Legislature doesn’t have a plan for what to do about traffic. More buses can’t turn a taillight parade into a wide open ride, or right the Red Line’s wrongs, but they can make a difference in our transportation system. Each additional one could take about 50 cars off the road.

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Someday the trains might run on schedule, or at least not tumble off the tracks. Someday there might be a rail link between North and South stations. There could even come a time when Amazon delivers people to their workplace by drone. But Massachusetts residents are desperate to see forward progress now. Immediate incremental improvements add up. They don’t require years of planning and massive sums of public money.

Join me on the bus one morning to consider something old that has potential for the future. I’ll save you a window seat. We can watch the car commuters curse at each other.


Mark Pothier is a Globe editor. He can be reached at mark.pothier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @markpothier.